Children's Theater Festival takes over Pittsburgh's Cultural District
It's a safe bet that parents and grandparents who bring their children and grandchildren Downtown this weekend will not hear the all-too-familiar complaint of kids: “But there's nothing to do!”
The EQT Children's Theater Festival will fill the city's Cultural District with more than 40 free hands-on educational and cultural activities, eight professional theater performances, free outdoor pop-up performances featuring local artists — and even a scavenger hunt with a fun prize at the end.
The festival stretches from Seventh to 10th streets with events scheduled at the Byham Theater, August Wilson Center, Trust Arts Education Center and Bricolage, as well as galleries (707/709 Galleries, Wood Street Galleries, Future Tenant, Space Gallery), and outdoor spaces throughout the Cultural District, including EQT and Katz plazas.
Pamela Komar, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's director of theater, music and youth programming and executive director of the festival, is charged with scheduling spaces for all of the performing groups.
“It's like a giant puzzle matching different genres with venues available. It takes a bit of maneuvering based on what each show is asking for,” she says. “Each year, we try to balance the shows to serve the entirety of Pittsburgh. This year, we've added two shows for teens to adults.”
The festival features ticketed performances by award-winning theater companies from Canada, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Peru, Scotland and the United States.
Pittsburgh's own Bricolage Production Company, based on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, will showcase its new sensory-sensitive production, “Welcome to Here,” which was specially commissioned for the festival and designed for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their families.
Tami Dixon, the show's writer and director, says the goal of the show is that “from the moment they arrive, they feel they belong, without being ‘special.' It's come as you are, whoever you are.”
The immersive piece tells a story of a personal quest into a land filled with whimsical characters and enchanted terrain. It is sensory-sensitive, from the lighting and costumes to the design of the sound stage.
“We wanted something that was not drastic, but was soothing,” Dixon says. “We have an incredible team of kind and compassionate and brave artists. Everyone has embraced this project every step of the way.”
An autistic teen, Vanya Rumsey, 17, helped provide input for the show's direction and development based on her own experiences with autism.
Assistant director Jackie Baker says the team hopes the show will have “interest beyond Pittsburgh” in sharing its message with other venues.
Another festival production that provides one of its performances for autistic children is “Air Play,” by Acrobuffo, comedians and husband-wife team of Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone of New York City. Their show features colorful inflatable structures that are airborne, set to a musical score of genres experienced during their international travels, from Korean hip-hop to Appalachian ballads.
They have had to deal with several challenges with their large-scale floating props, from varying air currents in theaters to the effects of stage lighting on spotlighting the pieces.
“Technically, it's a crazy show to work on,” Bloom says. “The temperature in the venue affects the balloons a lot, as do heat and cold changes. Most of the time, when things go wrong, they give us a chance to do new comedy.”
“Air Play” premiered last fall in Cleveland and has been performed in Europe and Canada, with plans to take it to London this summer as well as to New Zealand and China. The couple hopes to take it all over the world.
While “Air Play” is an airborne show, another festival production, “The Sheep,” by Canadian dance troupe Corpus is very much grounded. The unique live installation re-creates a country scene in an urban setting, featuring three ewes and one ram (portrayed by dancers) that are herded into a pen by a shepherd, portrayed by David Danzon, artistic director and co-founder.
During a half-hour presentation, the sheep act like typical farm animals, with no dialogue, except for the occasional “baaing” sound. A surprise causes some alarm for the sheep, says Danzon, who won't give away the ending.
“It's all very quiet and peaceful,” he says. “It's very Zen. The audience is free to interpret the scene.”
Those portraying the animals are challenged by the difficult positions they are in as four-legged creatures. “It's very hard on the back,” he says, “and even harder to keep a straight face sometimes.”
“The Sheep” was created 13 years ago and has been performed in 28 countries. The troupe was heading to Japan before its Pittsburgh appearances and will travel to China and South Africa later this summer.
Komar says the EQT Children's Theater Festival has elements for all ages and is designed so that families can take in as many as three or four performances in one day.
“It is a really good experience to spend time together and discuss the shows after watching them,” she says. “For children, spending time in a theater is a healthy balance, getting away from sports practice, screen time and homework.”
All activities, both those indoors and under an outdoor tent, will take place rain or shine.
Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.
Featured performance schedule
“Air Play” by Acrobuffos (United States)
All ages, 60 minutes,
Created by New York City comedy duo Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone, “Air Play” merges Daniel Wurtzel's over-the-top air sculptures with their singular brand of comedy.
Performances: 10:15 a.m. May 12 and 13; 1:30 p.m. May 14 (sensory-friendly); 5 p.m. May 14; 2 p.m. May 15, Byham Theater
“Peek” by Teatro al Vacio (Mexico)
Ages 0-3, 30 minutes
The U.S. premiere of “Peek” welcomes babies and toddlers into a play space created just for them filled with eye-catching colors and textures.
Performances: 10:15 a.m. May 12 and 13; 10 a.m. May 14; 11:45 a.m. May 14; 12:30 p.m. May 12 and 13; 3:30 p.m. May 13; 3:15 p.m. May 14, August Wilson Center
“Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny” by Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia (Canada)
Ages 3-8, 60 minutes
Stage adaptations of two popular children's tales.
Performances: 10 a.m. May 14 and 15; 10:15 a.m. May 12; 11:45 a.m. May 14 (sensory-friendly) and 15; 12:30 and 4:15 p.m. May 13, August Wilson Center
“Egg” by Cahoots NI (Belfast, Northern Ireland)
3-7 years old, 40 minutes
Join three madcap birds on an adventure of a lifetime as they grapple with growing up and giving in to their natural instincts to take flight.
Performances: 10:15 a.m. May 12 and 13; 10 a.m. May 14; 12:30 p.m. May 12; 5 p.m. May 14; 11:45 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. May 15, Trust Arts Education Center, Peirce Studio, 805-807 Liberty Ave.
“Short Stories” by Teatro Hugo e Ines (Peru)
Ages 7 and up, 55 minutes
“Short Stories” includes characters composed of knees, feet, hands, elbows and a handful of puppets and props playing out the poetic moments of daily life.
Performances: 12:30 p.m. May 12; 10:15 a.m. May 13; 3:15 p.m. May 14; 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. May 15, August Wilson Center
“Titus” by Red Bridge Arts (Scotland)
Ages 10-adult, 40 minutes
This show about finding one's self is complete with pigs that fall in love and crows that talk. The Pittsburgh event is part of Red Bridge Arts' first U.S. national tour.
Performances: 12:30 p.m. May 13, 1:30 and 7 p.m. May 14, 2 p.m. May 15, Trust Arts Education Center
“The Sheep” by Corpus (Canada)
Ages 3-adult, 35 minutes
Unique live installation re-creates a country scene in an urban setting.
Performances: 10:15 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. May 12; 11:45 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. May 13; 11:45 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. May 14; 11:45 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. May 15, outdoors in the Cultural District
“Welcome to Here” by Bricolage Production Company (Pittsburgh)
Ages 5 and up, 15 minutes
This immersive adventure provides a space for friends and families to celebrate, explore and belong. This show is designed for those with Autism Spectrum Disorders and sensory sensitivities.
Performances: 2, 2:15 and 2:30 p.m. May 12-15; 11, 11:15 and 11:30 a.m. May 14-15; 5, 5:15 and 5:30 p.m. May 13-15, Bricolage, 937 Liberty Ave.