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Cover Story: Squonk Opera gets down with Dante in new multimedia production, 'Burn'

Friday, November 23, 2001

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"Clunky." "Vibrato-less voice." Lacking "Martha Graham choreography."

That's what New York's elite drama critics said. Although Squonk's fleeting run on Broadway in winter, 2000, spawned a new action verb meaning "to fail spectacularly," the gamble paid off by show biz standards.

As a result of their short stay at the Helen Hayes Theater, they signed with Angel Records, joining a roster that includes Paul McCartney, Placido Domingo and Mariss Jansons. Designer Steve O'Hearn won the prestigious Henry Hewes Design Award for special effects, administered by the American Theater Wing. One year after the Tonys couldn't figure out how to handle their nonlinear, nonnarrative dreamscape performance, a new annual Tony was added for Special Theatrical Event, specifically for shows that challenge definitions. And a heavyweight New York management company and booking agent approached Squonk to handle ongoing tours of the Broadway show and subsequent projects. The "Broadway" tag increases the show's marquee value and the group expects to recoup its losses on the road.

Squonk Opera's


WHERE: City Theatre, Bingham and 13th streets, South Side.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Friday; 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; tonight through Dec. 23.

TICKETS: $21-$32, seniors $15, students $10. 412-431-CITY.


Although co-founders O'Hearn and Jackie Dempsey remain legally entangled with the show's commercial producers, Squonk is moving on. They've reattached "Opera" to their name, acquired (for the first time) nonprofit status and set up shop in a former Lawrenceville ice house in a rehearsal space they've dubbed The Squonk International Institute for Creative Inquiry and Stuff.

Technical director Casi Pacilio and singer Jana Losey have split for San Diego, where Pacilio is a theater tech and Losey is a masseuse. Bassist T. Weldon Anderson returned to his native Chicago to free-lance. Pittsburgh singer Jody Abbott and Connecticut bassist Nathan Fay have joined O'Hearn (flute, design), Dempsey (piano, musical director) and Kevin Kornicki (percussion) as the new incarnation of Squonk Opera.

With some $200,000 scraped together through commissions from City Theatre and the Chicago International Festival of Puppet Theatre, assorted arts grants and a penchant for maxing out personal credit cards, Squonk Opera is poised for tonight's world premiere of its new multimedia show, "Burn." Using typical self-deprecation and weirdo wit, the Squonkers have localized Dante's "Inferno," depicting classical Italian poet Dante Alighieri as yinzer Don Alegurski from Centralia, Pa., where mine fires have been raging beneath the town for decades.

"Art," quips O'Hearn, "is hell."

Are you still tying up loose ends in New York?

Matt Jackson, a 22-year-old Pittsburgh Art institute graduate, constructs puppets for Squonk Opera's "Burn." (Jasmine Gehris, Post-Gazette)

O'Hearn: It was a difficult year after we lost money on Broadway -- I mean personal money, our money, not investment capital. However, we're going to make it all back next year from touring [the Broadway show] at very big venues starting in the spring. We just got back from one performance. We'll probably be touring it for a couple of years. It's a great family show.

What did you learn on Broadway, aesthetically and practically?

Dempsey: We were watching the Tony Awards -- all the best musical nominees did a number from their shows -- and we realized that they all had about 30 or 40 people prancing about the stage, which is something we can never do and never want to do. We have five people in the group and three of us have to sit at our instruments for much of the time.

O'Hearn: One of the things we learned is that the old show was like a medley of music and bits, stuff that went all the way back to the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern that ended up on a Broadway stage. It was great to pull together all those bits [into] a fun, wacky touring family show, but we think that was a weakness -- there was no distinct, dramatic, dynamic thread to it. Also, we clearly like to be self-directed, so we became nonprofit in part to retain control as opposed to giving it to commercial producers and begging, "Can you give us $100,000 if we let your wife decide what color dresses we wear?" Broadway helped us to find that we didn't want to be across the street from "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miz." That wasn't our world and we didn't want it and didn't care. It had never been our goal to be on Broadway. [We want to] continue doing the work that we love and hopefully appeal to people as a sort of avant-garde troupe out of Pittsburgh.

Troupe? See, I think that's what gives people these false expectations about you. I still think of you guys as a band -- people who aren't actors intentionally doing goofy stuff on stage.

Dempsey: That's us [snorty laugh]. Thank you very much.

O'Hearn: We try to still make it a band making music. It's a great limitation because you don't have singers and people dancing around the stage. You have five musicians awkwardly and funnily trying to make something active happen up there. When we first jumped on stage at Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, we didn't know what we were doing. I said, "I'll do something funny and you play some music, OK Jackie?" From that, Squonk Opera happened.

How's the Angel thing working?

Dempsey: It's like any other label -- we get an advance and it's recoupable. So we have to sell a gazillion CDs before we make more money. It's the distribution that's great.

O'Hearn: The distribution happened after the [Broadway] show closed, so it was kind of backwards to try to sell records. But they're with us for the new show, too.

Are you getting airplay?

O'Hearn: There is a general difficulty with us and radio play. I mean, what are the stations in Pittsburgh that could play us? We're not easily categorizable. You and I can remember a time when radio stations prided themselves on diversity and cultural mixes, but radio today is not defined by that.

Dempsey: ["Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk"] is being played by classical, jazz, college and NPR-type stations. We're being played on WNYC, the place were Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson get played. [They] wanted to bring us in to play our new show, but the garden at the World Trade Center where [they] do the performances was destroyed.

Tell me about the new members.

Dempsey: Well, first we should say that Casi and Jana and Weldon all left on good terms. They didn't lose any money, just Steve and me. It was sad to lose them. But our new members are just tremendous. I think with Nate's access to electric and upright bass, it gives us a wider range of styles. Jody, everybody's saying, has a more radio-friendly voice. The musical aesthetic that both Jody and Nate bring to the group fits with what I do [better than] any other singer or bass player that we've had.

What sparked the idea for "Burn?"

Dempsey: The concept came from this idea of some kind of hellish world underground. The music started to come after that.

O'Hearn: We heard about Centralia and realized it would be a perfect place and time and character for this show.

Dempsey: The "Inferno" thing came later.

O'Hearn: We wanted to give the new show more continuity. That's why we looked for a classic text like "The Divine Comedy" and why we chose a definite setting, Centralia, Pa.

Dempsey: We brought in David Petersen as co-writer for his writing expertise -- he won an Emmy, was nominated for an Academy Award. He's something else we got from being in New York. So there's a little more narrative in this show. We actually have a few lines.

O'Hearn: We'd been working on this for a year. On Sept. 11, the show changed radically. We had a group of three volunteer firemen who were the Shakespearean clowns of the show, but it became a bad time to do firemen as clowns. So, in a way, it's a show that's very appropriate to our times because it's about vulnerability and the remnants of an industrial revolution that sure enough starts all these problems.

You approached the music differently this time.

Dempsey: One of the things I wanted to do was have some prerecorded music, which we never had before.

You're entering the world of Britney.

Dempsey: Ahhhh! [laughs]. Don't say that. I wanted to bring in a few instruments that we normally don't have access to. We obviously didn't want to record any of us, because I don't want the audience to ever wonder, 'Are they really playing their instruments?' because we do all of that live. There's a group in Pittsburgh called the Balkan Babes who do Bulgarian, Macedonian folk music. We have them doing a choral sound in a gibberish, mixed-up language. The other prerecorded thing was electric guitar, which we vowed to never have in Squonk Opera. But I asked David Wallace from Boxstep to come in and do a textural, wall of sound, distorted, atmospheric thing for 10 minutes. Another piece had him record three or four tracks for this super-layered guitar part with all of us playing behind it.

O'Hearn: On this show, it's completely appropriate because we're entering this world of prerecorded video. We have a cinematographer, Chas Marsh, who made four films that we show while the group is performing live on stage.

Dempsey: With the video, we get real dancers, real actors and other musicians into the show.

That was one of the criticisms of your last show, that it was clunky, no professional dancers, no actors. Are you saying, then, that the critics were right?

O'Hearn: No. We've always aspired to do a lot of things. Part of it was just budgets and stuff. We never ruled out dancers on video before, it just never occurred to us. Using the video, we're exploring every tool that it gives us. That's not a concession, it's simply the way the technology of this show tells us to tell this emotional story. We still want everyone to imagine their own story. We don't come in with this preacherly artistic intent.

Dempsey: We do believe that part of the charm of Squonk Opera is that we're musicians, not actors or dancers, doing these awkward movements. But we also recognize our limits. We asked Attack Theatre [Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope] to perform and choreograph the dancers. We're still doing movement, in our little awkward way, but I think having actual dancers on the video puts less pressure on us.

How many local people on video do you have in this show?

Dempsey: Oh God! We have the Balkan Babes, the Coal Country Cloggers, real dancers, a bunch of local actors ... Maybe close to 100 people.

O'Hearn: We have about 40 people drowning in the Allegheny River here at the end of 43rd Street.

Dempsey: Friends and family members who we dumped in the river next to the rats and the condoms [another snorty laugh]. We had them down in the water and Juanita Rockwell, our co-director, is on top of the hill yelling, "OK, spin, flail, now wave your arms ..."

O'Hearn: "... OK, now you're drowning in your own excrement." Everybody had a lot of fun with it and I think the audience will, as well. It's really fun, too, to sort of have fun with your regional home by calling it Hell. Actually, we love it here. It's good to be home.

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