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On The Arts: In our classy new theaters, audiences need a little class

Sunday, August 06, 2000

By John Hayes

Imagine a grizzled steelworker on a lunch break. In the metal shop canteen he genteelly crosses his legs and slices into a very nice pesto quiche.

 
 

John Hayes is a Post-Gazette staff writer.

   
 

The same kind of reverse-typecast behavior is happening as some Pittsburghers carry their old, unpolished barroom customs into the city's new, polished entertainment tabernacles. Call it culture shock or an exercise in etiquette education, but too many of us have yet to realize that the old ways aren't appropriate for the new places.

When most of us still sweated for a living, Pittsburgh was a bar town. Movies were a popcorn and root beer affair, and although the city prided itself on its classical institutions, many of us didn't go to them -- and our social customs reflected it.

Now a new economy has spawned a new, upscale Pittsburgh basking in the glow of its lavish entertainment showcases: Downtown, the $25 million O'Reilly Theater; in Oakland, Carnegie Mellon's $43 million Purnell Center and Philip Chosky Theatre; in the suburbs, some $70 million in state-of-the-art multiplex cinemas with stadium seats and stylish appetizers. Pittsburghers are counting the days until we can see ourselves in obscenely expensive stadiums, a grand convention center and a Tiffany retail-entertainment kingdom between Fifth and Forbes.

But despite our new wealth, it sometimes seems as if we've invested in our venues but not in ourselves. A blue-collar work ethic is a good thing, but 25-cent manners meant for the neighborhood tavern don't fly in a $25 million theater designed to radiate culture. Anyone who's recently been to a film, play, dance performance or music concert has seen a recital of the Pittsburgh Inconsiderate Symphony.

It begins with "The Flight of the Latecomers," always sitting near the front and announcing their arrival with the "Excuse Me, Pardon Me, Excuse Me" chorus. They enter in half-hour waves, always with one of them muttering, "I thought you knew when this thing started."

They are followed by the Pittsburgh Talk 'n' Haggle Choir, a vocal group that arranges impromptu etudes for the hearing-impaired. Trained in indelicacy, they repeat lines delivered from stage and frequently augment the best parts: "To be or not to be. ... Or NOT to be. ... He said, 'OR NOT TO BE, dammit.' Pay attention!"

Enter the Candy Wrapper Crinklers, a performance art troupe that creates mood-setting orchestrations with sticky plastic squares. Not funded by corporate or public arts grants, they pay for their instruments out of pocket and tend to improvise loudly during the most important moments of the show.

Those chirps and hisses you hear are not sound effects from the forest scene. It's the call and response of the Ma Bell Chamber Orchestra, staffed with cell phone owners who have outside interests more important than the show, and the understandable yet disturbing shhhhsh-ing of everyone around them. Those preshow promptings to hit the "off" button apparently don't apply to Pittsburgh's Very Inconsiderate Persons, and the shhhhshers are often more annoying than their nemeses.

While the actors exchange challenging repartee, another drama is unfolding in the 14th row. It's a domestic duet, "The Taming of the Shrewd," delivered simultaneously in two parts. He didn't call when he should have. She forgot to remind him. He said she said he was a big jerk and she said he said she was a castrating you-know-what. At the climax of the vocal quodlibet, he slyly turns toward the ugly stares of those around them and indicates with his eyes that it's all her fault.

Five minutes after the start of the second act comes the cue for the entrance of the Lobby Gossips, whose need to catch up was greater than their need to sit down when the lights blinked. They are followed five minutes later by the passing of the Pittsburgh Potty Animals, who spent intermission in line for the bar instead of in the restroom. In a sort of expressionist modern line dance, they ask the entire row to rise as they pass and to rise again to honor their clumsy return.

Pittsburgh entertainers know that the caliber of their performances cannot be judged by the obligatory standing ovations they receive, sometimes undeservedly, at the end of every show. In this town quality is rated by the level of gridlock in the parking lot. The highest honor Pittsburghers bestow upon a performance, in fact, is "The Savvy Scoot," in which the most sophisticated audience members slip out early to their cars to be among the first to show their appreciation at the tollgate.

"Pearls before swine" is the wrong cliche -- maybe "bulls in a china shop" more appropriately applies to those Pittsburghers who lag behind in learning the new code of behavior. Pittsburgh is becoming upscale, and those who want to share in the wealth of opportunities should replace their barroom manners with manners more becoming.



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