It’s been far too many months since your trusty Tatler sent those two words to your email inbox!
We all know what’s to blame for that sad state of affairs: the last time I had the great good fortune to attend a live performance here in the ‘burgh was the opening night of Cry it Out at City Theatre – in early March, a week before the pandemic cancelled life as we once knew it – and since then (like, no doubt, most of you) what live performance I’ve been able to “attend” has primarily been streamed through my laptop screen.
But I’m here to tell you that honest-to-god live, three-dimensional, humans-sharing-the-same-general-space performance is back (!), thanks to City Theatre’s plucky efforts to find a safe way to put audiences in front of artists once again.
This past weekend saw the opening of the “Drive-In Arts Festival” in Hazelwood. Imagine a mashup between an open air music festival and a drive-in movie and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the setup in the parking lot of Mill 19 at Hazelwood Green. When you pull into the lot, attendants direct you to park in a carefully staggered arrangement that affords each vehicle a view of both a small stage and an adjacent large screen. You tune your car radio to a designated frequency, and the live performance on stage is piped into your car as you watch the performance on stage, screen, or both. Applause and affirmation – in the form of flashing lights and honking horns – is strongly encouraged; jumper cables are on hand to help out those whose enthusiasms exceed their vehicle battery life.
A wide range of programming is on offer, some of it more readily adaptable to the spectators-in-cars scenario than others. Friday night was an evening of “epic comedy” presented by the Drinking Partners, featuring comedians Samantha Bentley, Marcus Cox, Brittany Alexis, and Ed Bailey, all of whom had some great material but seemed (understandably) a bit thrown off balance when their jokes were greeted with loud horn honks in lieu of laughter and applause (a couple of them wove the weirdness of the honking into their routine).
I’d imagine that musicians – especially those who have experience performing in studio without audience feedback – would find the prospect of playing to rows of cars a bit less off-putting. Certainly, the programming on Saturday and Sunday night supported that assumption. Saturday evening gave us a high-energy, politically charged set of original music and poetry by artist/activists A’Leighsha, Said, Jasiri X, Nairobi, and Vic Muthama of 1Hood Media. Sunday brought together, for the first time in six months, three small ensembles from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra: a string quartet playing two pieces by Mozart; a string quintet performing the gorgeous “Tango Suite” by Astor Piazzolla; and a flute ensemble playing pieces by Grieg, Mendelssohn, Fauré, and Rimsky Korsakov. The classical music was bookended by sensual dance videos featuring James Gilmer, Pearlann Porter, and slowdanger, and by a series of solo dance performances by Texture Ballet members Alexandra Tiso, Madeline Kendall, Katie Miller, Rachel Harman, and Kelsey Bartman.
Watching live performance from inside a car is close-but-no-rubber-cookie to being at an actual live event; I could wish that City Theatre made provision to allocate a section of the parking lot in front of the stage to properly masked and socially-distanced patrons sitting on blankets or folding chairs, who could react with human noise to the performance. This might also make it possible for prospective audience members who don’t own or have access to a vehicle to enjoy the festival. That said, while it’s not exactly encouraged, many patrons (your Tatler included) are bringing folding chairs, donning their masks, and enjoying the show al fresco. Pro tip: arrive early (before 7) if you want a spot in the first couple of rows, and bring a picnic to occupy the extra time.
The festival continues, with additional offerings of a range of music, until the end of the month.