Preview: Squonk Opera celebrates 20 years by going mobile at the Three Rivers Arts Festival
June 7, 2012 8:00 AM
At Squonk Farm in Tarentum, rehearsals proceed for "Go Roadshow," which will be performed this weekend at the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
Guitarist David Wallace and pianist Jackie Dempsey at their instruments.
By Sharon Eberson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Squonk Opera, the Tarentum-based purveyors of whimsical musical events have packed up a truck and are hitting the road to everywhere.
First stop, as always, Pittsburgh. "Go Roadshow" makes its debut at the Three Rivers Arts Festival Friday through Sunday and will be performed at 20 free shows in the area this summer.
Artist-musician Steve O'Hearn, who with composer-musician Jackie Dempsey guides the course of the company, described the Squonk process as toil, trust and lots of fun, with the result an entertaining creation that wasn't there before they began. "There's almost no way to make art except to start and see what happens, what starts bouncing off of other things you've made. And a lot of times we're really surprised," he said.
Where: Three Rivers Arts Festival at Penn Avenue and Stanwix Street, Downtown.
When: 9:45 p.m. Friday; 1, 4 and 9:45 p.m. Saturday; noon (parade starts in family area) and 7:45 p.m. Sunday.
The initial thought of taking a self-contained show on the road began 10 years ago and was pushed to the forefront as a follow-up to the enormous outdoor show "Astro-rama."
"It required three days to set up and $10,000 to $15,000 in rentals, sound and lights to look good," Mr. O'Hearn said of the show about reaching out to aliens. "It was great fun, and we loved the accessibility of it and the publicness of it -- performance as public art. But it is a real bear to set up and get going."
What emerged from the band known for its eye-catching thingamajigs was a monster truck with its own power source, a truck-horn calliope, a wall made of rotors, a piano that twirls as it's played and a hovering blimp for the folks way in the back.
Pressed for a simple description of what "Go Roadshow" will carry from schoolyard to playground, from arts festival to orchard planting, Mr. O'Hearn said, "It's about a truck arriving in a site and bursting forth into a music and art machine. It's an art and music mobile that embraces its mobileness. Even Jackie's piano spins around as she plays it, so there's a kineticness everywhere. And the music is gorgeous, obviously, I think."
It's a show that already had bookings in Cleveland and Baltimore before it was made, and interest from as far as Arizona and Minnesota, but it all starts at the Squonk Farm in Tarentum, with a company core of 12 and 10 more who are part of the team.
Building a stage truck to tour is an American tradition, from medicine shows to parade floats, so it's in that tradition that Squonk set out to create a new show. Making it mobile, from the wheels on the truck to the props on stage, was another level of creativity and resolve for the company.
"There were lots of challenges, primarily the physical structure of a truck, which has to be under 121/2 feet tall and under 26,000 pounds and travel in a road-safe manner, and then, how to turn that into this extravagant show-making machine in two hours?" Mr. O'Hearn said. "We had an astounding technical director, Todd Nonn, who made this thing happen and enjoyed making it happen, which is a pleasure for the rest of us because we enjoy what we do, too."
Describing the inner workings of the road show, the artistic director said it was Mr. Nonn who made it possible so "huge hinges and walls pop up and down and winches move, and there's just a lot of kinetic engineering that is road-worthy yet astounding in one place."
For the Three Rivers Arts Festival, the Squonk truck will be parked at Penn Avenue extension and Stanwix Street, with its back to Stanwix and facing west toward Point Park. For the late shows, people leaving Dollar Bank Stage at Point State Park and moving along Penn between Stanwix and Commonwealth, which will be closed throughout the weekend, will run into "Go Roadshow."
Years of playing in wide open spaces has taught Mr. O'Hearn that scale matters, particularly to the people in the back of the crowd. The blimp that hovers above the truck, which he describes as "a simple everyman, everywoman face; we just wanted to call focus to the truck right below it," is engineered so that for one of the songs, "its mouth opens as we roar with music."
The company is in its element performing outdoors, on the fly, without constraints. In that regard, a recent experience on the NBC show "America's Got Talent" and a 2000 stint in Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre went about as expected.
Mr. O'Hearn said Squonk Opera was pursued to be on "America's Got Talent" and decided "why not?" even though a television competition wasn't in the company's game plan. Its destiny on the show was set when judge Piers Morgan asked, "What does it mean?" during the audition.
"We knew we would be arty cannon fodder, we would be shot down. We had no illusions we would ever win a competition like that, with Piers Morgan and these kind of people judging us," he said. "That's not our audience. But the thought was, why not? Not why would you do it. It didn't cost us anything; they pursued us. It doesn't change what we do. We were kind of foisted on Broadway, too, and we never wanted to do that. ... But at that point, where we wanted to do that type of show, there were no off-Broadway houses that wanted us, and the Broadway house wanted us, so we said, why not?
"That's kind of our approach. We never meant to be a cloistered art group; we wanted to be out there and engaging the world as much as possible. It's part of that venture. ... On a personal level, because I think much of life is confirming what you don't want to do as much as confirming what you want to do, I can tell you really securely, I never want to be part of the L.A. media world and part of the Broadway world."
That leads him back to Pittsburgh, where audiences and foundations have supported the company with affection and funding for 20 years.
"We create and premiere every show we've ever done in Pittsburgh, so it's crucial to our identity," Mr. O'Hearn said. "The Three Rivers Arts Festival is the biggest arts festival here in Pittsburgh, so it's natural and we're thrilled they brought us in. I should also say we are super grateful to a lot of amazing foundations that support us and help these crazy things happen in Pittsburgh."