Theatre Review: SWAN Day 2011 — A Celebration of Pittsburgh’s Women Artists

On March 24 and 25, No Name Players presented SWAN Day 2011: A Celebration of Pittsburgh’s Women Artists, a multimedia, multigenre event, at the New Hazlett Theater on Pittsburgh’s Northside. The Hazlett, one of a growing number of artistic and cultural venues on the Northside, is located inside an historic gray stone building with graceful Romanesque arches that contrast pleasantly with the lobby’s warm, contemporary feel. The theater itself was arranged in a spare, bare-bones style with seating on three sides of a central stage area that was empty except for some spindly red furniture pushed against the back wall. The minimal staging left room for the wide variety of performances to come, promising that they would find a multitude of ways to fill and energize the space.

When the lights dimmed, Don DiGiulio (NNP’s Artistic Director) and Tressa Glover (NNP’s Managing Director) bounded onto the stage to greet the audience, bringing a warmth and spirited enthusiasm that made me feel welcome, like I was part of the community of the performance. Glover explained that SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) Day is an annual event that takes place during the last weekend in March, Women’s History Month. She emphasized that although SWAN Day is celebrated throughout the world, No Name Players is the only Pittsburgh-based theater company to create a performance in honor of it—a distinction in which she takes great pride. This was NNP’s 3rd annual SWAN Day celebration, and they plan to continue the tradition in years to come.

No Name Players tried something new for this year’s SWAN Day: they gathered together groups of women living in Pittsburgh and interviewed them about what they love, hate, fear—anything that came to mind. Almost 60 women in all participated, and once the interviews were complete NNP condensed the footage into a 53-minute DVD which they gave to the participating artists and performers. The participants then created brand new works within their chosen genre based upon the video, and the result was a performance that included short plays, dance, poetry, music and video, with visual art displayed concurrently in the lobby. “All of these acts are world premieres,” enthused Glover, “a celebration of women, of artists and of Pittsburgh.”

The 16 short performances that followed didn’t disappoint: I was treated to a little bit of everything, my mind freshly focused upon the newness of each successive act. The show opened with a prologue written and directed by Glover in which four women stood scattered across the stage, each illuminated by a single spotlight. They spoke about hopes, fears, views on having kids, and what they said often contradicted one another.

Following this, curtains opened behind the stage and several minutes’ worth of excerpts from the interview video played. This served to ground the audience in the raw material for the night’s performances, and quotes from the video recurred as the show continued. The fact that the artists drew from a common source helped to unify the performances and also brought to light salient features of the interviews.

One woman in the video drew huge laughs from the audience when she shared her strategy to counteract people who insist she should have a baby someday even though she’s certain she doesn’t want one. Quoting loosely: “I just tell people, ‘You should buy a horse. Someday you will want a horse. Wouldn’t it be so nice to have a horse someday? Your life would be so full.’” Apparently the horse quote inspired the participants as well, as it surfaced in several acts. Other themes that flowed through the show included traditional gender roles and the need to challenge them, the importance of female support systems, and the necessity of having self confidence, yet being able to express self-doubt.

The juxtaposition of forms kept me engaged throughout, always eager to see what was coming next and preventing any one act from becoming tiresome. The variety also highlighted aspects of each medium which might otherwise have been muted: I found myself more focused on the voices of the singers and their instruments when they followed the relative quiet of poetry or a play. I first noticed this when EMay, a soulful singer with blond dreadlocks that fell to her waist, took the stage and commanded my full attention with her deep, resonant voice.

Another highlight of the night came directly after intermission when two dancers from Bodiography Contemporary Ballet performed a piece choreographed by Maria Caruso, accompanied by a singer (Alexa Raquel Casciato) sitting on a stool near the back of the stage. The dancers, a man and a woman, both a combination of grace and power, performed a riveting dance incorporating modern and ballet elements while the voice of the singer faded in and out in the background. After the dance came a short play, and then an act that included elements of tap dancing, spoken word, and kundalini yoga. As the show continued, each act felt fresh and vital.

When the theater lights came on and I checked my watch, I was surprised to see that almost three hours had passed. My fellow audience members also seemed oblivious to the time. As if to affirm the show’s community-building feel, almost no one left after the performance ended. Instead, people milled around in the lobby chatting or taking in the visual art on display. They were also waiting to see to night’s final performance: a fire dance by EMay, the dreadlocked singer from earlier in the evening.

Dozens of people spilled out onto the theater’s front steps or huddled in its archways to watch. EMay took up a flaming sword, brandished it in the air, danced with it, balanced it atop her head. Then she grasped several flaming wands in each hand, and dragged them through the air like burning claws. Despite the chill temperatures and late hour, many lingered until she doused the last flame.


Filed under: Prose, Reviews: Performing Arts