Profile of a seated woman, wearing glasses, a turtleneck sweater and blazer with a nametag, reading into a microphone, gesturing with her left hand, in front of a small screen.
MaryAnn Graziano, above, recently completed her 100th audio description of a live performance andThe Arts Blog interviewed her about this important volunteer work for arts patrons. This blog post is one of several leading up to the LEAD Conference (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability), which is part of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. LEAD will be hosted by The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, July 31 – August 6, 2016.

MaryAnn Graziano, middle school Physical Education teacher with Seneca Valley, started volunteering about 12 years ago with Radio Information Services, reading on the radio for blind audiences. Another volunteer at the time was Marilyn Egan, longtime education director for the Pittsburgh Opera.  Marilyn asked MaryAnn if she’d be interested in giving audio description a try and MaryAnn said, "Sure, why not?"

But, MaryAnn said, “I didn’t know squat about Opera. I thought, ‘It looks kinda cool.’ I shadowed Marilyn on The Marriage of Figaro. I didn’t know how to read music, but I could follow the words they were singing. I told Marilyn: if you’re willing to teach me, I’m willing to learn.”

Not long after that 2004-2005 season, Diane Nutting hosted audio description training at City Theatre by Bill Patterson of the Audio Description Coalition, and asked MaryAnn to the training. There were eight willing souls at that training, and two are still doing it today – Kellee VanAken at the City Theatre and MaryAnn.

MaryAnn has since gone on to audio describe over 50 operas, plus three seasons with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and theatrical audio descriptions with City Theatre, PICT, and Bricolage Production Company. The Pittsburgh Playhouse recently had a spring production described and is looking to do more.  

The purpose of audio description is to describe the visual content of what’s happening on stage for people who cannot see the stage – it provides the missing visual information that is critical to understanding what is happening in a performance.

Sighted people generally do not think about what we take in, visually. But if you are visually impaired, being able to understand the action in the full sense of the production and staging is critical to understanding the plot, and helps visually impaired people understand the audience’s reaction.  For example, why did the audience gasp? Is a character quietly sneaking up on another?

Necessity is often the Mother of invention.  Marilyn Egan started audio description for the Pittsburgh Opera when a blind patron said that their friend sat next to them whispering what was happening on stage.  The patron enjoyed the singing, but couldn’t always understand the stage action. Their homespun methods of audio description were annoying to those around them, so a new solution was created to serve patrons with visual impairment.  

Those who need audio description receive an earpiece from guest services.  The audio describer, in this case MaryAnn, sits in the tech booth, listening to the performance and watching on a smaller screen, following along the score and describing the story and action to the person in the audience, who hears her voice directly in the single earpiece while the other ear is available to the live performance.

Over the years, MaryAnn has developed relationships with her opera patrons, people who trust her to interpret the performances with nuance and understanding.  As in life, it’s not always perfect, but MaryAnn welcomes the feedback; it’s how she has honed this craft, which, as she says, “…is a service, it’s about what THEY need.”

It can be fun, too. One of Mary Ann’s favorite fun moments was seeing the Lieutenant of Inishmore, at PICT. There was a humorous moment in which she timed her description perfectly to the staged humor so that her listener could join in the roaring audience laughter.

There is homework to prepare for that kind of timing. For example, for the Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Tosca, MaryAnn sat in the balcony and watched the dress rehearsal. She saw the lead character slide the knife into her sleeve – something she would have missed on the small screen in the tech booth, but she caught it in the dress rehearsal so she made note of it in the score and brought that scene to life for her listeners.

Most audio describers are volunteers, giving of their time to make the arts more accessible and enjoyable.  It’s an adventure for MaryAnn, too – she used to sit in the Opera’s pit orchestra storage room among the instrument cases - jokingly referred to as the Belly of the Benedum. She now sits in what she fondly refers to as the “Taj Mahal” – the sound booth in the back.

Audio description can be fun, too, like City Theatre’s audio description of Sister’s Late Night Catechism, a late night comedy played by a character who’s a nun. When asked to audio describe that production, MaryAnn said, “Heck yeah!”

Photograph by David Bachman 

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Man standing next to a lighted movie poster, in a black t-short with a white X on the front and a black baseball cap, holding up his right index finger as if to signal the number 1.From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, silent films were “the thing” before IMAX and 3-D glasses. Silent films, with no recorded audio, were shown in a theater where there was space for an orchestra to play live music during the movie, making for a whole new level of watching movies at the theater.

Pittsburgh’s Hollywood Theater in Dormont, in collaboration with Jasiri X and 1Hood crafted a soundtrack for Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 silent film classic Body & Soul, starring Paul Robeson. Together, we created a unique, artistic and emotional experience unlike any other

Body & Soul 2016, is a combination of silent film, theater and live, operatic-Hip Hop; connecting themes that were happening in 1925 to what’s happening with us today.

When Jasiri, 1Hood teaching artist & producer LiveFromTheCity and myself began working on this soundtrack, the creative team from the Hollywood Theater suggested “character theme songs” that we could build off of.

But before we could do that, we had to watch the movie.

The first time watching the movie had us like, “Wait, what?” Watching the movie a second time, along with research on the synopsis of it to follow, the movie covered a few emotional subjects that stirred people. Themes of interracial racism, sexual abuse, corruption, love and the misuse of leadership in godly worship were tightly integrated through the film. We watched the film on YouTube, which had its own soundtrack by the George Eastman House; not the original soundtrack from 1925.

And that’s where we started with making ours.

Jasiri directed us in creating themes that would connect to both the scenes and characters, respectively. Following Live’s lead, we created 10 core songs, accompanied with non-lyric production that incorporated today’s Hip Hop and Trap sound. Bass-driven with an attention to “space”—especially on songs like “Won’t He Do It” (featuring 1Hood Media Academy artist Dejah Monae and LiveFromTheCity), “Faded Memory”(featuring Dejah Monae) and “Courage”—we created a bouncy and “minor over major” soundscape.

With Body & Soul being a silent film, the only dialogue, aside from our music lyrics, is in the film in between scenes. Because of this, it makes the musical element of silent film even that much more important, since the music (even without lyrics) has to match the emotion and tone of the scenes as closely as possible. With silent films being the predecessor to the movies we see today, which sometimes have an overload of special sound effects over common epic orchestra themes, it makes you listen to movies differently now.

Personally, working on this was insightful in that I was educated on other forms of media that predate our current media. Seeing our roles as African Americans in silent film was inspiring—a black director with a leading black Actor that told a story and not a minstrel joke, to have the opportunity to restore this story in our own way, and present it to the public in a professional and orchestrated manner.

And to understand and respect the sound and power of silence.

Idasa Tariq is Assistant Creative Director & Artist at 1Hood.
1Hood celebrates their 2nd Annual1Hood Day on Thursday, August 11 and Friday, August 12, featuring live performances, music, speakers, and more.



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New Community Visions and the Arts Sector

Friday, 22 July 2016 09:52 AM Written by

 Three people with their backs to the viewer, outside painting a colorful mural on the wall of a building.

We in the non-profit arts talk a lot about ticket sales, individual donors, foundation and corporate support, memberships, and public support for the arts.  Understandable.   Steady, reliable income streams are essential to our survival and to our abilities to reach and serve the public. 

But, increasingly, our sector is having different kinds of conversations.  In a variation on the words of President Kennedy offered in 1960, we’re saying: “Ask not what our communities can do for the arts, ask what the arts can do for our communities.” 

One platform where these ideas are taking shape is the “New Community Visions Initiative” of Americans for the Arts (AFTA), the nation’s largest arts service organization, of which the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council is a member. 

The Initiative’s starting point is the premise that the arts don’t stand alone.  We are, instead, one of 30 linked “contributors” which can make our communities healthy, vibrant, and equitable.  Sectors, in addition to the arts, range from social justice, the environment, faith, aging, cultural heritage, and the economy to innovation and technology, education, the workforce, health and wellness, the military, and infrastructure, among others. 

The over-riding question for the Initiative is: “What roles can the arts sector play, in partnership with these other sectors, to help our communities become more vibrant, healthy, and equitable over the next decade and beyond?”   We as a sector seem no longer satisfied to be “amenities”—as nice but not really necessary, at least in some eyes.  How can we make a difference on this broader platform?  

I recently had the opportunity to participate in one of the AFTA Initiative’s many national conversations, a gathering of 120 arts leaders from around the country held on June 16-17, 2016, in Boston.  The group generated a number of visions for how, in the future, the creativity of artists can and will work in partnership with other sectors to make positive change in communities:

  • In the face of neighborhood gentrification and displacement, artists will help preserve cultural traditions, and bring new and existing residents together
  • The arts will provide ways for individuals, including recent immigrants, to express their true identities in the face of pressures to deny and suppress those identities
  • As new devices create ubiquitous connectivity, artists and other “creatives” will be a driving force in the design, structure, and nature of those devices
  • The arts will be integrated more fully into the health care system and entrusted with the care of our citizens though arts-based therapies and preventative regimens
  • In response to pressing ecological issues, artists will increase their production across all mediums that will create new public knowledge, dialogue, and action. (We're doing that, soon with the Re:NEW Festival

Realizing these ambitious visions, of course, will not be easy.  Within the year, AFTA will be offering “A Blueprint for 21st Century Healthy Communities through the Arts,” a combination of visions and practical, how-to strategies to help the arts sector along this path.   

In the meantime, GPAC, for its part, held a workshop called “The Why, When, and How of Cross-sector Arts Partnerships” in May to explore the risks, challenges, and benefits of artists and arts organizations working across sectors.  We drew on the experience and expertise of three local organizations—The Sprout Fund, the Office of Public Art, and New Sun Rising.  Based on their collective, cross-sector experience with government, community development organizations, real estate developers, environmental groups, the gathering identified a number of keys to cross-sector success:

  • Meet people and organizations where they are
  • Build trust and familiarity
  • Define and agree on specific goals-- some shared, some individual—and develop strategies to reach all of them
  • Anticipate, communicate, negotiate (and communicate some more)
  • Be sure you have “skin in the game”

It’s clear that cross-sector arts partnering is here to stay and will likely grow.  The days of focusing mainly on income streams are over. Yes, there is much to learn, and much to aspire to.  But going forward, the arts sector will continue to seek collaborative ways to engage our communities that help ensure those communities are healthy, vibrant, and equitable.  

David B. Pankratz is the Research and Policy Director at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. Thank you to Citizens for the Arts in PA and the PA Council on the Arts for a 2016 Professional Development & Consulting grant to participate in the New Community Visions conference. 

photo: courtesy of Neu Kirche Contemporary Art Center, artists and community members painting a mural, together.


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Image of five middle aged African American men standing together in casual clothing, facing forward and smiling in front of a brick building.

James Brown was the hardest working man in show business. Pittsburgh’s Mark Clayton Southers is the hardest working man in theater. As an artist, I’ve long admired Mark’s work ethic, long before I ever got to know him personally. I have a deep respect for his ingenuity as a former steelworker turned founder and producing artistic director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company (PPTC), an organization committed to racial and cultural diversity among its playwrights, directors, actors, technical specialists, staff, and board of directors. I also appreciate Mark’s unparalleled commitment to the legacy of August Wilson, as one of the nation’s leading interpreters of Wilson’s work. At PPTC, Mark has produced more than 125 full-length and one-act plays, including Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Century Cycle, since 2003. An award-winning playwright, photographer, scenic designer, theatrical producer and stage director, Mark is a tireless creative. Even his recovery from serious injuries in May 2015 car accident has inspired a chronicle, first documented on Facebook and now compiled on Mark’s website, here.

I wanted to catch up with Mark after the acclaimed local debut of his playMiss Julie, Clarissa, and John,” and when I did, he was in Columbus, Ohio, serving as the artistic director for Short North Stage’s August Wilson Festival and directing “Ma Rainey” for the Festival. I asked Mark about what seemed to be a dizzying level of productivity, not even a full year after his accident.

“Working keeps me feeling alive and relevant,” he said. “In 2015, I was in the hospital for four months, but I also directed three August Wilson plays, including two prior to the accident, and a directed reading of “Gem of the Ocean” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. So in a two year-span, by this September, I will have directed seven August Wilson plays and two readings. And I’ve written plays. It’s like my medicine.”

The August Wilson Festival in Columbus was followed by a collaborative production in June between PPTC and CCAC South for a six-day run of “Fences,” to commemorate CCAC’s 50th anniversary. PPTC’s production of “Seven Guitars” will run in August, with performances taking place on the site of August Wilson’s childhood home on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District. In September, Mark will return to Short North Stage’s mainstage to direct “Fences.” He’ll also direct a reading of “King Hedley II” there this fall. Also in September, “Miss Julie, Clarissa, and John” will open the St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre’s season. In November, at Trilogy: An Opera Company in Newark, New Jersey, Mark will direct “Five,” a new opera about five teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989.

On top of directing, writing, and producing, Mark also handles fundraising and marketing for PPTC. “I used to build sets. I still cut wood and put up a wall or two,” he said. “The accident makes me want to enjoy life. It looks like I do a lot, but I take whole days when I just sit, relax, write, and let my body heal and not beat myself up.”

Mark’s healing process has not been a one-man show. “My wife took off work for almost a whole year. I also had the support of my daughter and my mother. [Actor] Leo Beatty took off from work for a few months, and I had the help of [actor] Will Williams, [PPTC’s resident sound designer] Mark Whitehead, and lots of other great friends. If I had to do it on my own, I would’ve thrown my hands up.

“And people probably don’t realize how important my Facebook family has been. That community of 4,600 friends is a major part of my life. They offer words of encouragement. They call and pray with me. And Pittsburgh’s theater community has also been good to me.”

As we wrapped up our conversation, Mark gave me one last set of important dates: January 1 - December 31, 2017. But don't look for him at any theater. “I will be at Falling Rock, at home! And I’m not leaving. I want to renovate, put a garden in, raise my sons, write, relax, heal.The only thing that will get me out of the house is a having a play go to Broadway. I might creep out for that. And if my daughter gets married.”

Bravo, Mark.

Photo: Mark Clayton Southers (fourth from left) and actor friends (left to right) Chuck Timbers, Will Williams, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Mykelti Williamson. Henderson and Williamson are co-starring in the film version of “Fences” currently being shot in Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Mark Clayton Southers.

Deesha Philyaw is a writer and a mama. She believes in seeing color, talking about race, and using the Oxford comma.


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Originally posted on the Pittsburgh Symphony's blog.

Symphonic and classical music entered my world when I was eight years old. It wasn’t in a particularly sophisticated way — if one goes in for notions of art belonging to “high brow” and “low brow” classes, which I don’t — but rather the same way it does for a lot of people. I was exposed to it through the release of a specific film which resonated with me before I’d seen a single frame: SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. I had already been a fan of the Man of Steel for half my life, and was at the perfect age to see that film. SUPERMAN was big and full of spectacle and it perfectly brought to life a character I needed in my topsy-turvy home life. Much of my early years were characterized by dysfunction and instability; Superman always delivered the opposite of those elements, wherever I encountered him. He was always strong, smart, caring, and dependable. These traits immediately made him my lifelong hero.

Reading his adventures in comic-books directly inspired me to start drawing, which in turn became my lifelong profession. I realized that most people decided what careers they wanted to have as adults only as they got older. Some wanted to be doctors or police officers, and some wanted to be firefighters or astronauts. My mother was a gifted musician, and her siblings and their children always said she had “the gift” of being able to naturally play the piano in church from a very young age. I ended up taking a cue from my father, who had visual arts talents, which led directly to my exposure to comic-books and the worlds of superheroes. Every time I opened the covers of another issue, I knew, without question, that making stories with my own artwork was what I wanted to do with my life.

Other media reinforced this notion. I watched cartoons and television, like every other child, and Superman and his cohorts were there as well in various incarnations. Reruns of the 1950s television show The Adventures of Superman brought a different kind of thrill into the living room. I instantly memorized the opening title march and heroic music became synonymous with the character. In much the same way, the William Tell Overture had, over time, became synonymous with another fictional hero who also had a tv show in the ’50s, The Lone Ranger. Unlike that western hero, however, Superman merited his own original music, and no one understood this more than composer John Williams. Having just scored a hit, literally, with the soundtrack of the original STAR WARS, Williams then turned his attentions to helping us all believe a man could fly. His results have since proven to be one of the most impressive special effects to have ever been derived from comic-books.

It’s more accurate to say that I felt the music of SUPERMAN more than I heard it. That’s probably the way most movie-goers absorb orchestral movie soundtracks. The more impressive scores produce melodies and motifs that we recognize in our day-to-day lives. Most people on the street could identify the treading water DA-du, DA-dum, DA-dum notes of JAWS (another Williams composition) as readily as the Dum-dum-dum-DUUUUUUUM opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. So it was for me in 1978 with the soundtrack to SUPERMAN, one of the first albums I owned. In the days before most homes had VCRs, that was how I managed to re-visualize the cinematic world I remembered. Thanks to Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra, I was able to temporarily lift myself out of the tumult of my surroundings and soar on musical wings, just like my hero, every time I played that album. And I played it a whole lot.

You should believe a boy can fly…because I did.

line drawing of an astronaut flying in space in a white spacesuit

More than 20 years later, I was finally able to see Williams, my orchestral hero, in person, conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra through a program of many of his most well-known works at Heinz Hall. The night was grand, and I found myself buoyed by his music in a way I’d never realized was possible. Listening to orchestral music in a hall designed for it is an experience that can only be described as metaphysical. I left Heinz Hall that night convinced that everyone should experience the fullness of a performing symphony in person at least once in their life.

I had only one quibble with that night’s performance: the Theme to Superman had been performed in truncated form, as part of a heroes-and-villains montage (which ended with the indelible image of Christopher Reeve in costume being projected on a big screen above the Pittsburgh Symphony). We’d all heard a few notes of my favorite symphonic piece ever, but not the full thing. You could say this allowed us to hover, if not fully fly. I got to see Williams conduct his music with the Pittsburgh Symphony again just a few years ago, and it was an equally moving experience…except this time the piece wasn’t a part of the program at all. It felt like one of the most cruel plots Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor could have ever devised.

None of that quelled my love for symphonic music in general though. By adulthood, I’d branched out far beyond movie soundtracks into the work of classical composers. I often listened to the three Bs — Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms — in direct rotation with contemporary musical artists like Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. Everything was fair game, and when I sat down at the drawing board (a real drawing board, with paper, pen and ink), Mozart, Chopin, Vivaldi, etc. all helped inspire me to bring super-heroic worlds to life on paper.

And, intermittently, I continued to go see the Pittsburgh Symphony perform. For a while, my girlfriend worked in ticket sales with the symphony, and this allowed the opportunity for her to take me to a number of shows I may not have otherwise experienced. My belief that everyone should experience this music in person increased with each performance I attended, but I also became aware of barriers which keep potential audiences at bay from these shows. Some of these barriers are invisible if you aren’t the person experiencing them. For me, this was noticing that I was usually in the minority in distinct ways when going to shows, much like in the rest of the world. I was often one of the younger people in attendance, and usually I was one of few people of color. When I would actively count the people I saw at Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra shows who looked like me (trust me, we all do this), the numbers rarely entered double digits.

But I wanted this music to affect people like me in the same way I’d been affected. I wanted it to open up worlds in both directions. I wanted more people to fly.

line drawing of an astronaut flying in space in a white spacesuit

A few years ago, I attempted to bring this to the Pittsburgh Symphony’s attention, along with some ideas I had for marketing and promotions, and had a brief discussion with one of their representatives. They were very polite in listening to my suggestions, but it was quickly apparent nothing was going to be used, and I was somewhat discouraged. It felt as though the symphony was locked into a certain way of presenting itself. I’ll admit my attendance at their shows tapered off and my enthusiasm for live performances dimmed. I always listened to the music, and certain shows still brought me back (the aforementioned return performance by John Williams being emblematic of that). I’ll even admit to getting into a heated public (and then private) online discussion once in defense of symphonic music concerts. I loved this stuff! But I wanted more people to be able to enjoy it too, people who, like me, had to deal with exclusive barriers.

Flash forward to 2015 when an article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about how the Pittsburgh Symphony was looking to expand its audience membership to broader age ranges and racial groups. The article cited research studies the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra marketing staff had conducted towards these ends, and the comments section was full of people who had much to say about their goals. I also chimed in and posted a comment, citing my own experience attending shows and my thwarted attempt to change their marketing. I fully expected my comments to get lost in the flood of others, but to my surprise, the symphony staff reached out to me and invited me in to revisit my thoughts and solicit my feedback.

I like to talk. A lot. So, I met with them and talked a lot. And you know something? The Pittsburgh Symphony listened. They still didn’t use my brilliant idea (which really is a thing of genius), but they listened. And during the conversation, I also learned of some of their current initiatives and saw that, yes, the symphony was looking to make the concert-going experience more inclusive for its audiences as well.

One of the things that came up was their Sensory Friendly concert series, shows designed to make for a more comfortable experience for people with various types of disabilities. The promotional artwork for their original performance was drawn by local artist Joe Wos, and I had heard great things about the show. My friend Mike took his daughter, Zoey, to the show, and they both loved it. It was essentially made for her, and others like her. She even appeared for just a moment in the promotional video the Pittsburgh Symphony created, culled from footage shot at the event.

The staff of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra encouraged me to come to new events they were holding, and took the time to follow up and see what I’d thought about those concerts. Over the following months, I also crossed paths with some of their staff at local arts events, and they became more aware of my comics-based artwork. The last few years, I’ve had opportunities to combine my passion for creating comic-book art, and my love of super-heroes, along with projects that showcase real-world heroes educating us on real-world topics. (Things like COMIC-TANIUM and CHUTZ-POW!) Little did the PSO and I know that we would soon be combining forces in a way that played to both of our strengths.

This past January, I was approached by the symphony about doing the promotional artwork for their next Sensory Friendly concert. They said that while discussing the theme for this show, it was suggested that I would be a good match to come up with something appropriate. When they revealed what the theme was, I couldn’t fault their logic: HEROES AND INSPIRATIONS. I felt destined to draw this artwork.

When asked if there was anything specific they wanted included on the promo art, they said it was mostly up to me as their artist. I was allowed to include whatever kind of heroes I wanted, including superheroes, and it was an all-ages show that everyone was encouraged to attend. Now, having that kind of freedom to create artwork for a client is great, but it’s also daunting. I thought, what should it be?! Some imagery came to me right away, and I wanted to include faces on the poster one might not typically associate with classical music, but that do exist everywhere in our world. I wanted this to be something in line with the other artwork I’ve been producing…but I needed the spark to make it all come together.

Then my friend Wayne Wise suggested something magical (which he often does when I’m pondering an approach to a project) by saying, “You should include Mike’s daughter Zoey in the poster.” And just like that, I knew how it was going to look. There would be two groups of characters, a group of kids and a group of adults, and they would be dressed alike. The kids would clearly be deriving inspiration for their future professions from the adults, their heroes. And Zoey would be a superhero.  Actually, she already is a superhero…I just revealed her secret identity.

I took a more methodical approach to producing this piece than I often do. First, I drafted the composition and got it approved; then I drew the figures separately in layers. This allowed for more flexibility in positioning the characters, but I also did it because the characters quickly became very real to me, and I wanted to give each one my full attention. I even named each of the fictitious children in the drawing, because they had very vivid personalities in my mind. They had souls. After a point, I wasn’t making them up, but rather they were dictating how they would be drawn. Even their choices of professions came organically. These kids already knew what they wanted to be when they grew up just as surely as I knew what I wanted to be at their age. I wanted to be an artist…and you better believe there’s an artist included in the group, smeared with paint and full of enthusiasm.

It’s up to the viewer to decide if the adults in the drawing are the kids’ parents or the kids themselves as adults. I don’t even have the answer to that. What I can say is that everyone in it is taking inspiration from someone else. We may be inspired by our heroes, in the way my dad inspired me to draw, and Superman inspired me to be use my powers for good. But heroes are usually inspired by their own heroes, and they are also inspired by you and me to become better heroes.

Someone else took a cue from Superman’s example too…

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is working to become a better, more inclusive venue for promoting the arts. In my vividly illustrated book, that’s pretty darn heroic.

line drawing of an astronaut flying in space with a white spacesuit

The Pittsburgh Symphony liked my artwork, and it’s been an adventure watching them use it in promotions online and out in the world. Friends have posted photos of the fliers for the show when they see it the world. My friend Jami took one that gave me my first glimpse of the actual poster outside of Heinz Hall, which made me do a double-take. When I saw it in person I discovered the poster is at least six-feet tall! Usually the only thing oversized about me is my ego. This may have even exceeded that.

When I drew the poster, and created the adult version of Zoey’s superhero, I hadn’t thought of the back-story for her character. But almost immediately after I sent it to the symphony, the character told me who she was. It was so obvious, as though the hero had been shouting at me the entire time: She’s Crescendo – The Hero of Symphonic Music! If I could compose music, I’d create her a march to rival Superman’s. Who knows, maybe I’ll ask my mother to help me with that.

There was also an unexpected follow-up offer. It’s the kind of thing that solidifies your belief in destiny.

Last year, Joe Wos did some live-drawing during the actual performance of the Symphony, sharing the stage and creating artwork that was projected while they performed a selection. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra now made me a similar offer, and whether they knew it or not, they sealed the deal as soon as they told me what the musical selection was.

Yes. That one.


So, I invite you all to come to Heinz Hall on Saturday, June 25 at 2:30 p.m. and experience the thrill of the amazing Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in person, the way everyone should hear symphonic music at least once in their life. Come out and allow the Symphony to see YOU and take further inspiration from all of the many colors and ages and abilities that you embody. Because, you know, this inspiration thing works both ways.

Come see me either floating to the gilded ceiling of Heinz Hall with joy, or crashing and burning under the weight of my massive ego. (I suspect I’ll just remain grounded onstage, which is fine.) Watch me live out a dream as I draw while backed by the Pittsburgh Symphony, performing music I’ve been drawing to since I was eight years old.

Watch as my drawing is projected on the same screen that they showed Christopher Reeve dressed as Superman. And who will I be drawing? None other than Crescendo, the Hero of Symphonic Music.

Come on out and be someone’s hero, or bring your hero and share this performance. And don’t forget your capes.

I do believe an audience can fly…because you will.

Marcel Lamont (M.L.) Walker works in Pittsburgh as a freelance illustrator, graphic designer, comic-book creator, writer, and photographer. He taught comic-book creation classes and workshops at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts for several years. He continues to instruct at Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum, The Museum of Cartoon Art, where he is also a member of their Board of Directors.

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Counting Culture

Friday, 03 June 2016 10:46 AM Written by


Culture Across Communities title in yellow over a black background of the night sky

As the Pittsburgh arts ecosystem grows and changes alongside of other economic and civic trends, we at Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council thought we’d share some recent observations from the growing treasure chest of arts data. There are so many ways to measure the “health” of Greater Pittsburgh’s arts and culture sector, be it job creation, sheer number of arts and culture nonprofits, or earned income. Different factors impact different data – for example, that numerous small nonprofits don’t fill out 990 forms, so they are not represented in US Census Data. Therefore, we look to an array of information sources to offer a more complete picture of our diverse and far-reaching arts and culture sector. And, we work with other research-driven arts service organizations so we can investigate our own research questions as a sector and tell our story.

Data helps us tell stories and also helps dispel myths, too, like that nonprofits don’t generate any taxes. During the last Arts and Economic Prosperity Report (2013) we discovered that our arts and culture sector generates about $75 million in tax revenue each year for Allegheny County, alone. In the same report, it was revealed that in Southwestern PA the arts & culture sector annually generates 29,347 full-time equivalent jobs, $567,655,591 in household income, and $108,657,526 in state and local taxes.   

Greater Pittsburgh also ranked #14 nationally among all regions in the National Center for Arts' "Arts Vibrancy Index," out of 900 areas, a ranking based on the supply of arts & culture organizations and employees, dollars spent, and public support.     

Rankings, like those we see in other reports such as Pittsburgh TODAY, can sometimes help us think through how we stack up. Knowing this, GPAC recently participated in the comparative research of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s Culture Across Communities: An 11-City Snapshot report (which studied the Bay Area, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, the Twin Cities, and Washington, DC).  The main national data source was DataArts (formerly the Cultural Data Project).  We asked: How does the 2015 arts & culture sector compare with the sector in 2010?  How do we stack up against other metro areas nationwide? And: How do we compare with other sectors?

The findings helped us think through the strengths and challenges of the arts and culture sector in our region.  The nine counties of SWPA are home to 1,054 arts & culture organizations (including parks and libraries), compared to 1,133 in 2010.  These numbers were steady across artistic disciplines and budget sizes.  Other key findings:       

  • Attendance at arts & culture events has risen 7.9% in recent years. Our 5,025,240 in paid attendance is higher than combined attendance at Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins games (3,477,267).
  • Subscription sales also increased—16% in five years.
  • Government funding: we rank #2 among the 11 regions, thanks in part to our Allegheny Regional Asset District dedicated tax.
  • Foundations: we rank #2 in per capita contributions, and our rise in foundation giving since 2009 of 35% also ranked #2.
  • Corporations: donations rose 17.6% since 2009.     

One of the reasons Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council has a Research and Policy area is to track these trends and consider strategies and policies to address where we fared less well in reports such as our own 2016 Culture Counts. We can consider and put forth soluttions to issues like the percentage of arts & culture organizations in deficit, Greater Pittsburgh’s low ranking in individual giving, arts and culture’s over-reliance on part-time/contract workers, and the extent to which private and public funding is equitable.  Our organization is here to strengthen and support arts and culture, regionally, and that means taking a leading role in identifying trends and knowing when and how to make improvements. This includes chairing the Pittsburgh Arts Research Committee, comprised of our terrific and passionate colleagues from organizations like the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and VisitPITTSBURGH.

The data never stops – right now, we’re collecting baseline data for the next Arts Economic Prosperity Report (number 5!) and look forward to sharing the June 2017 results.  In addition to data on economic impacts, we are investigating intrinsic, social, and community impacts as well, all in order to provide broader evidence of the many ways the arts & culture sector serves and benefits the general public of Greater Pittsburgh.


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Congratulations to Misty Copeland on making history as the first African American principal dancer with the renowned American Ballet Theatre! Now, if she would just stop talking about it.

That’s the attitude Copeland is responding to in the interview clip above. To those who say she talks “too much” about being black, Copeland states what should be the obvious: Prima ballerina status is a tremendous accomplishment for any dancer, even more so for a black woman, given the paltry numbers of elite-level black ballerinas. Further, Copeland doesn’t want to separate her identity and experiences as a black woman from what she has achieved.

But as usual, someone has to come along and tell black people that we’re doing it all wrong. In this case, someone named Erin Roy:

So let’s unpack this tweet:

#ABallerinasTalePBS refers to the PBS documentary that “documents Copeland’s historic rise while shining a light on the absence of women of color at major ballet companies.”

Here’s what Erin’s “Though...” means: “Kudos, black girl. But ballet is about happy things.” Erin wants us to focus on the “beauty&joy” of the ballet world, not its inequities...even as we watch a documentary about its inequities.

This is everyday white supremacy in action. No wonder Erin doesn’t want us to talk about it.

But Misty Copeland set Erin straight:

I wonder if Erin and other women who subscribe to the fallacy of colorblindness see Hillary Clinton as just another presidential candidate. Perhaps they are taking in the spectacle of American politics without any pesky considerations of the fact that it is male-dominated. Perhaps the Clinton campaign slogan should be #ImWithThisPerson.

Let’s amplify issues of gender inequity, yes. But let’s silence talk about racial inequity because it’s just so..unpleasant? People like Erin find talking about racial inequity so undesirable and uncomfortable, but apparently give zero thought to what it’s like to actually experience racial inequity, to not have the privilege of opting out.

Those who enjoy the privilege of picking and choosing when their race matters should not direct conversations about racial inequity. There must be an intentional commitment to centering non-white people in the work of dismantling racial inequity in the arts (or any field). Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of silencing and self-congratulatory posturing.

This Misty Copeland situation led me to reach out to Staycee Pearl and Joseph Hall, co-creators of the Pearl Diving Movement Residency, a month-long residency in Pittsburgh that supports multimedia-based artwork by providing rehearsal space, technical support, mentorship, and a stipend to professional artists. They encourage “diverse voices in the local and national contemporary dance field” and non-dance fields to apply for the residency. Pearl says that black dance and movement artists in particular need to know that opportunities like the residency exist to help hone their skills, reach their dreams, and to have their voices heard. “Dance and art and performance are about life,” Pearl says. “They’re about putting each individual’s personal truth and our collective truth, on the stage.”

Pearl wasn’t surprised by the pushback Copeland has gotten for talking about race and dance. “People like Erin just don’t care, because they don’t have to care,” she says. “And they think equity means flipping the script so that black people are dominant. But that’s not what equity is. Equity is about justice and access.”

For further reading on this subject, Hall recommends The Black Dancing Body, a book by cultural historian and choreographer, Brenda Dixon Gottschild. In it, Gottschild explores the essence of black dance and talks about race “through the black dancing body.”

So at your organization’s next meeting about equity initiatives, look around the table. Who’s leading the conversation? Are you asking marginalized people to remain silent about being marginalized? To just be thankful they have a seat at the table? Or are you using your power to amplify their voices and respond to the challenge of what they’re saying about your field, your organization ... and you?

Deesha Philyaw is a writer and a mama. She believes in seeing color, talking about race, and using the Oxford comma.


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Portrait of the playwright Tammy Ryan
Whatever you do, don’t call award-winning playwright Tammy Ryan’s recent productions a “sudden success.” Ryan appreciates the notice, but when people praise her as if she’s just won the lottery, she thinks, “Really? I’ve been at this for nearly 30 years!” In that time, Ryan has produced 15 full-length plays and 1 libretto.  Her newest play, Molly's Hammer, made its world premiere last month at the The Repertory Theater of St. Louis.

Last month also saw the production of Ryan’s play Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods by the Portland Stage Company. Lost Boys won the American Theater Critics Association's Francesca Primus Prize in 2012 and was produced here by Pittsburgh Playhouse.

When she first started out, Ryan, a longtime Pittsburgher with an MFA in playwriting from Carnegie Mellon University, found herself trying to write plays and get those plays produced outside of Pittsburgh, all while raising two small children. She describes her first staged production, Pig, as a “black comedy with sick humor, about a dysfunctional, working-class, Irish-American family in Queens.” Pig’s main character is a man, a veteran of the first Gulf War. After having her first child, Ryan’s plays began to reflect women’s lived experiences and were more women-centered. “And when I told my then-agent that I was pregnant with my second child,” she says, “he gave me a look and then dropped me soon after.”

Ryan says she internalized the negative reviews of “Pig” and her other early work. “I felt the criticism was because I’m a woman, because my women characters weren’t particularly likeable, and because the plays weren’t happy plays.”

But this was in the 1990s. Today, Ryan notes, the problem of the male gaze and a predominance of white male playwrights is being talked about and challenged. According to The Count, the Dramatist Guild of America’s annual study of who is being produced in American theater, only about 20% of plays produced in 2015 were written by women. Of those, less than 4% were written by women of color. “We have to listen to each other and balance the picture of who tells the stories in our culture,” Ryan says. “And younger theater artists are demanding change.” 

Ryan has drawn her own inspiration from a diverse group of playwrights including Caryl Churchill, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, and Sam Shepard. Like these playwrights, Ryan has kept going through bad reviews, demands of family, and other obstacles. “Plays get produced because of relationships,” Ryan says. “None of it is fair. Theater isn’t fair. It’s not a democracy. But you have to put that aside and persevere. Mark Clayton Southers started his own theater company, and he doesn’t just produce his own work, but others’ as well. Again, perseverance. Cream rises.”

Ryan says her breakthrough happened when she was “adopted” by the Pittsburgh Playhouse. “They committed to me, not to a single play. Before that, I felt isolated, and my time to write was limited because of my kids. There was a desire to quit. But it became a matter of survival. I said, ‘I have to focus on raising these girls and writing the next play. I can’t keep going to New York trying to get a reading. What I can do is write the next play.’”

Ryan’s daughters are now 14 and 23. And, since 2009, she has written a play a year, and to date, all have been produced. Ryan credits generous grants and fellowships from the Heinz Endowments, Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, The Pittsburgh Foundation, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for allowing her time to write and develop her work.

In the wake of the successful runs of Molly’s Hammer and Lost Boy…,Ryan has three new plays in mind to write. But she’s also doing something she’s never felt she had the luxury to do: Just pause. “I have a quote from Lorraine Hansberry on my desk,” Ryan says. “‘Never be afraid to sit a while and think.’ And that’s what I’m doing.”

Deesha Philyaw is a writer and a mama. She believes in seeing color, talking about race, and using the Oxford comma.

Photo credit: Martha Rial.


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facade of a brick church, from the street level
Since Mr. Smalls Theater opened in Millvale about 16 years ago it has become many things to many people. Housed in what once was St. Ann’s church, the 800-person capacity concert venue has welcomed all genres of music and supported local musicians. Through its Creative Life Support program it is running a summer camp for aspiring musicians and is working with the Pittsburgh Department of Human Services to conduct a workshop for former and current homeless and foster kids. And it has also helped the borough’s economy. 

“If you just look at it purely from a numbers standpoint, we’ll bring 60,000 to 80,000 people through our doors of Mr. Smalls Theater per year,” said Liz Berlin, musician and co-founder of Mr. Smalls. “That’s people who are coming to Millvale to a show that would not have been there. That’s a really huge increase in foot traffic and in business. We’ve had several business owners, when we run into them, mention to us how much they appreciate us being in Millvale and what a great benefit it’s been to the amount of business they’re able to get.”

About 19 years ago, Berlin reported, “We started in a smaller location as a recording studio in Millvale, We were in a second-floor warehouse space on Grant Avenue. Even back then, when we were functioning as a recording studio, we would have recording sessions where bands would play a live show. Even at that early date we were doing live music. “

At the time Berlin and her partners were looking to expand their operation beyond the warehouse-based recording studio, Millvale owned the property but didn’t have St. Ann’s on the market. “We were at a local diner and I asked our partner what we were going to do when the lease was up on the studio and ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a church,’” she remembered. But at that exact moment, the mayor’s brother was sitting at the counter of the diner and came to their table to tell them that the borough had a church. Berlin and her partners spoke with the mayor and the council about the property “and our jaws were on the ground,”she said. “We were just astounded with the amount of space and the possibilities. They worked with us really nicely in selling the property at a reasonable price that we could handle. They’ve been very supportive of our growth over the years.”

Part of that growth has been the creation of the Creative Life Support concept (now a non-profit operation), CLS, according to Berlin, “is an umbrella for everything that we do and that we’ve ever done to support musicians who we love and have faith in and to support our friends who are musicians. Things like helping people to record their music, helping to set up shows, these are the kinds of things that we’ve always done because we wanted to and because we had the resources. So calling it Creative Life Support was putting a name to that desire.”

Creative Life Support programs include the annual Real Life Music Camp for young musicians. “We focus on the creation of original music,” she explained, “which I think is unique in the landscape of the many music camps that are out there. We really focus on finding your own creativity, on career preparation, and really providing guidance to what you actually need to do to get started as a musician. “

image of a young African American man, singing into a microphone in a recording studio

Another program, in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Department of Human Services, and taking place during the school year, is the We Rock Workshop. Current and former foster and homeless kids are brought into a recording studio for eight weeks to learn how to collaborate, write songs, and record. There are then 10 weeks of rehearsal and the project ends with a performance at Mr. Smalls.

“We’ve got some really nice success stories,” she said. “It’s really fulfilling to have all of these kids come in just where they are, beginners or whatever level they are, and watch them blossom and watch them make connections, meeting new people and learning how to collaborate. I think that we are able to impart a lot of direction, a lot of understanding of what the reality of embarking upon a music career actually entails. And that is our biggest goal with Creative Life Support.”


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image of vertical files that a viewer can thumb through, looking at flat works of art
Have you considered a painting by Cezanne for your living room? What about a Degas for your office? Or maybe art by Braddock native and MacArthur “Genius” grant winner LaToya Ruby Frazier? Well, good news: Through the Art Lending Collection (ALC) at Braddock Carnegie Library (BCLA)
, borrowing works of art is as easy as checking out a book. Anyone in Allegheny County with a valid library can access the collection.

“Checking out artwork to display in your home or business gives you a chance to come to the world’s first Carnegie library,” says Mary Carey, an Arts, Culture, and Information Facilitator for ALC. “The building is a work of art itself. And when you check out something from the collection, you get a pass for four to visit the Carnegie Museum of Art to see more artwork.”

Over the years, Carey has worn quite a few hats at Braddock Library. She first frequented the library as a patron and then became a volunteer for a program called Pop Art. For Pop Art, her title was “voice of the community.” From that position, she transitioned to BCLA’s staff as a library clerk. In 2013, Carey was offered the Arts, Culture, and Information Facilitator position. “It gives me the opportunity to learn about art as well engage more with people throughout the community. At the same time, I’m able to teach others the knowledge I’ve gained about art and artists.”

Carey’s ALC co-facilitator is writer and public speaker Jonathan Reyes. Like Carey, Reyes is a resident of the BCLA service area. The Facilitator positions are funded by the Heinz Endowments.

Works in the Art Lending Collection accumulate value through their free circulation and through conversations among patrons about the art. The ALC provides access to art and to critical arts discourse without the exclusivity typical of the arts economy.

The critical discourse fostered by the ALC is a cornerstone of the work of Transformazium, an artists collaborative led by Dana Bishop-Root, Ruthie Stringer and Leslie Stem. The ALC and other Transformazium projects “examine local systems of communication, exchange and resource distribution; redirect resources from an arts economy to a local economy; and participate in an active local arts discourse that includes voices currently underrepresented in more dominant arts discourses: young people, the elderly, communities of color, people from poor and working class backgrounds and those outside of the University education system.” Transformazium has had an embedded partnership with Braddock Library since 2009.

Nearly all of the artists featured in the 2013 Carnegie International are represented in the ALC; these works are permanent gifts to the Braddock library and are catalogued in the library’s collection. The ALC also includes works produced by artists from the neighborhood, including Jim Kidd, Regis Welsh, and Ray Henderson. Transformazium partners with artists and curators whose practice lends itself to community participation and engagement. The ALC expands by acquiring works by these artists, either individually or through workshops with library patrons as part of Transformazium’s  youth and adult education programs. The works in the collection rotate every two weeks.

The ALC also features works by Charles Bibbs, Jacob Lawrence, Alice Patrick, Barbara Richardson (of Regent Square), Henry Taylor, and others.

As ALC Facilitators, Carey and Reyes conduct individual and collaborative research, assist patrons in selecting artwork, develop arts-related programs, and acquire new works that shape the collection’s growth and keep it relevant to the community. The collection specifically “fills in some gaps in the dominant arts discourse” with artworks that embrace political and African American themes. The result is a collection that reflects a diversity of ideas and aesthetics within Braddock and beyond.

“The collection includes art from students at Hunter College whose professor gave them an assignment to make a piece of art specifically for the Art Lending Collection,” Carey says. “We have pieces made out of crayons depicting Andrew Carnegie. One student gave us a piece that comes with a boom-box and music sheets in Braille. Also, some guys from the State Correctional Institution in Fayette lost their art program, and they wanted to donate pieces that they had created while incarcerated--nearly 90 pieces.”

Select ALC artwork is showcased through BCLA’s Artist of the Library series. “The artist has an opening reception, and we display their artwork for about two months,” Carey says. “The artist invites family and friends, and we invite patrons. The artist talks about their art and everyone asks questions and engages in the conversation.”

Carey is currently working with a number of artists to bring their work into the collection. “Ginger Brooks of Braddock will be doing her artwork in the library. She’s going to engage patrons in a sit-down conversation, getting to know them, and then create signs [showing] something special about their character. The art will be on display, and then given to the individuals once the show is over. [Previously], people had a blast helping Jacob Ciocci of North Braddock create and watching him make several pieces right here in the library. He’s a visual artist, performance artist, and musician.

“I’ll also be working with Natiq, an artist I met at Exposure: Black Voices in the Arts, hosted by Pitt [Fine Arts] students. We have a piece by Natiq from that show in our collection, and [we lent] pieces from the collection to that show. Natiq will be our Artist in the Library in July through August, and his art piece is one of my favorites in the collection. For the month of June, we will be hosting some very talented young people from the Braddock Youth Program.

“In the fall, I will be working with Darrell Kinsel, an artist who [co-operates] a gallery in the Garfield area, BOOM Concepts. Then our last artist in the Artist in the Library series for 2016 will be Mrs. Mary Jean, an illustrator, painter, and teacher.”

Carey doesn’t have a single personal favorite from the collection, “but there are a few that I continue to check out. Swoon’s Alixa & Naima. Natiq’s “complexity.” James Kidd’s Chillin with Matisse. And Raymond Seybert’s Bob Marley, but this piece goes out a lot in “Hanging Out in the Community,” which is a program I started where pieces from the collection [are placed] in businesses.”

To learn more, visit the Braddock Carnegie Library, a national historic landmark, at 419 Library St., Braddock, PA.

Deesha Philyaw is a writer and a mama. She believes in seeing color, talking about race, and using the Oxford comma.

image: Braddock Art Lending Collection, courtesy of Transformazium


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