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Act Two for the Kelly-Strayhorn

Ten-minute call backstage at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. Makeup and hair are done, costumes on. Dancers scatter across the stage, prancing to keep their feet warm, marking through choreography one last time, moaning about tight hamstrings and fatigued quads. Dim stage lights and the closed curtain create an intimate, eerie world for pre-performance rituals.

From this inner sanctum, there are two ways to peek at the audience.

The first (and riskier) option requires pulling aside the lightweight black curtain at the top of the ramp leading from the house into backstage—just enough to peek through, not enough to be seen.

The other option is to crouch on all fours and lean over until your cheek touches the floor to peer under the heavy red velvet stage curtain.

Most likely, someone was doing this the last time you frequented the Kelly-Strayhorn.

As a dancer with Laboratory Dance Company, I won’t confess to peeking myself but I'm usually nearby when colleagues do. The report back is often the same. Our audiences primarily consist of known quantities: friends, family, long-time supporters, other dancers. A relatively small, dedicated crowd. That’s a hurdle for any small arts organization — expanding audience base — but at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, there’s the added question of the neighborhood itself.

In the 1950’s, when the Kelly-Strayhorn was the Regent Theater, East Liberty boasted the third largest business district in Pennsylvania, after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. As a kid, former East Liberty resident Frank Reynolds says he seldom left his neighborhood. There was no need. Major departments stores, general stores, groceries and seven theaters were all within walking distance. To hear Reynolds tell it, it was a ten-year-old’s playground: a half-dozen movies showing on any given day, all for something like 25 cents. And though he preferred the Sheridan Square for its larger screen, Reynolds spent his share of money at the “quaint” Regent, smallest of East Liberty’s theaters, finishing up with “Frankenstein Conquers the World,” circa 1966.

The quaint Regent, of course, is now the only theater still standing in East Liberty, and in 2002 was renovated and rechristened the Kelly-Strayhorn, in honor of native sons Gene and Billy. But for all his memories of the Regent, does Reynolds ever bring his kids to see a show at the Kelly-Strayhorn? Not really. “We just don’t go up to East Liberty anymore,” he says.

He’s not the only one, given the neighborhood’s undesirable reputation in the 1990’s. But that didn’t stop the coalition that succeeded in bringing the Kelly-Strayhorn back to life. And it hasn’t stopped the artists from coming.

“When you want to bring an area up, send in the artists,” says Bob Neu, executive director of the Kelly-Strayhorn. The arts, he says, bring curious people into an area — first the artists themselves, then the people interested in the artists. Those folks get used to being in the area, they stop to buy a cup of coffee or find a restaurant. Suddenly, a theater is a catalyst for rejuvenation throughout the neighborhood.

In East Liberty the artists are coming and bringing people with them. The Kelly-Strayhorn is booked for 39 weekends of the 2005-06 season, and summer bookings haven’t been finalized yet. In 2004-05, the theater hosted 14,617 audience members, a total of 40,000 in the three years it’s been open.

“The Kelly-Strayhorn continues to do better, which is totally stunning,” says Rob Stephany of East Liberty Development Inc., an organization which has played a key role in the community's rejuvenation. “The Kelly-Strayhorn is at ground zero, and doing well, and allowing others to come and do well.” And while there may not be a strictly linear connection between the theatre’s success and the arrival of other businesses in East Liberty,  Stephany says, “Folks would have made different decisions if the Kelly-Strayhorn wasn’t there.” The theatre provides a core stability in the heart of East Liberty and is a touchstone that Stephany points out to each new prospective developer.

Saints and Poets Theater was responsible for two of the theatre’s 39 booked weekends this season. A small theater organization headed by Mark Whitehead, Saints and Poets presented a two-week run of the new play Saffronia at the end of January.

In the past, Whitehead has chosen alternative spaces for his presentations, more out of financial necessity than for artistic effect. His decision to use the Kelly-Strayhorn was equally business-like: Christiane Leach, Saffronia’s playwright, wanted a large stage, and African American-themed shows often do well at the Kelly-Strayhorn.

Still, Whitehead knew he’d have a problem “getting butts in the seats,” and despite mediocre numbers, he was pleased with the racial and age diversity of the audiences. As for the theater and its neighborhood: “East Liberty is one of those neighborhoods that’s on the verge of coming back," he says. The resistance, he predicts, will lessen over time.

It’s happening already.

Whitehead can rattle off a list of new local night spots: Kelly’s (the retro bar so cute that even a non-drinker can love it), the Red Room (chic hors d’oeuvres and plush velvet curtains), the Sharp Edge (neighborhood hang-out with a fabulous beer selection and lenient dress-code), and Abay (for the only Ethiopian food you’ll find between the rivers). All reasons the neighborhood is making a comeback. Further evidence: the half-hour slideshow on Stephany’s computer of projects in the works: artist lofts, major retailers, communal green space, a hotel and movie theatre. And though the business-minded Whitehead won’t rent the Kelly-Strayhorn solely for the idealism of furthering an East Liberty renaissance, he also won’t write it off if it fits a future project.

Saints and Poets isn’t the only small arts organization making use of the Kelly-Strayhorn. Most of the local dance community also puts in regular appearances: LABCO, Dance Alloy Theater, Junction Dance Theatre, Xpressions Contemporary Dance Company, Sreyashi Dey, among others.

Which means that the Kelly-Strayhorn is serving one part of its community—the “budgetarily challenged” (as Neu calls them) arts organizations. But community can be defined in many ways, and the Kelly-Strayhorn also is aiming to serve a geographical community and an ethnic community.

So far, at least on paper, they’re succeeding. For the 2004–05 season, 15% of audience members came from zip code 15206, which encompasses the immediate East Liberty neighborhood and stretches into Highland Park and Friendship. (For comparison, the next highest percentage was 5.9% from 15208, Homewood.) Approximately 50% of the audience in that same season was African American.

For those who venture in from further afield, the Kelly-Strayhorn offers perks that downtown venues often can’t beat. No downtown traffic to fight. Shows that usually cost less, with tickets ranging from bargain prices of $10 to $15 (and increasingly, a reduced rate for “starving artists”). 

Returning backstage at the Kelly-Strayhorn, the dressing rooms are tiny and the baby grand piano squeezed into a crawl space recently doubled as a prop table for Saffronia (four teacups, a fan, two pistols, all labeled).

With dancers, there's the usual pile of discarded socks and sweatshirts, half-empty water bottles, and bananas, Clif bars, and chocolate that fills the corners. As we await curtain call, we know we're not supposed to peak at the audience but it's hard to resist. So if I happen to be stretching my psoas very close to edge of the curtain, well, you’ll never know.

Lisa Ferrugia is a dancer and a Carnegie Mellon University graduate with a degree in writing.


Dancer/writer Lisa Ferrugia


Bob Neu


Exterior of Kelly-Strayhorn

All Photographs Copyright Tom Altany

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