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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Photos:Dancer/writer Lisa FerrugiaPerformerBob NeuStageExterior of Kelly-Strayhorn
All Photographs Copyright Tom Altany