Pillbox

Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts

?Festival? is a word that evokes a certain response, bringing up images of the outdoors, culture, and celebration all blending into one. The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts is a three-week-long series of events inviting participants into this setting, asking them to open their eyes to what is fresh and uncommon. This unique combination of companies from around the globe has come to Pittsburgh for the Festival of Firsts due in large part to Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. Next weekend begins the first event, bringing new art forms to the United States.

The Festival features seven companies from diverse areas of the world. The Festival?s guidebook urges audiences to ?[e]nter unexplored territory, where dance and theater, opera and visual art, history and future meet and merge into new art.? The Festival is an unusual spectacle, particularly in Pittsburgh, which is not a common venue for displays of new forms of art. Although not the most renowned for its cultural activities, Pittsburgh has had a considerable amount of local flavor, even modern works, for some time now.

Appearing next week is a thorough mixture of different art forms. The Festival of Firsts will feature some ?big name? acts who have received a lot of praise abroad, such as Theatre Titanick and Pappa TARAHUMARA, but also featured are smaller, less recognized groups. Each event has been organized specifically so that visitors may travel from performance to performance on any given day, with small breaks in between. Despite the events? diversity, Bradley sees a common theme between them. ?I hope there are very clear thematic connections. [There are] meant to be conversations with the other shows,? he said.

As half of the partnership that brought the Festival to life, the School of Drama has had a considerable influence on the end result. Elizabeth Bradley, the head of the School of Drama, has worked as the artistic director throughout the time leading up to the Festival. Bradley says that she was one of the first to hear about ideas to bring such a large-scale series to the area when she attended a meeting with Carol Brown, former director of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Brown wanted to bring a visual festival to Pittsburgh, something comparable to a performance-oriented version of The Carnegie International, according to Bradley.

Bradley was asked to continue her work with the trust providers. She describes the criteria dictating how companies would be chosen: ?What emerged was this notion that these companies would either have never visited America, or if they had they would bring [new work].? The focus, Bradley said, was to be imagery; despite the fact that the works would be performances, they would still be highly based on sight.

Even with these criteria narrowing down possibilities, there were about 60 companies that Bradley had to sift in order to find the type of work that was needed. One of her main helpers on this endeavor was Carlos Armesto, a graduate student working on his MFA in directing. Armesto was named artistic director and company manager due to his previous experiences with festivals of this nature. Together, Armesto and Bradley looked at the materials the companies had to offer and gave input to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, presenting them with the full 60-company list. In a single year, rather than over the customary three-year period, Bradley and others had to coordinate the bulk of the production for the Festival, an impressive feat in itself.

Armesto has had a completely hands-on experience with the Festival of Firsts, despite being a student. It is apparent from his demeanor that the the Festival be a great success. While detailing the different events, he joked about having a lot of production background now, even though he wasn?t getting an MFA in production. As artistic director and company manager he has seen more facets of the world of Festival coordination than most directors ever will. The first part of his job entails giving input on which of the companies should be considered, and, from there, picking among those that remain. The management end of his position is a far more detailed process. ?I?ve also been given the responsibility of finding some venues for the shows. [I also] enabled the visa process,? said Armesto. He continued to describe the work he did directly with the different companies, ensuring that their needs were taken care of to help make the process of coming to the U.S. more comfortable.

Both Bradley and Armesto detail some of the challenges involved in organizing an event of this magnitude. Armesto is working his thesis production this year; however, he has been able to take time out of his schedule to work on the Festival. Because the companies are all foreign, problems arose from several areas while the festival was being organized. Bradley mentioned that some of the technical details were confused by the differences in standard hardware used for the building of sets, sculptures, and parts. Armesto more directly experienced a more obvious issue with dealing with foreign lands: the issue of visas. Many of the companies had been able simply to mail in their visa applications and were not used to the policies of larger countries such as the U.S., which require visa applicants to go to the embassy and sometimes have an interview.

Despite the challenges, the end result, now fast approaching, is an important event for the city of Pittsburgh. Armesto feels that the event ?blurs the lines between video, performance, sculpture. For Pittsburgh to host an event like that.... No other city has a festival like this in which we are melding different media to create a really poignant and piercing effect.? Beyond that, Armesto is excited for the city at large to be able to host the Festival. ?This is something that?s revolutionary. The work that?s being presented is what the future of theater is; it?s not going to be a sort of linear narrative,? he said, describing the contemporary nature of the pieces.

Pittsburgh benefits from the unusual quality of the work, but so too does Carnegie Mellon, Armesto emphasized. ?It can only shed really good light on this school. It?s [the school] very noted in musical theater actors and ... highly recognized in design. We?ve produced Hollywood directors of incredible stature. This is more niche. If you want to call it avant-garde you can,? said Armesto. He noted that being able to go beyond the mainstream theater, for which Carnegie Mellon?s drama school is best known, is lending a level of recognition to the school not seen before. It is quite thrilling, he noted, ?To have a school that can say we can produce Broadway ... and we can also produce the most exciting thing that comes from around the world.?

The newness of the work will hopefully attract many people to experience at least one or two of the performances. They truly do have a wide range of attraction, going from Akhe Group, which uses visual theater and props such as bubble gum and milk, to Theatre Titanick, which tells the famous story of the sinking ship with six actors and the actual construction of an 80-foot structure on the stage. Pittsburgh will host Theatre Titanick in a new sort of venue: on a barge. This lends a punch of risk to the already enormous production.

Next weekend will begin the first of the productions, large and small. There is little doubt that they will create a lot of talk in the city, and Carnegie Mellon as well. For those that have worked on bringing such a huge event to this area, it may be time to finally sigh with relief. As for the rest of Pittsburgh?s residents, it can only be hoped that they will receive the works with open minds, and appreciate the opportunity they, as residents, have to see something that has never entered the country before now.

For more information about the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts and the companies attending, go to www.pgharts.org/pifof.