Pittsburgh, PA

Squonk Opera brings a sense of wonder and play to Earth Day

The Homepage, published by Hazelwood Initiative

By Juliet Martinez

From their first show with cranes and earthmovers in a Pittsburgh junkyard, to their current project where music pairs with giant purple puppet hands, Squonk Opera has been focused on big, bold shows. 

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Kelsey Robinson (in the white t-shirt) operates a giant hand puppet in Squonk Opera's show, Hand to Hand.Photo by John Altdorfer for Squonk Opera

The ensemble will be bringing their show, Hand to Hand, to Hazelwood for the Earth Day festival on April 23rd. In March, I video-chatted with two members of the group about the upcoming performance. 

Steve O’Hearn is artistic co-director with his partner Jackie Dempsey, who was not on the call. Mr. O'Hearn and Ms. Dempsey have been the heart of Squonk Opera for the last 30 years. She writes the music and he designs the shows. They have received 10 National Endowment for the Arts grants, and have performed at the Lincoln and Kennedy centers. This summer, their show will tour from Calgary, Alberta, to Fort Worth and Providence. 

“We’ve always been proudly Pittsburghers,” Mr. O’Hearn said. “Our notion with this particular effort with the Pittsburgh shows is that every neighborhood is its own cultural district. In fact, the pretense that the cultural district defines Pittsburgh is ludicrous, to our minds.” 

The group used to do one or two shows a year in Pittsburgh, but now they perform locally from spring to fall throughout the city. The Hazelwood show will be their first local show for 2022. 

Kelsey Robinson is in her second season as the outreach director for Squonk. She also helps set up the shows and is one of the puppeteers operating the giant hands. 

I asked Ms. Robinson and Mr. O'Hearn how a show like Squonk can help people think differently about the environment. 

“We don’t preach,” Mr. O’Hearn said. “What we try to do with our art,” he said, “is kind of empower the audience because it requires them to make their own through-line through the show. It can mean many things to many different people.”

Ms. Robinson added that the group includes certain environmentally-friendly practices in their rider, like not using plastic water bottles. But the performance offers audiences a space to be hopeful instead of trying to make them change. 

“Our way of doing it isn’t beating people over the head with a message,” she said, “but to invite them into something that’s playful, into a world of wonder, where they can start to connect with other people, start to imagine a different future.”

Catch Squonk Opera's Earth Day festival show at 5 p.m. on April 23 on he 4900 block of Second Avenue in Hazelwood. Visit https://www.facebook.com/hazelwoodinitiative/ for more information.

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The Homepage is a print newspaper delivered monthly to households in Greater Hazelwood, Glen Hazel, Greenfield, Hays, New Homestead, Lincoln Place and The Run. Hazelwood Initiative, Inc., a community-based nonprofit, publishes The Homepage through a grant from the City of Pittsburgh and advertising revenue from local businesses and organizations. The mission of Hazelwood Initiative, as a community-based development corporation, is to build a stronger Hazelwood through inclusive community development. Sonya Tilghman, Executive Director of Hazelwood Initiative, Inc. (she/her) Juliet Martinez, Managing Editor of The Homepage (they/them) Sarah Kanar, Layout and Design of The Homepage(she/her)

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