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Festival of Firsts Moves From the River to the Stage

The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts has had quite an eventful first few days. It started with a splash, stumbled when an installation might have caused three seizures and hopes to get back on track Wednesday with the opening of a stage show.

The splash was the arrival of the 40-foot tall inflatable duck that drew tens of thousands of spectators to the Point Friday.

“I feel like the 40-foot duck is sitting in the room with us because it is omni-present.” Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Vice President Paul Organisak said earlier this week. “I think we were all here at the Cultural Trust really blown away by the incredible response of Friday night and the continuing response that people are going down to the point to see it.”

The stumble came when the trust decided to shut down Austrian artist Kurt Hentschlager’s piece "Zee" after three individuals experiencing it over the weekend were overcome by seizures. The immersive work, which uses strobe lights, thick fog and disorienting sounds, is closed indefinitely as the trust investigates what might have happened.

The piece has been installed in several cities, including Pittsburgh, before and there have been no reports of seizures. Two other works by Hentschlager that have not been seen in the U.S. before are still open.

Opening Wednesday night is "Kiss & Cry." 

“For me 'Kiss & Cry' is genre-bending or defining a new genre in the arts,” Organisak said. “Is it theater, is it film, is it choreography? Yes it is.” 

The live-action performance includes actors manipulating miniature objects and using their hands in the place of puppets. That work is then displayed on a large screen and set to live music.

“You are watching the performers create this work but what you are seeing does not match anything that you think is happening,” Organisak said.

Opening October 9th is a pair of performance works that use puppets, but are not strictly puppet shows. 

"It’s Dark Outside" uses a mix of puppets, an actor in costume and shadow work to tell the story of a man dealing his declining years, while "The Pigeoning" sticks to more traditional banraku style of puppetry to tell the story of a middle-aged office worker who has an interesting run-in with a pigeon. 

“I am sensing a large resurgence of puppeting,” Organisak said. “Programmatically I hope people enjoy the pairing of them, you can see both pieces in the same evening…  The character in 'The Pigeoning' is a 50-year-old office worker, the character in 'It’s Dark Outside' is an elderly man that almost could be the same character 30 years later.”

Organisak said he did not realize how well the two stories worked together until he had already put the schedule in place.

To be in the festival, a work must have never been seen in the United States, but Organisak hopes they the novelty of the works is not just that they are new to the states.

“Hopefully these are first experiences for the audiences of Pittsburgh,” he said.

When the festival continues next week, it steps away from puppetry but does not step away from the idea of a “first experience.”

"Hans was Heiri" opens Oct. 16. The work is performed in rotating four-section box mounted perpendicular to the stage with the performers dealing with the ever-shifting surface. It's part acting, part acrobatics and part clowning, according to Organisak.

The festival wraps up with two works focused on conflict. 

"Measure Back" calls on the audience to participate in a performance that pulls its text from "The Iliad," a modern torture manual and everything in between to explore the question "why do we fight?” 

The "God That Comes" is a one-man show described by Organisak as an indie-rock cabaret show. In it, the humans are looking to overthrow the Roman god of wine and intoxication, Bacchus, because he is suppressing them. 

“It’s an incredibly fun rock evening," Organisak said. "Everyone should come, have a few glasses of wine, celebrate the god Bacchus and watch (writer and performer) Hawksley (Workman) work his magic.”

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