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Pittsburgh production considers how to make art for a warming world

A women wearing plastic bags as a skirt crouches while looking to the side.
Frank Walsh
Beth Corning in costume for CORNINGWORKS' "the fisherman, the butterfly, eve & her lover."

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

In the face of overwhelming ecological crises like climate change, environmental advocates often worry that people will simply shut down and give up. Lately, some observers have even suggested that certain experts and the media are overselling our chances of solving the problem to the point that many have simply stopped worrying about it.

So what’s an artist to do? For choreographer and performer Beth Corning, the answer is usually “make a show.”

The latest from her acclaimed CORNINGWORKS/Glue Factory Projects troupe is “the fisherman, the butterfly, eve & her lover.” Corning describes the dance-theater work as a parable in which four characters “on a marooned shore” use movement, props, and even humor to prompt reflection about personal consumption, collective action and the uncertain future.

The show’s set, in City Theatre’s Lillie Theatre, incorporates 3.5 tons of sand and a quantity of empty plastic water bottles.

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As usual for a Glue Factory show, Corning has recruited a noteworthy cast of performers past 40. The fisherman is portrayed (in a knee-length yellow slicker) by Nathan Keepers, producing artistic director of Minneapolis-based THE MOVING COMPANY. Heidi Latsky Dance NYC principal dancer Jillian Hollis is eve, and the lover is Evan Fisk, who played Macbeth in PunchDrunk’s groundbreaking immersive show “Sleep No More.” Corning herself portrays the butterfly in a frock in which plastic shopping bags fill out the skirts.

And inside the black-box theater, an audience limited to just 50 patrons per show will sit practically in the midst of the action.

On the morning the sand was delivered to the theater, I asked Corning what an artist, at this point, can add to the conversation about climate change. She didn’t have a simple answer.

“We are all going, ‘Yup, it’s happening,'” she said. “I think everybody is going internally, ‘I get it, I understand it. I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it. I guess I’ll just wait till it gets to my doorstep.’”

Can art shake people out of such malaise? Previous Corning shows that put audiences in the midst of the action include the immersive “The Tipping Point,” about the experience of refugees. When I asked whether seating the audience nearly onstage was a way to “implicate” people in the problem, Corning rejected the term. It’s not about laying blame, she said. “I think it’s really saying, ‘Look. Don’t look away,’” she said. “But I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

“If my creating these works brings something to the surface to look at these problems in another way, then that’s what I’m doing,” she said. At the very least, she said, staging a show about the matter lets people — performers included — know they are not alone in their fears and concerns.

The show receives seven performances from Sat., April 15, through April 23. More information is here.

A mannequin wearing black high heals is posed on the floor with the legs crossed.
Jacob Koestler
Wearable art by matt lambert is featured in the exhibit "Self," at Contemporary Craft.

WESA's Weekend Picks

  1. Contemporary Craft opens “Self,” an exhibit in which artists matt lambert and Erika Diamond “explore the breadth and confines of gender identity, connection, contact and the body through wearable works of art.” The show opens with a reception 5:30-8 p.m. Fri., April 14, and continues through Aug. 19.
  2. Acclaimed New York-based choreographer and performer Shamel Pitts and his arts collective TRIBE return to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater with “BLACK HOLE: Trilogy and Triathlon,” a multimedia work for three dancers. There are two performances, at 8 p.m. Fri., April 14, and 8 p.m. Sat., April 15.
  3. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre showcases works from legendary choreographers George Balanchine, Jorma Elo and Christopher Wheeldon in “The Masters Program: Balanchine and Beyond.” The program, featuring the PBT Orchestra, gets three performances at the Benedum Center, Fri., April 14 through Sun., April 16.
  4. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra debuts a new concert format with its Disrupt series, featuring shorter programs, on-stage commentary, interactive attractions like art-making, and a more casual atmosphere. “Persist” is dedicated to 20th-century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and a performance of his Symphony No. 10, conducted by Jader Bignamini. It starts at 7 p.m. Sat., April 15, at Heinz Hall.
  5. Alphabet City screens local filmmaker Jose Munian’s “EXODUS: Mass Migration and the Ripple Effect in the Americas,” three short films highlighting work by award-winning Italian photographer Nicolò Filippo Rosso, who documents abandoned communities and mass migration, 3 p.m. Sat., April 15.
Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: