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Pittsburgh Fringe festival returns to the streets

The Brawling Bard performs at a past Pittsburgh Fringe event.
Jay Martin
The Brawling Bard performs at a past Pittsburgh Fringe event.

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.

All performing arts groups were knocked sideways by the pandemic. But the need to shift programming online was an especially big blow to the experiences offered by the Pittsburgh Fringe.

The pleasure of Fringe festivals, after all — starting 76 years ago, with Scotland’s pioneering Edinburgh Festival Fringe — is that audiences wander from physical venue to physical venue over the course of an evening (or weekend), checking out dance, comedy and theater acts they’d have little chance of seeing elsewhere in town.

That feeling of walkabout discovery was one the Pittsburgh Fringe had cultivated first in Shadyside, then on the North Side, and mostly recently along the Penn Avenue arts corridor. Who knew what you’d find going on in that church basement, the back room of a social club, or a side-street community center? It’s a vibe that is nearly impossible to recreate virtually.

The 2020 Pittsburgh Fringe had been set to open just a few weeks after the pandemic struck. Executive director Xela Batchelder gamely organized an online version, and the festival has been virtual since. But in this, its 10th season, it’s back to a live-first format — though, like many arts presenters, Batchelder is retaining some online components because they make performances accessible to a wider audience.

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The 2023 festival runs April 26-30, with the majority of performances Fri., April 28, and Sat., April 29. It’s scaled back considerably from its most recent live incarnation, when it hosted 50 separate acts in venues along Penn, and drew about 1,000 attendees. This year, there’ll be just 10 in-person acts in a half-dozen venues, plus two virtual productions.

Whereas previous festivals welcomed performers from around the country and beyond, this year’s in-person performances are limited to local acts. Batchelder said that’s so the fest can rebuild its capacity, but she looks forward to hosting a bigger event, with more out-of-town performers, next year. (This year’s two out-of-towners will present virtually.)

Notable shows include a brand-new Choreographers’ Showcase, meant to provide an outlet for shorter works by local dance artists. Mital Ghosal Dance Theatre, Nandanik Dance Ensemble, and Nick M. Daniels/D.A.N.A. Movement Ensemble will take the stage for two shows at 5150 Penn Ave.

Two other troupes trace their Fringe experience to the very first Pittsburgh Fringe. Brawling Bard Theater premieres its new Shakespeare-inspired show, titled “Vendetta In Verona: A True-ish Crime Podcast,” with three performances at Bantha Tea Bar.

And local playwright Sara Baines-Miller’s “Not A Mourning Person” gets its premiere courtesy of Thoreau, NM. The dramedy about a woman who attends her own funeral gets three showings at the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.’s community center on North Pacific Ave.

Other attractions include a musical puppet show, comedy bingo, and the Fringe StorySlam, an open-mic program with the theme “And It Could Be Dangerous.”

Tickets are available online or in person at the International Children’s Art Gallery, 5022 Penn Ave. Batchelder said 85% of ticket sales go directly to performers.

A complete schedule is here.

People on a rollercoaster throw their hands in the air.
Visitors to Kennywood ride the Jack Rabbit.

WESA's Weekend Picks

  1. ”Etty,” a one-woman play based on the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish woman who was imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, has been staged around the world. It comes to Carnegie Stage courtesy of off the WALL productions, starring playwright Susan Stein, with five performances Thu., April 20, through Sat., April 22.
  2. The JFilm festival marks its 30th anniversary with in-person screenings of 20 Jewish-themed independent films at the AMC Waterfront Loews, The Oaks Theater, and Carnegie Mellon’s McConomy Auditorium. The comedies, dramas, and documentaries from around the world begin Thu., April 20, and continue through April 30.
  3. The South Side’s Brew House Association presents the results of this year’s Distillery residency for emerging artists. “Rip, Repair, Repeat” is a group show by the seven artists in this year’s class. The reception is Thu., April 20, and it runs through June 17.
  4. Kennywood’s open! Or it will be as of Sat., April 22, for nothing less than this local landmark’s 125th season. This weekend marks the first of five in a row celebrating the park’s history, each marking a different decade. Also look for new food offerings (including a new coffee shop) and even a new ride, Spinvasion, later this spring.
  5. Learn how river water becomes drinking water, meet local freshwater animals, talk to scientists, do a river scavenger hunt and more at Carnegie Science Center’s H2Oh! River Weekend. The activities run 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat., April 22, and Sun., April 23, and are included with general admission.
  6. After a pandemic hiatus, Downtown’s Arcade Comedy Theater is once again bringing together kids and improv with the return of Penny Arcade. The quarterly series teams kids ages 4 to 10 and their grownups with a group of comedians for improv games and other fun, with shows 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sat., April 22, and Sun., April 23.
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: