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Living News Festival features short plays ripped from the headlines

stack of newspapers
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
News articles are the inspiration for Throughline Theatre's new Living News Festival.

How we learn about current events is changing all the time. Most changes seem to make delivery faster. But a new theater festival asks audiences to slow down and digest their news in person.

Throughline Theatre Company’s Living News Festival features five original short plays by local playwrights, each inspired by a news article. The results might be more interpretation than documentary, but Throughline artistic director Cody Spellman said the festival is about creating a communal, in-person experience around current events.

“Listening to the news is one thing, and reading the news is one thing, but actually seeing an example of some of these stories, an example of the people that are living with these stories, is really, really powerful and it’s a way to get us into these stories even more than experiencing them just being told to us,” said Spellman.

Cody Spellman.
Nettie Wasowski
Cody Spellman is Throughline Theatre's artistic director.

The festival runs Thu., Aug. 17, to Sun., Aug. 20, at Carnegie Stages, in Carnegie.

Spellman came to Pittsburgh from Chicago, where he helped stage living-news productions at Jackalope Theatre and American Blues Theater and “totally fell in love with this type of fest.” Here, he recruited five local playwrights and matched them with recent news stories.

The living news technique began in the Soviet Union. In the U.S., it is associated with the Federal Theatre Project, a Depression-era initiative that supplied work for stage artists. The FTP’s Living Newspapers often tackled hot topics like tenant housing and the plight of Dust Bowl farmers.

Throughline’s approach leaves room for both comedy and drama.

Playwright Jose Perez IV’s “U-Haul in a Tree” was inspired by a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story marking the 25th anniversary of the date an unlikely series of tornadoes struck Southwestern Pennsylvania, including one that tore through the South Side Slopes. One woman interviewed recalled that because of damage from the tornado, police briefly barred her from driving her rental truck back to the building she had just moved into.

Writing his one-act, Perez imagined the chaos of the scene.

“I was thinking about private objects, because of an act of God, spread around a neighborhood, suddenly become public, and then who do you run into in that situation you wouldn’t run into ever before?” he said.

Playwright Melanie Taylor’s play was based on the closure of a Downtown homeless shelter. Matt Henderson wrote a comedy about the high incidence here of dogs biting mail carriers. Patrick Cannon revisits the controversy that arose this spring when the graffiti at the South Side’s Color Park was painted over. And Clare Drobot’s “Gardening Tips for the End of the World” plays off an article about how this summer’s Canadian wildfires impacted agriculture and gardening here.

A troupe of 15 or so actors performs in the plays. Directors include Spellman, Nathan Walter, Katie Chmura, Shannon Knapp and Ricardo Vila-Roger.

The festival gets four evening performances. More information is here.

Updated: August 18, 2023 at 2:41 PM EDT
This story has been revised to correct and update the roster of directors for the plays.
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: