Is A Mobile Outdoor Stage A Fix For Pittsburgh's Performance Groups?

Jun 15, 2020

Even as Pittsburgh museums announce plans to reopen, performing-arts groups are still struggling to decide whether and how to resume live shows during the coronavirus pandemic.

There’s growing concern that with distancing requirements, and limits on crowd sizes to 250, traditional indoor shows might be on hold indefinitely. But an alternative might be on the horizon.

Harris Ferris is executive director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Credit Photo by Kelly Perkovich

Led by long-time Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre executive director Harris Ferris, Downtown-based arts groups plan to acquire a large, mobile performing-arts unit. With experts saying that outdoor events are safer than indoor gatherings, Ferris believes a transportable stage set up in parks, near libraries or in other public spaces might be the ticket.

“It answers the question … ‘How are we gonna recover from this, how are we gonna reboot the economy, and reboot the cultural arts, as quickly as possible when we start moving away from the pandemic?’” he said.

The stage, sourced from Stageline, a company in Quebec, will cost $800,000, Ferris said. But the initiative got a big boost last week when the Richard King Mellon Foundation, as part of its coronavirus-response package, awarded the Ballet a $250,000 grant. The funds are contingent on the Ballet raising the rest of the funds.

“As we navigate the impacts of the pandemic, it's a smart way to restart the live performing arts, which are such an important pillar of both our community and our economy,” wrote Sam Reiman, the foundation’s director,  in a statement. “And, it's an opportunity to take those positive impacts to our communities of color and other neighborhoods that have not always enjoyed robust access to the performing arts.”

The stage would be the largest of its kind in Pittsburgh, with a performance space of about 1,700 square feet – enough to house the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra or a full opera production. It even has wings (where performers wait to enter the stage) and the option to attach dressing rooms. (Ferris said the unit was custom-built for another company that never took delivery because of the pandemic.)

Ferris said the unit would be shared by Downtown-based groups including the Ballet, the Symphony, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh CLO, Pittsburgh Public Theater, and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

It's a great way to increase accessibility to the art form.

“It’s definitely going to be a very big positive for the presence of the arts community to have this capacity,” said Cultural Trust CEO and president Kevin McMahon. “I mean, it’s gonna be great.”

McMahon said the Stageline unit would be cheaper to set up and break down than the large temporary stages the Trust employs at events like the Three Rivers Arts Festival and First Night.

The unit would also be available for rental by other groups in the region, Ferris said. And, he added, it has benefits aside from facilitating socially distanced outdoor concerts -- among them making it possible to do full-scale productions anywhere in the area, including by smaller arts groups.

“It’s a great way to increase accessibility to the art form,” he said. “We just want to make it a way to expand the reach for the major performing arts, but also reciprocally a showcase for emerging arts.”

Ferris said he is seeking sponsors and underwriters to fully fund the project. He said an “optimistic” date for the mobile unit’s debut here is late August or September. Flyspace Productions, an event-management and production company that already works events like the Arts Festival and First Night, would manage and store the unit, he said.

Ferris said he envisions most productions staged on the unit being free to attend. That would of course require additional fundraising from performing-arts groups, who since the pandemic shutdown hit have lost most, if not all, their earned income. But Ferris noted that outdoor productions are much cheaper to stage than indoor shows.

Live performance during a pandemic would also require physical distancing for performers. It's unclear how that would work for large groups like the Symphony, even outdoors. Ferris said that for the Ballet, it might mean a temporary emphasis on solos -- or duets by dancers who already live together.