Delana Flowers, ‘Burgh Vivant
Juggling is an art form, especially when it involves being aware of multiple, highly impactful factors that have a lasting effect on so many people and the future of their community. How do you do it successfully? Ask the Executive Director of Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Janera Solomon. She’s been juggling all of the above for 10 years now as the theater enters its 10th season this Fall. The past decade has been the longest successful run the Kelly Strayhorn Theater has seen after many thwarted starts since 1999.
“This afternoon we are joined by our friends and our neighbors, our board members, elected officials, funding partners, our donors, artist and it’s to celebrate creativity and it’s also to celebrate resilience.” Solomon added, “And here we are standing tall and looking pretty good, entering our 10th season.”
Solomon has had to juggle remaining true to the community while participating in its revitalization; honoring the past while carving out a future; supporting and creating a platform for local art while exposing your neighborhood, your city to global art; continuing inclusion in both programming and reach; keeping the organization running in two locations while remaining financially accessible to people of all economic backgrounds. She has made it her goal to continue keeping all of these balls in the air during The Strayhorn’s next season.
Fall 2018 for Kelly Strayhorn theater, which also includes Alloy Studios, is full of local, national, and international programming in a continued, concerted effort to remain committed to being a platform for new artists, a showcase of legends and all artists in between. This season is also part of an ongoing dedication to engaging the community of East Liberty with family-oriented events and being accessible with Pay-What-Makes-You-Happy pricing. “We believe that Art belongs to everyone. Everyone has the ability to express themselves and everybody deserves to have an opportunity to see the very best and be part of the very best in artistic and creative expression and that’s part of the reason we do Pay What Makes You Happy,” said Solomon.
Season 10 will be a season of new and continuing partnerships and collaborations, unique performances: some born out of research and residencies, some addressing difficult topics like masculinity and the opioid crisis. We’ll see fresh takes on traditional arts and explorations of new and nontraditional art forms. “…more importantly [we are] thinking about ways that our programming can continue to resonate here in the building but also throughout the avenue through partnerships and collaborations we’re forming.” Solomon said.
Fall 2018 highlights include family events like the 10th annual Halloween Mayhem party in October and Suite Life: Billy Strayhorn Birthday Bash in November. Additional works are created by Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Freshworks, a series of residencies given to artists to explore and express new concepts through the creation of new projects. For example, in October Gladstone Delux Butler, the current Freshworks Musician-in-Residence, will be performing with a percussionist to create sound from the use of digital technology. This performance is an exploration that juxtaposes new media, such as Virtual Reality technology, and drumming traditions from around the world.
Live & Onstage will feature local artists of various art forms performing from a global perspective. These artists will include STAYCEE PEARL Dance project, Anqwenique Wingfield, Slowdanger, Bill Shannon, Blak Rapp M.A.D.U.S.A. and Afro Yaqui Collective. In addition to local art, this 10th season will also bring international artists like Cynthia Oliver. Her presentation is described as a dance-theater work. “Together the ensemble excavates layers of racial and gender performance, refracted through the shared lens of their Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American ancestries.”
Though Kelly Strayhorn Theater is partnering with larger organizations like New York Live Art, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Dance Place in DC to bring in national and international artists this fall, showcasing local art is still a priority. In fact, Solomon has made it a point to clarify that referring to them as local artists is no indication of their reach. It more accurately speaks to the fact that while they are headquartered here in Pittsburgh, they are also of national acclaim and some even world renown.
“Arts and culture matters to neighborhood revitalization, it’s not a side thing. It’s not what you do to get people to come and then once people are here you move the arts along and it’s not what you do just for a privileged few.”
With this responsibility in mind, Kelly Strayhorn Theater has launched and continues successful programs off stage to contribute to revitalization efforts by supporting artists and their work. Programs such as FUTUREMAKERS, designed to bring community leaders and creatives that seek to address local, social issues with their art together are a prime example. The program fosters conversations between them, while putting the artists in a process for accelerated growth as entrepreneurs. The Freshworks residencies are another example. The Strayhorn has also partnered with local art organizations such as Pittsburgh Film Shorts, Kente Arts Aliance, New Horizon Theater to be a guide and assist them in their efforts to thrive.
In addition, The Strayhorn has the responsibility of preserving a historic landmark while recognizing that it is equally as important to preserve the cultural legacy of the community. The Kelly Strayhorn building is the last of its kind in East Liberty. “We are committed to refurbishing and providing funding for long term stability and enlargement for this building. We’re not here just to talk about it. We’re committed to funding it,” said Councilman Reverend Ricky Burgess on behalf of himself and as a representative of the Mayor’s office. Burgess made it known that the Mayor’s office believes arts and culture play a significant role in revitalization and has therefore given money to the URA as part of a planning initiative to renovate The Strayhorn building and add to its uses.
“We want to figure out a way so that you [Solomon] don’t have to deal with the upkeep and maintenance of the building, where you can spend your money on programming. So that’s the goal. The Mayor’s committed to it. I’m committed to it and we’re going to work together to figure it out,” Said Burgess.
Certainly a building that’s been standing for more than 100 years comes with issues but the Mayor’s office is working to keep those issues from distracting Solomon and her team from the organizations goals.
“Neighborhood initiatives always need Downtown support. We need ambassadors, we need champions and the Mayor’s office has definitely been a champion,” Solomon said.
When asked how people can support KELLY STRAYHORN THEATER in addition to funding, Solomon gave a candid response about helping the organization combat the fear that exists in regards to the theater’s location. She asked for ambassadors that would attest to and spread the word that East Liberty is a safe place for entertainment. Solomon would also like to spread the word that the Kelly Strayhorn Theater welcomes everyone.
The Kelly Strayhorn Theater is located at 5941 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206. More information can be found here.