Squonk Opera at 30

There’s no place like home for the troupe that spreads music, joy and whimsy with every spellbindingly original show

By Sharon Eberson

“Unique” is one of those words that should be used sparingly, and only if you can back it up with facts. And the fact of that matter is, there’s nothing else in the world quite like Squonk Opera.

If you have caught their latest show yet and you want some tangible proof, come out to see Hand to Hand at the foot of the Rachel Carson Bridge on Sept. 14. 

If you’re nearby, you can’t miss it. 

The towering puppets of Squonk Opera’s Hand to Hand. (John Altdorfer)

Hand to Hand features humongous puppet hands that are each stand 23 feet and weigh 400 pounds. The purple palms and fingers are maneuverable much like ships’ sails, moving to an original prog rock score, played live. And watch out for the thumbs charting their own course, leading to a guitar showdown.

You may play a part as well, and not just by clapping your own hands. 

“Audience members come together to grab the rigging, each individual powering a larger movement of giant fingers, a web of connections, a single dance,” reads Squonk’s own description. “We want to encourage shared discovery, people face to face, festive, and making a community of the imagination.”

Scale and smiles matter when it comes to Squonk, which has evolved over the years into a strictly outdoor, show-stopping traveling troupe. And puppets don’t come much larger than hands the size of a house.

“Steve is designing for people who might be hundreds of feet away,” composer Jackie Dempsey said of her co-artistic director and designer, Steve O’Hearn. “You can’t draw focus the way you can in a theater with lighting. It’s gotta be big. There’s got to be a lot going on all at once.”

Among the lessons learned when Squonk started doing exclusively outdoor shows is, “we know a 30 minute show is perfect for outside.”

On Sept. 14, there are two performances at the Rachel Carson Bridge by the 10th Street Bypass at 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., with demonstrations and workshops at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

From inside to out

Squonk Opera creates works on a scale that can be seen from a long distance. (John Altdorfer)

Squonk hasn’t always been known strictly for its outdoor work. 

In 2000, an indoor show at a small East Village venue drew The New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who was taken by “the five fashionably nerdy-looking musicians from Pittsburgh” and their show that he called “ingenious, hallucinatory, hypnotic.” But a move uptown to Broadway with BigSmorgasbordWunderWerk (24 previews and 32 performances) did not go as well. 

The world got a taste of Squonk’s trademark lyrical spectacle when the troupe made it to the quarterfinals of Season 6 of America’s Got Talent in 2011, but well before then, Pittsburgh had been Squonk’s enthusiastic proving ground.

The troupe’s first major commission came in 1995, courtesy of Marc Masterson, during his first stint as artistic director of City Theatre. The result was Night of the Living Dead: The Opera, a multimedia performance combining the entire 90-minute George A. Romero film with a new soundtrack, performed live by Squonk.

One performance was attended by Romero and others involved in the seminal horror movie.

“It was an incredible experience to do a theatrical run,” Dempsey recalled. “It was the first time we had a whole month in the theater, and their scene shop built the designs that Steve had, and we worked with a dramaturg. It was like Theater 101 for us. We had never done anything quite that big, so we were really grateful for that.”

The great outdoors

“Big” has taken on new meaning in the ensuing years. 

Concepts for Squonk shows that have been seen throughout North America, Europe and Asia most often start with Carnegie Mellon alum O’Hearn, working on a design, literally hammering it out at times, and then it evolves as Dempsey adds the music and the team figures out what can be loaded onto two large trucks.

Demonstrations and workshops are part of Squonk Opera shows like this one in Oakland. (Heather Mull)

The composer said Pittsburgh audiences’ enthusiasm and acceptance of new ideas make it a pleasure to try out new works here – which was evident when Hand to Hand’s scheduled debut was rescued by, well, helping hands..

The premiere was to be part of the 2019 Three Rivers Regatta that was abruptly canceled. As word spread, different sites around the city were offered up, and the show went on in PPG Plaza, Downtown.

“We are so grateful to our fellow Pittsburghers and are amazed at the ability of this town to react and to make things happen,” Dempsey told the Post-Gazette at the time.

Approaching the upcoming hometown performance, following a July 4 show here, Dempsey explained that there’s a little Pittsburgh in everything Squonk Opera does.

“I think that what we do has a real Rust Belt quality to it, because we are Pittsburghers, and I think it’s very different from what you might experience from a group from New York or from L.A.,” she said. “I think that in Pittsburgh, people tend to be, maybe it’s over-generalizing, but there’s a self-deprecating nature to what we do. We’re very happy to poke fun at ourselves and not take ourselves so seriously. And some might say Pittsburgh is not cosmopolitan, and yet we were influenced by some really serious work.”

She mentions inspirations such as collaborators Philip Glass and Robert Wilson (Einstein on the Beach), along with composer Meredith Monk, and Laurie Anderson, “who’s serious, but also very funny,” Dempsey said. “I think we add that kind of down to earth feel to what we do. because we’re here in Pittsburgh.”

Down to earth yet whimsical, forged in Pittsburgh yet undeniably otherworldly might be an apt description of the show at hand.

The three-decade Dempsey-O’Hearn collaboration, which in the beginning included Kate Aronson, began when Dempsey, who was working with O’Hearn’s sister at the time, was invited to see a performance “and I was just really mesmerized by the visuals that were happening. The theatricality of it. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

However, Dempsey thought there was something missing, 

“They only had a little bit of music, so I thought, well, maybe I could offer up my musical services.”

Dempsey’s vivid memory of meeting her longtime Squonk partner that day was that he was wearing pantyhose over his face as part of his costume, for “a mysterious look,” and he pulled them to say hello.

Busier and buzzier than ever

These days, Dempsey and O’Hearn are kept so busy by demands for their product, they are having trouble carving out time to work on the new show that Demspey says should debut next summer.

It has turned out that, post-pandemic shutdown, 2022 has been Squonk busiest year yet.

The guitar showdown in Squonk Opera’s Hand 2 Hand, at PPG Plaza.
(Emily O’Donnell)

It comes out almost as a surprise when Dempsey says tha Squonk, for the first time, has a company manager and a marketing person.

“It’s a great relief to have some help, but [with O’Hearn], we’re doing, you know, the booking, the accounting, the grant writing, all that. And I have to really cut all of that out to work on creative stuff.”

Still, it’s a nice problem to have. 

Dempsey was not ready to say what Squonk’s next project will be, but she did talk about the roots of Hand to Hand, which emerged after the 2016 election.

“I’ll just say that, for me and Steve, for two people who got into a rhythm of creating joyful spectacle, neither of us was feeling all that joyful,” she said. “And we actually had a moment where we thought, should we go back to doing theater shows? Should we go back to doing something a bit darker, a bit more reflective in a way, a bit more introspective? Because we weren’t feeling the joy.”

Then came the realization that “the joyful stuff is what we’re best at. And also, we felt the joyful stuff was maybe what people needed more of.”

Squonk shows are all free and open to anyone, and that also was a factor in creating Hand to Hand.

“It doesn’t matter what your politics are. It doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs are, or your economic background. You know, everybody’s just there having fun,” Dempsey said.

The scale of the hands, to Dempsey and O’Hearn, relate to the idea that, “We feel small sometimes when something big, something seismic happens in the world or in our country … nut I feel like people need to know that it does matter what each person does, that your voice matters, what you do matters and you can change things in the world, one person at a time.”

She sees that sense of empowerment happen when audience members are called on to take part in the show by pulling the ropes that control the hand and fingers.

“They’re making things happen,” Dempsey said. “So that’s sort of the basic idea behind the show, but also there’s just a lot of goofiness going on.”

Thirty years and counting

One of the things about being busy is that it doesn’t leave a lot of time to reflect on 30 years of doing something that you love. 

The company was just back from a swing through western Canada, shows in Calgary and Edmonton, and was headed to Hamilton, Ontario, right after performing here next week. 

Local audiences, the affordability of our region and foundation support of the arts are among the reasons that the Pittsburgh area will always be Squonk’s home base.

“In Pittsburgh, you don’t have to be the starving artist – you can afford to live a life, own a home, and still do what you love to do,” Dempsey said. 

While the world may beckon, there’s no place like home for Squonk Opera.

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  1. onStage PittsburghConnecting Theater Goers and Theater Makers in the Greater Pittsburgh AreaOpening This Week- the Details for September 12 to 18, 2022

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