Throughline Theatre Company Revives ‘Living News Festival’ a Historic Theater Concept in a Brilliant New Production

Limited Run Now to August 20th at Carnegie Stage


Throughline Theatre Company’s unique production is based on the Living Newspapers productions from the 1930s. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted the Federal Theater Project as part of the Works Progress Administration’s efforts to provide work for the unemployed during the Depression. The project produced over 2,700 productions across the United States. Throughline Theater Company returns to this historic concept as five Pittsburgh playwrights take various headlines from local news sources and transform them into brief plays ranging from 10 to 20 minutes in duration. Each play has a different director and features either two or three actors.

Any one of these short plays could be extended into a thought-provoking and dynamic full-length production. I did not want to see any of them end as I wanted to learn more about the characters and how they traverse the delicate situations highlighted in each plotline.

The first play, Trauma Response, is written by Matt Henderson and directed by Nathan Walter and is based on the article, “Mail Carrier vs. Beast: Pennsylvania Among Worst in Country for Dog Bites,” from Pittsburgh’s NPR News Station WESA. I was unaware that Pittsburgh has an unusually high amount of dog bite incidents compared to the rest of the country. Trauma Response highlights the importance of caring for animals by giving us a thoughtful and hilarious glimpse into their potential inner psyche.

Next, Smithfield Shelter Shutdown captures the growing crises of the unhoused population in Pittsburgh. Directed by Shannon Knapp and written by Melannie Taylor, the City Paper article Smithfield Shelter Will Close With Support from Downtown Businesses Despite Public Outcry inspires the play, which offers various perspectives on the unhoused population. A seemingly selfish local business owner blames the unhoused for her decline in business patrons and in-person sales. A window washer making $10 an hour is able to scrape just enough money together to buy two value meal hamburgers for his unhoused friend and him. Public outcry at the city council meeting presents varying perspectives, all of which are valid, to both antecedents and solutions to this ongoing public crisis. This play leaves you with more questions than answers, but I would argue that that is a cornerstone of exceptional theater.

Written by Clare Drobot and directed by Ricardo Vila-Roger, Gardening Tips For A Swiftly Tilting Planet postulates what Pittsburgh will look like in 2030 if efforts are not made to slow the effects of global warming. The play is based on the story “Experts Say, in the Garden, Wildfire Smoke is Not Problematic, Climate Change is. We meet a Vlogger who is attempting to offer gardening tips in the newly appointed “smoke season,” where the air quality has been so hazardous that you have not been able to leave your home for several weeks and everyone now works from home. Only emergency vehicles are allowed on the roads, and reference is made to how we just “blamed Canada” for the poor air quality back in 2023 and assumed that cigarettes were the only cause of lung cancer for decades. In the Garden also offers insightful commentary on the shiny veneer that social media paints on the world. Despite barely being able to speak because of the poor air quality, the vlogger still tries to pose perfectly and pretend like the city is not in dire peril.

Fourth, Be Ashamed, written by Patrick Cannon and directed by Katy Chmura, is based on the article “Street Artists Protest White-out ‘Refresh’ of Graffiti at Pittsburgh’s Color Park from NPR News Station. This jarring play presents a unity of contraries. A city-hired artist comes in and paints murals on the river walk and leaves art for others to take home. The caveat is that the new murals covered up art that had been on the riverwalk for decades. The play presents a heated conflict between the city-hired artist and a veteran local to the river walk. The hired artist does not take the time to understand the vantage point of the senior-citizen veteran. She fails to recognize that her murals are covering up this woman’s history, community, and life stories. The play has a poignant resolution that shows the power of listening and understanding across generations.   

Finally, U-Haul In A Tree takes us back to the tornadoes that touched down in Pittsburgh in 1998. Written by Jose Perez IV and directed by J. Cody Spellman, “U-Haul…” shows how three different people respond to the same crisis. What I found most interesting about this piece was how it acknowledged that the tornadoes occurred 25 years ago. Still, the script suggests that interpersonal communication suffered long before the social media era and that human connectedness had been lacking for years.

Each play showcases impeccable acting and a provocative script. This production is not just good; it is important. It is powerful yet approachable, thought-provoking yet funny. Humor and social media commentary are cleverly used to mask the macabre of our reality which is at the heart of these plays. Each story is taken from local news outlets. They provide a throughline for greatly needed-discussions on taboo topics – animal abuse, homelessness, gentrification, racial discrimination, ignoring the elderly, climate change, person-to-person communication, and crisis response. We need to have these discussions with anyone we can, regardless of their age, gender, or identity politics; if not for us, then for our children who will inherit Pittsburgh far beyond 2030.


Throughline Theatre Company presents the Living News Festival at the Carnegie Stage, August 17-20, 2023. For tickets visit http://www.throughlinetheatre.org

You can read more about the original Living News Festival origins at https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2022/08/living-newspapers/

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