Squonk Will Add Spectacle to Rib Fest With New ‘Brouhaha’ Show


If by Brouhaha, Squonk means an uproar or cause for commotion, that’s about right for the news that a supersized musical outdoor spectacle is ready for launch.

Brouhaha is its name, following in the huge handprints of Hand to Hand, the 30th-anniversary tour that featured inflatable puppet hands the size of a house. Those giants billowed like sails and could be controlled by participating audience members.

This one doesn’t billow so much as it bellows.

Squonk introduces Brouhaha ahead of Sept. 3-4 debut. (Videos: Sharon Eberson)

At the center of the Brouhaha is the one-of-a kind Squonkcordian, an enormous musical instrument powered by behemoth bellows – each representing a musical note – topped with towering tuba bells. There’s also a 30-foot-high head as a backdrop, helping to ensure this is a Squonk-sized show.

Brouhaha, which was previewed for press members earlier this month, will make its public debut September 3-4 at the annual Kickoff and Rib Festival at the home of the Steelers, Acrisure Stadium. Then it’s off to an official world premiere at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Colorado Springs’ Community Cultural Collective in Colorado.

For more than 30 years, the former Squonk Opera, now singular Squonk, has been growing and evolving. Led by artistic directors Jackie Dempsey and Steve O’Hearn, with a roster of musicians and technicians that includes veterans and newbies, the spark of Brouhaha comes from a mission to “pursue the most American and democratic of art forms: the public celebration, with boisterous music and surreal images.”

A taste of the music of Squonk’s Brouhaha.

At the peak of performances of Brouhaha, Squonkers invite the audience to play the bellows with the tug of ropes attached to each, welcoming all “to experience the joy of a brass band and the fireworks of community.”

The show ends with that 30-foot head, made of colorful banners, comically blinking its eyes and shooting smoke out of its ears.

A scale model of Brouhaha.

A big part of any Squonk spectacle is live music, with musicians playing original compositions described as “driving rhythms, vibrant keyboards, wild winds and hypnotic guitar riffs [along with] the Squonkcordian’s rich and brassy sound.”

At the preview on August 13, guitarist, builder and vessel of imagination O’Hearn made a point that Squonkers have rarely found other American companies that do what they do. It’s not that Squonk wants more competition, you understand. It’s just that these creators of enormous outdoor spectacles can’t understand why they seem to have so few peers here at home, while play festivals alongside like-minded troupes from Europe and Asia.

Squonker Tony Thomas performs several jobs, sometimes simultaneously. (Image: Sharon Eberson)

Dreaming big as an artist and making those dreams come to life is a hard road to follow, but Squonk finds a way.

One of the miracles of this company is that the show’s precious creations fit into one truck (it still says Squonk “Opera”  on the door). Almost everything in Brouhaha is foldable. The show travels with musicians and puppeteers, although everyone does more than just one job.

The artists joining band leader Dempsey on keyboards and O’Hearn on bagpipes, sax and flute are Dempsey’s husband David Wallace on guitar, Tony Thomas on bass (and behind the wheel of that truck driver), and percussionist Charlie Kiesling. The puppeteers are D.T. Burns, Lindsay Herring, Forrest Trimble and Brandon Walker, all under the direction of creative consultant Rick Kemp. (Find a full list of the village it takes to create a Squonk show here.)

Although the troupe is known for really big shows, “We’re not Taylor Swift,” O’Hearn said by way of comparison. “There are big outdoor spectacles – Taylor Swift certainly showed how big you can get. … But there are very few groups across the country like us, which is weird to me because it’s such an inherently democratic art form, to show in a public space.”

The village of Squonkers who created and perform the new show Brouhaha,
at a preview in New Kensington. (Image: Sharon Eberson)

Size, of course, isn’t everything. When it comes to a Squonk show, O’Hearn said, “We aim to dazzle.”


Squonk will perform Brouhaha at the 2023 Kickoff and Rib Festival, Acrisure Stadium, North Shore, Sunday, September 3, 4-4 p.m. and 7-7:30 p.m., and Monday, September 4, 3:30p-4:15 p.m. and   5:15- 6 p.m. More at https://squonk.org/brouhaha.

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