One of our favorite community staples, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, has been going to great lengths to adapt to the pandemic and the needs of this moment. We checked in with them a few weeks ago to hear more about what they’ve been doing and how they are working to create community during this time while uplifting queer, Black, and/or people of color.
The theater is hosting Hotline Ring, a virtual fundraiser Thursday, July 16th. Be sure to tune in and give what you can!
This story was originally featured in July’s issue of The Bulletin.
Over the years, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST, 5941 Penn Ave.) has established itself as a community space where local residents, artists, performers, and leaders can get together to enjoy a diversity of programming and events.
When Pennsylvania’s shelter-in-place orders went into effect in March, the KST team had to find ways to quickly adapt its programming, and also the physical essence of its community, for the online realm. But before Governor Wolf made the quarantine announcement, the theater was already navigating a transition of its own; Joseph Hall took over for janera solomon as Executive Director of KST on Mar. 2.
“We were already in the midst of a big transition when the shelter-in-place orders were issued,” Ben Pryor, KST’s Senior Producer, explained. “While we were tentatively postponing programming at the end of March, Joseph felt clear about the need to stay connected to the KST public and honor our commitments to artists.”
At the same time, City of Asylum, a nonprofit that provides housing to exiled writers, began collaborating with KST on what soon became “The Show Must Go On(line),” a daily webcast that streams programs by Pittsburgh-based arts organizations. The call for digital content was strong, so the theater sprang into action to help develop the “KST Global Stream” concept. The Global Stream offers a multi-pronged approach with a mix of digital programming, from Instagram Live conversations with KST leadership and their network of artists to exclusive Zoom performances and digital screenings.
According to Pryor, the organization put a renewed emphasis on its weekly email newsletter, utilizing e-blasts to promote its virtual events and also highlight recommended streaming content from other arts institutions like the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and more.
“The digital program has been a great opportunity to pull together our audiences and artist contacts,” Pryor said, “both in Pittsburgh and throughout the USA.”
Hall echoed this sentiment, noting how the transition to digital content has offered new abilities to stay connected with artists and audiences. “Audiences who attended a performance by Jaamil Kosoko at the theater a few years ago,” he said, “were able to hear him in conversation with Ben on May 21 on Instagram.”
KST’s move to digital programming comes with the added bonus of a built-in archiving system, with many of the presentations living online well after the presentation date. Regardless, adapting the programming of a live theater into digital-only content was not without its challenges.
Pryor noted that while the programming has become more accessible to a greater number of people, KST still struggles with total accessibility. Enjoying digital performances requires access to the internet and a computer/smart device, which many local residents do not have. Additionally, digital formats make it more challenging to provide ASL interpretation for audience members. The instantaneous nature of the Global Stream also means that KST staffers have much less time to prepare and develop concepts for shows. Despite these roadblocks, the frequency and variety of KST’s engagement points are now appealing to a wide array of communities.
“One of my favorite moments is when I see community from Pittsburgh, New York, and beyond all experiencing the same program together and chatting about it live on the platform,” Hall said. “We’ve had more social media followers and engagement on our platforms than ever.”
The KST Global Stream also lends more visibility to KST leadership. Hall, Pryor, and Orlana Darkins Drewery, KST’s Deputy Director, all regularly conduct interviews on Instagram Live with local and national artists, arts leaders, and community members.
“It’s my goal to continually find ways to hand KST over to the community,” Hall said, “and bringing visibility to our staff moves us closer to achieving [this goal].”
This emphasis on serving has become even more vital in light of the recent Black Lives Matters protests, in Pittsburgh and across the nation. In response to these events, and as a continuation of its mission to end the disproportionate ways that resources are distributed in Pittsburgh, KST is hosting “Hotline Ring” on Jul. 16. The virtual fundraiser will not only raise money for KST, but also for six local organizations – in community with or led by queer, Black, and/or people of color: 1Hood Media, BOOM Concepts, Braddock Carnegie Library Association, Dreams of Hope, The Legacy Arts Project, and PearlArts Studios.
“Unfortunately, the Arts is simply a microcosm of society’s larger issues,” Hall explained. “For years, national and local reports like the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s ———-Racial Equity in Arts Funding——- have repeatedly found inequity in funding for Black artists and Black-led organizations. Redirecting power and resources to Black and historically marginalized communities is a way to be an ally and create positive change.”
BOOM Concepts, a local creative hub dealing with setbacks brought on by the pandemic, is one of Hotline Ring’s featured arts organizations. After being forced to temporarily shutter its Garfield gallery space (5139 Penn Ave.) and cancel multiple programs, the organization is now applying for grants just to stay afloat.
“The [Hotline Ring] fundraiser will help us close the gap of income lost, and still pay the artists we support throughout the year,” BOOM Co-founder Thomas Agnew explained.
When Pittsburgh begins to reopen, KST will continue evolving its approach. The theater is now considering a hybrid model that includes in-person and virtual components. A few outdoor concerts in the fall, as well as some limited capacity indoor programming, are among the possibilities currently being explored.
“When we do resume in-person programming, the safety of participating artists, staff, and audiences is as much of a priority as the welcoming environment for which KST is known.” Hall said.
Stay tuned to Kelly-Strayhorn.org for ongoing updates.