During the 1950s heyday of East Liberty, the neighborhood was home to a total of nine theaters. One of those theaters was the Regent Theatre. Opening in 1914, the 1,100-seat space showed silent films accompanied by a grand organ. As urban renewal era changes brought about the economic decline of the neighborhood, the theaters struggled and most of them closed. By the 1990s, the Regent was poised for renewal along with the neighborhood. The East Liberty Chamber of Commerce, East Liberty Presbyterian Church, and East Liberty Development, Inc. banded together to find a viable new use.
Following a community engagement process, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST) was born and has quickly become synonymous with East Liberty. Named for famed dancer and Hollywood movie legend Gene Kelly, born and raised in East Liberty, and Homewood-bred jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, KST has worked to carry on the unique cultural legacy of the East End while shepherding in a new era of arts performances and social dialogue.
In 2020, Joseph Hall was named the new executive director of KST. Starting his career at KST as an intern in 2009 before heading to New York City to work in the arts there, Hall was happy to come back to where he started to help shape KST’s place within the neighborhood and beyond. We sat down with Hall to hear about his experience leading KST, how he views KST’s role in the neighborhood, what’s in store for the organization moving forward, and much more.
You worked at KST early on before moving to New York to pursue other opportunities. How did your time in New York City prepare you for your role as executive director now?
I joined KST as an intern in 2009 and was with the organization until 2014. A lot of really amazing changes towards building the identity of KST in East Liberty happened during that time, so I was happy to be at the organization at such a pivotal moment in its history and forming. In 2014, I moved to New York, which was always a dream of mine. During my time in New York, I worked as a program manager at 651 ARTS in Brooklyn, company manager for Kyle Abraham, a Pittsburgh native choreographer and MacArthur Fellow, and then as deputy director at the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD!). I was at BAAD! for about five years and in New York for a total of six years. I worked with many artists from around the country and world—from early career artists to well established. At BAAD!, it was nice to not only be in an organization that placed value on the importance of art within community and how it can positively change and shape community but also engage stakeholders outside of the arts who understand art’s importance in shaping healthy neighborhoods.
Was it a hard decision to come back to Pittsburgh?
The way I work inside organizations is that I fall in love with them and the communities who call them home. I do feel like I’ve had a relationship with KST since I began working here, and that relationship remained strong. Even when I was in New York, I always fostered my relationships here in Pittsburgh, from developing a residency with PearlArts to hosting TQ Live!, a queer variety show hosted at the Andy Warhol Museum (now at the Carnegie Museum of Art). My relationship with Pittsburgh and KST had been so special that when the position of executive director became available, I wanted to ensure that the organization moved in a way that honors its legacy, first visioned by former executive director janera solomon, and fulfills its possibilities.
How do you view KST’s role in East Liberty, and has that evolved since the beginning?
When I think about KST’s role in the community, I have to mention all of the arts organizations and institutions that came before us. At one point in East Liberty, there were nine theaters. Pittsburgh brought the world’s first nickelodeon theater downtown in 1905, and today, KST is the oldest remaining nickelodeon theater in Pittsburgh. There was also such a wealth of cultural institutions in East Liberty over the decades, from Musician’s Club of Local 471 to the Selma Burke Art Center, and more. When KST had a conversation about two years ago online with the sculptor Thaddeus Mosley, who is 96 years old, he talked about how he and so many artists would travel between East Liberty and the Hill District, which was known as “little Harlem” from the 1930s to around the 1950s. So, one of the ways I think about KST’s role is preserving and moving forward the role of arts in East Liberty, which has a deep history, not only in our buildings, structures, and institutions but also in the way folks actually navigated the city.
KST also functions as a home. So many folks say to us, “I feel seen when I come into Kelly Strayhorn.” How I interpret that is, “I feel seen in my identity and who I am. I might be marginalized in other spaces, but I am celebrated in this space.” I see the role of KST as helping people see themselves but also helping to build community between folks who may not otherwise be in community with each other.
Over the years, folks have come to identify our neighborhood—and I could even say the East End—with KST and vice versa. I remember first working at KST in 2009, and there was still hesitation from visitors around coming into this neighborhood—which I believe has always had great value and has been a home to many great people—but over time, we don’t get those questions anymore. I think KST has played a role in creating a space where folks feel they belong.
What is the curation process for KST like? How do you decide what art and performances you will show?
Our mission is to be a home for creative experimentation, community dialogue, and collective action rooted in the liberation of Black and queer people. We’ve always made it a priority to have a vast array of identities both in our audience and on stage. When I say that, I’m not only talking about as people and various demographics, but also about the way in which art shows up. We work with contemporary performance makers that are interested in sociopolitical topics and identity. Nina Simone says that the artist’s duty is to reflect the times, and that’s a pinnacle philosophy that we take with us in terms of our curation. And when you’re working with real issues and topics, the work isn’t always beautiful and virtuosic, because that’s not actually reflective of our world and what we need to come together around and discuss. The artistic work is an opportunity to learn something together—the audience with the artists—we’re learning together inside of an artwork that has often taken many years of research and development, rehearsals, funding, partners, a design team, and so on and so forth to create. That deep research, time, and intention creates this synergy and place of learning for all of us.
Have you felt the ripple effect of that work and community making in the neighborhood?
We have! We led a tour with a class from the University of Pittsburgh the other day. I was outside KST talking about the history of the theater, and there was a community member—a woman probably in her late sixties, if not early seventies—who kindly interrupted me and offered her memories of KST and the Regent Theatre. She spoke about the importance of our space, remembering it as a pivotal place for community and sharing, not only with me as the current executive director of KST but also with these students who are both from Pittsburgh and have come here from other places. Then, we were walking up Penn Avenue towards KST’s Alloy Studios, and there was another woman who stopped us, also probably in her early seventies. She was a new community member. She asked, “What’s going on? I wanna go. Tell me about it.” She was so excited to be moving into this neighborhood and learning more through KST, through a home that we’ve created for her and for so many others who have been here before her. I view these meaningful engagements with community members as one of the roles of KST.
We are all here together in this neighborhood for a purpose, and we share knowledge and culture with each other—KST helps connect those dots.
What’s next for KST?
We’re about to release our strategic plan, which I’m really excited about. It’s called Owning our Future, Thriving Where We Live. It’s about our collective ability to own our communities and our neighborhoods, especially right now when there are such uncertainties sometimes about our futures. There are such uncertainties when we think about the recent attacks on the rights of LGBTQ+ people, uncertainties when we think about the banning of books and the de-funding of libraries, uncertainties when we think about the overturning of Roe v. Wade—and this has implications for everything, from our education to our own bodies. So, Owning our Future, Thriving Where We Live is our strategic plan and vision moving forward. We worked with an amazing national art strategist. After conversations with stakeholders, board members, staff, and artists, we came to not only the vision and strategic plan, but also clarifying our mission and the priorities that you’ll see within it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I want to extend an invitation to everyone to come to KST and check out our events and programs! During the pandemic, we also did a small cosmetic renovation of our lobby, so now we have a space that is dedicated to visual artists. I’m looking forward to welcoming you home to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater!