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Pittsburgh Musical Theater Group Wants to Help Baltimoreans Remember What They Love About The City

By John Barry | Posted 11/28/2007

Baltimore: The Opera

When Pittsburgh's Squonk Opera comes to town this week to celebrate Baltimore's hometown identity, it will probably avoid talking about football. That's not just because Baltimore is still healing from a thrashing at the hands of the Steelers but also because, according to co-artistic director/designer/musician Steve O'Hearn, that that's part of what's wrong with cities these days. They spend hundreds of millions trying to invest in their identity with sports teams. And then they watch themselves get humiliated on the field.

"Sports are one of the ways we do that tribal thing," O'Hearn says, speaking by phone from Pittsburgh, where Squonk is putting the final touches on the video elements of Baltimore: The Opera. "We get all excited and pseudo-violent in our antagonisms-especially with sister cities, like Cleveland or Baltimore."

To understand how Squonk Opera is trying to combat that tendency, you have to understand Squonk itself. The name is supposed to replicate the sound of an off-key wind instrument. Founded in Pittsburgh in 1992 by pianist/composer Jackie Dempsey and O'Hearn, its offbeat musical-theater approach combines dance, puppets, video, interviews, and rock music. Dempsey and O'Hearn have been with the show since the beginning; over the years, they've worked with a flexible team of musicians and production assistants. Past Squonk shows have included Firedogs, Night of the Living Dead: The Opera, The Great Circle Route, Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk, Inferno, and Rodeo Smackdown. Their latest is a series: [Put Your Hometown's Name Here]: The Opera.

Baltimore is the seventh city to put its name in the brackets. A year and a half ago Dempsey and O'Hearn premiered the production in their Pittsburgh home with what O'Hearn calls a "punk-vaudevillian roast, poking fun at an overblown grandeur." Since then, they have been touring the Rust Belt, celebrating the quirks-and the similarities-of hometowns. Dempsey and O'Hearn modify each production to incorporate the history, traditions, and individual stories for each city. So far, Squonk has produced hometown operas in Albany, N.Y., Orange, N.J., Chester County, Pa., and Columbia and College Park, Md. Now it's Baltimore's turn to get Squonked.

At the time of this interview, Baltimore: The Opera is still a work in progress. Dempsey spent a week in October in Baltimore researching the city and assembling "about 25" interviews with local folks-whom she got in touch with through the assistance of Anne Fulwiler, artistic director at Theatre Project. At present, Squonk is holed up in its home base, integrating those tapes into the format. The band's musical revue will include brief videotaped interviews with local artists, children from Kids on the Hill, Baltimore Streetcar Museum attendants, and, notably, recently deceased jazz singer Ruby Glover. For the most part, O'Hearn says, they use "30- or 45-second clips" of the interviews. Then, the band integrates three local dance groups that "become part of the show.

O'Hearn is careful to note that, although he's been in and out of Baltimore, he's an outsider here. In this production, Squonk lets the locals speak for themselves. "We avoid saying anything about Baltimore ourselves," he says. "It's kind of not for us to talk about the city. All the verbal things are said by interviewees. People who live there get to talk . . . so what they say segues into what we do." He says the band injects more abstract themes-about hometowns in general and "all the quandaries and wonderments of that."

By Squonk's estimates, about 200,000 have shared the experience since their founding. Squonk has been touring nationally and internationally for a little over a decade. Seven years ago, while Squonk Opera was performing in New York off-Broadway at Performance Space 122, enthusiastic reception by critics, along with the need for a new venue, led Squonk to makes its Broadway debut with Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk. Critical acclaim didn't do much for ticket sales, though. Even while winning awards-including a design award for O'Hearn and a Tony for Special Theatrical Event-the busloads of tourists weren't ready for it.

Their fabled Broadway run lasted seven weeks. "None of us were that happy about it, but in a way it helped us with publicity" O'Hearn says. That's when they returned to their DIY roots and reclaimed their nonprofit status. Since then, Squonk has been Pittsburgh-based and made most of its money touring smaller venues in the U.S., as well as in Europe and South Korea.

O'Hearn says touring with productions of [Hometown] has been a learning experience. It doesn't take much prompting to get him started on the complex subject of urban identity in post-industrial America. Squonk's domestic domain is the Rust Belt and Northeastern states. Now, as Squonk goes from one city to the next, it finds itself in cities with high-pressure promotional campaigns. Call it hometown homogenization.

"Almost every city now is opening up artist housing and is trying to gentrify sections of its city by luring in what [sociologist Richard] Florida calls 'the creative class,'" O'Hearn says. Pittsburgh is one of those and, like many cities, it competes intensely with Baltimore for its economic base. He says that as cities compete for the same people by flaunting their virtues, they wind up becoming more generic. "It's really become kind of a complex," O'Hearn says. "There don't seem to be a lot of really individual ways to reinvigorate urban areas.

"We try to do the opposite, really," he continues. "Our premise is that every city is different and exciting . . . at a time when all the country's media comes out of L.A. and New York and focuses on two cities in the country. All the other cities have stories to tell, too."

Despite the mass media and heavily funded public-relations campaigns, O'Hearn assures that the concept of a hometown is alive and well. As he notes, storytelling has become increasingly popular to establish local identity. As an example of that, he notes Stoop Storytelling, a relatively recently inaugurated Baltimore series-itself inspired by San Francisco's Porchlight Storytelling series-where local figures get up and tell their stories based around a theme. When people have a chance to narrate their own lives in low-pressure situations, O'Hearn says, they flourish. And frequently, he's discovered, they say more about the city than those who do it for a living.

"Certainly the level of power doesn't indicate interest or personality," O'Hearn says. Squonk has interviewed mayors and city officials, but, with exceptions, their interviews can be "as dry as the desert." Sometimes communities develop defense mechanisms to combat uncertainty about their own identities. "Pittsburgh has struggles with its own identity," he says. "And by default, just because it's easy and superficial, it uses sports. And a lot of cities try to pretend they're inventive and innovative, so they do everything they can to lure high-tech companies and artists. But it is indicative of a hollowness."

Baltimore: The Opera thinks its found something more substantial. "We've talked to old people, young people, actors, priests, streetcar museum volunteers . . . all different types," Dempsey says. And they've offered her assessments about their lives as Baltimoreans that are both frank and affectionate.

"Mostly in terms of negative things, they're talking about crime and the drugs," she continues. "One kid, his problem was the apathy he saw around him. It was a strange thing to hear from a 16-year-old. He talks about how in Baltimore a lot of people have this sort of 'I don't care' attitude about crime. And he talks about how he doesn't want to slip into that attitude."

Race relations in Baltimore were even harder to pin down. One interviewee considered race relations "interesting" but didn't elaborate, Dempsey says. Despite all that, she says, Baltimore is a thriving, neighborhood-oriented city. She notes that, among Baltimoreans, she found an "unusual" level of neighborhood loyalty, along with a "passion" for the city that still persists in spite of its problems.

But there's only so much you can learn in a week, and Squonk isn't pretending to be the authority on Baltimore. Instead, Dempsey, O'Hearn, and their band say they're trying to give us the chance to talk and think about what a hometown really is. As communal experiences go, it's probably cheaper-and more thought-provoking-than watching the Ravens get trampled by, well, whomever.

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