Tami Dixon still has a tough time explaining Midnight Radio in less than a minute. Anyone who’s seen the popular series of performances by Dixon’s left-field theater company Bricolage understands why: Is Midnight Radio a radio drama, or a theater piece? Bawdy variety show, or post-modern performance art? But if forced, she can boil it down to six words.
“Prairie Home Companion on Red Bull,” says Dixon, Bricolage’s co-founder and producing artistic director. “Or, maybe, Saturday Night Live meets Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”
In their repurposed Downtown arts space, Bricolage stages the events as part live-audience radio drama (sans broadcast), part interactive game show, and part comedic romp, with all the trimmings: musical guests, folio sound effects, and a fair bit of double entendre. And while there’s little else like it, Midnight Radio is also a perfect example of today’s Pittsburgh performing arts world. It’s hard to pigeonhole, but its originality doesn’t affect its immense popularity with audiences. And, like so many ideas of its ilk formed over the past 10 years, Midnight Radio was initially launched with the help of a Seed Award from The Sprout Fund.
On December 9, at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Downtown, The Sprout Fund celebrated its first decade of fostering new ideas in Pittsburgh with TENACITY—a performance event featuring some of the many performing-arts projects that the group has supported since 2001. Bricolage performed “On a Country Road,” a vintage radio drama (initially performed by Jimmy Stewart) as a representation of Midnight Radio, along with a dozen other performers whose original, often cutting-edge work might never have come to fruition without a Sprout Seed Award.
Over the 10 years since Sprout’s founding, Pittsburgh has become used to getting a glimpse of the arts, civic, environmental, and other projects that the organization funds at Hothouse—Sprout’s so-called “live annual report.” In 2011, Sprout chose to forgo Hothouse in favor of TENACITY to highlight the group’s broad impact on the arts in Pittsburgh.
“Hothouse developed its own style of performance,” says Mac Howison, Sprout’s funding programs manager. “You had to realize that it’s a party atmosphere, and you’ve got a short audience attention span. TENACITY sprang from the desire to look at what we’ve done for arts and performing arts with a much more professional setting, both from an audience standpoint and for the artists.”
This more professional setting not only highlights the arts projects that Sprout has funded, but mirrors a growth in so many Seed Award-funded projects’ own work. Performance poet and artist Vanessa German performed from her spoken-word operetta love poem for water, one of the works that has made German a highly sought-after, nationally renowned artist in recent years. Theater groups such as Barebones Productions (performing an excerpt from Take Me Out) and Bricolage have gone from avant-garde outsiders to institutions of Pittsburgh’s theater scene without losing their dedication to pushing artistic boundaries.
Besides established cutting-edge artists and emerging arts groups, The Sprout Fund’s arts funding has been important in the development of individual artists confronting issues important to the whole community. Frank Ferraro is an artist working in multiple media often exploring his ongoing battle with early-onset Parkinson’s disease. At TENACITY, Ferraro, violinist Anna Finlay, actress Adrienne Wehr, and choreographer Jamie Aaron Murphy performed “What About Me?,” a vignette from his performance about Parkinson’s (Gravity) + (Grace).
“People don’t know Parkinson’s,” says Ferraro. “There are so many issues that you face when you get hijacked by this disease – from relationship issues, to a loss of dignity, to just the difficulties getting dressed in the morning. Gravity is a series of vignettes about the difficulties in my life from Parkinson’s. It’s so liberating to be able to share with a lot of people who are afraid to [talk about] this disease.
“Parkinson’s has sort of become a medium to me – this disease carjacked me, and it’s taking me for a ride, and I can either sit in the passenger seat and surrender, or I can create work that lets me say, ‘I’m still in control.’”
Other independent artists involved in TENACITY include monologist Alexi Morrissey, composers David Bernabo and Barrett Black, and photographer/videographer Ben Hernstrom (of Ambulantic Video).
Gab Cody is an independent artist—a filmmaker and playwright who shows another side of Sprout’s impact on the performing arts. Cody frequently works with her husband, actor and writer/director Sam Turich, and the couple has worked on many Seed Award-funded projects, but always as artists commissioned by those projects rather than having sought the grants themselves. Their indie-minded arts careers have meant they couldn’t work in Pittsburgh for long before being brought into the Sprout family—like with Mombies, the short zombie-spoof film they commissioned by the Neighborhood Narratives project funded by The Sprout Fund, which screened at TENACITY.
“Because we like to do community-based work, a lot of what we’ve done here is connected to the Seed Award,” says Cody, who moved to Pittsburgh from New York City four years ago. “These micro grants are essential for keeping community-driven and small-arts projects alive. Those have funded so many projects that I’ve been involved with, it’s hard to imagine those projects taking off without that initial Sprout Fund help.”
When the artists who would become new theater-arts group Hiawatha Project first encountered The Sprout Fund, they hadn’t even conceived of their group yet. Hiawatha co-founders Anya Martin and Michelle Carello needed a quick grant to produce a reading of what would become Camino, Hiawatha’s 2011 debut piece. The Sprout Fund helped make that reading happen in 2009, and then funded the group’s introduction to the world this year with their acclaimed performance combining avant-garde theater arts with high-tech multimedia.
“Being in a Sprout event is an honor,” says Martin. “You wind up with this broad range of creative and entrepreneurial ventures that Sprout infuses in Pittsburgh. There’s already very little a creative person in Pittsburgh can do without somehow touching on a project Sprout has influenced. And after the next 10 years, it’s going to be virtually impossible.”