Posted by: Justin Hopper | September 15, 2008

Venue Vetting: The New Hazlett Theater

Take a quick stroll around the New Hazlett Theater on your own sometime – through the alleyways of its modern lobby and theater setting, complete with movable stage and seating – and you’d likely think this black-box theater is fresh off the boat; the kind of place you might text your Downtown pals about during the show.

But this is Pittsburgh, friends, and we don’t – as the kids say – roll like that.

Sure, it’s got the post-modern bendable, posable, stage setting that allows everything from grand, sweeping dance performances to spotlighted solitary readers and full-on rock bands to be equally enthused about its wares. But it’s also got the pedigree of a haunted house, complete with 19th-century robber baron origins and big, beautiful, Ghostbusters-style imposing stonework.

The New Hazlett opened in 1891 as a Carnegie library and music hall, nearly destroyed in 1967 along with its neighboring buildings, to make way for the Allegheny Center developments, and renamed in 1980 as the Hazlett Theater. Long the home of the Pittsburgh Public Theater, the space essentially went dark in 1999 – until a consortium of North Side non-profits joined to create the New Hazlett Theater in 2006. After an intensive renovation, the NHT opened its doors in 2007, and now hosts regular performances by the likes of Attack Theater and Dance Alloy, Prime Stage and Pittsburgh Musical Theater companies, the American Shorts reading program and Citylive panel discussions. The space even hosts the occasional rock band legend (Mekons, Peter Murphy, Sun Ra Arkestra, Incredible String Band).

But maybe the Hazlett’s greatest strength is in its flexibility, making it perfect for more multi-disciplinary performance arts: The Andy Warhol Museum’s Off The Wall series often hosts performances at NHT, and of course, three of PIFOF’s events will trod its boards.

“There are some things that these [kinds of] artists are looking for in a venue – whether that’s the stage size or the distance to the lighting grid or whatever,” says Executive Director Sara Radelet, “and the spec’s of this venue seem to meet all of those. A lot of these works are created in warehouse spaces or black-box theaters, and they won’t work in a different spaces. But here, the stage, the seating, it’s all flexible – there are ten different ways we can get to any request an artist may have.”

OK, that’s all fine, but I can hear you readers now: “But, Justin, isn’t there at least one eccentric religious leader or faith healer in this joint’s past?” Ho, ho, ho, friends – sit back and relax, because we’ve got two!

Even if you haven’t heard of Charles Taze Russell, you’ve probably been awoken by his disciples. The founder of the Bible Student movement, some of whose members eventually adopted the name “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Russell lived near to the New Hazlett building, and preached within its walls. Radelet regularly has to inform anxious pilgrims that, sorry, the whole interior’s been renovated since then – no need to touch the walls. (At least there’s a state historical marker out front for them to be photographed beside.)

Mid-20th century faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman, who used the North Side’s Carnegie Music Hall (now the NHT) as a base for her Pentecostal “healing crusades” in Pittsburgh, may not have a historical marker (or, for that matter, a worldwide, recognized church). But she’s still got followers all over, and believe in her works or not (I’ll not posit a guess), you’ve got to give her a little love for the costuming and theatricality that went into her presence.

A fan of neither religious tract, I’m a bit more interested to hear the contemporary faith-healing wail of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s saxophone, the post-modern multi-media theater of Kassys‘ “Liga”, and the untranslatable glossolalia of Jo Stromgren Kompani’s Orwellian gibberish in “The Department” bouncing off the Hazlett’s new/ancient walls.

But I also like to think that some psychic trace of those past lives still resonates within the Theater, a telltale heart buried beneath its floorboards. And if that doesn’t enhance your theater-going experience, I’m not sure what would.

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