Downsizing isn’t just for houses. Residents of the Greater Pittsburgh area also have options for scaled-down entertainment venues offering a more intimate experience. Whether they want to feel like they’re closer to the performers or just prefer not to be in a crowd of 2,000-plus people, these smaller cultural and performing arts centers are a huge draw for locals and tourists.
Many of these venues have the added advantage of being historically relevant to the communities in which they are located. Take, for instance, The Strand Theater in Zelienople. Originally built in 1914, the theater sat in disrepair for 25 years before The Strand Theater Initiative created a nonprofit organization in 2001 to restore this local gem.
Through public and private support, The Strand reopened its doors in July 2009. Patrons appreciate the fact that there is not a bad seat in the house.
“The Strand is a very intimate venue of 267 seats, the furthest of which is still only about 30 feet from the stage,” said Ron Carter, The Strand Initiative founder. “If you’re looking for the spectacle of massive productions like Hamilton or Phantom of the Opera, they can be enjoyed in larger venues like the Benedum or Byham theaters. But if you want to look in the whites of the eyes of some of those stars as part of our proprietary Broadway on Main or ‘Tis the Season productions, there’s no better way to do that than at The Strand.”
Since its reopening, The Strand has hosted an eclectic mix of programming. Performances have included nationally touring artists like Mandy Patinkin and The Celtic Tenors to stellar tribute acts like The Purple Piano (Prince Tribute) and Let’s Groove Tonight (Earth, Wind, & Fire Tribute). Carter said the theater also has proprietary productions that have included YuleTVs Greatest Hits, USO Christmas, Motown 3, and a full-cast production of Godspell.
The Strand also screens a variety of films. From classics like It’s a Wonderful Life to independent features like MVP, Carter said the theater’s unique and intimate space makes for a very personal experience. “This is a key reason that, despite its small size, The Strand draws patrons from 17 Pennsylvania counties and 17 states,” he said.
In the coming months, the theater has an exciting lineup of movie screenings and special guests sure to please multiple tastes.
A two-night performance by The Voice star Chris Jamison on Dec. 2-3 is already sold out. Other productions for December include Yule TV’s Greatest Hits (Dec. 16-17) and It’s a USO Christmas (Dec. 17-18). Classic Christmas movies like Elf, It’s a Wonderful Life, and It Happened on Fifth Ave also are screening during December.
Looking into 2023, The Strand is thrilled to be the only Pittsburgh-area stop for TV, film, and Broadway legend Mandy Patinkin. Known for his roles in iconic movies like The Princess Bride and TV shows like Criminal Minds, Patinkin graces the stage at The Strand at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 7, 2023.
In March, Carter said The Strand is excited—and a little nervous—about its debut of the number-one KISS tribute band in the country—KISSNATION. “We’re also excited for the production of Godspell for the Easter season, and the return of some of our favorite tribute acts like Chris Collin and Members of Boulder Canyon (John Denver Tribute),” he said.
Patrons can check out the full list of upcoming events at The Strand on its website at http://thestrandtheater.org.
Another popular choice is Quantum Theatre of Pittsburgh. Quantum uses the performance environment as a contributor to the play and experience, said Karla Boos, artistic director. The performance theater chooses its venue based on the production.
“It’s different every time,” Boos said. “We do like intimacy as a rule. People often tell us they felt like they were inside the work of art. We try to enhance audience experiences while connecting them to the performance through thoughtful and purposeful production site selections.”
Coming up this spring is the world premiere of a contemporary play called The Devil is a Lie by living playwright Jennifer Chang. She usually works as a director but wrote this play, which was workshopped through Quantum’s InQbator program, said Boos.
“The play is a Faust story for our times, with media moguls as characters,” said Boos. “Additionally, there is audience interaction where they can provide many of their opinions.”
The production features a character resembling a young Snoop Dogg who is asked to DJ a fancy party of assembled guests (the audience). “Are they investors? Are they on trial? And who are our charming hosts?” asked Boos.
The Devil is a Lie is directed by Kyle Haden, a Pittsburgh native currently working as an assistant professor of acting at Carnegie Mellon University, where he also serves as senior associate head of the school of drama.
Quantum plans to announce its full 2023-24 season at The Devil is a Lie performance. “Audience members will have the first scoop of the next three projects for the next season,” said Boos. “They are big works in very exciting places, and at least one involves music.”
To buy tickets for The Devil is a Lie or to learn more about Quantum Theatre, visit its website at https://www.quantumtheatre.com.
If a welcoming space that’s accessible to all regardless of physical or cognitive limitations is what you’re looking for, then a visit to The Tull Family Theater in Sewickley is in order.
The nonprofit theater is open 365 days a year. Its wide-ranging offerings include new releases, documentaries, independent films, classics, film and speaker series, and new works from the region’s emerging filmmakers, as well as live, free performances of a wide variety of music and dance, from opera and ballet to folk and Irish step dancing.
The space has two screenings rooms—the Large Screening Room, seating 169, and the intimate Huntington Bank Screening Room, for 69 people, plus a flexible event/performance space that can accommodate 200. Built from the ground up in 2017, it provides some of the region’s highest-quality technical systems with 4K projection and 7.1 JBL professional surround sound.
As a nonprofit organization, the theater’s mission is to strengthen cultural, educational, and entertainment experiences, said Dr. Karen Ferrick-Roman, director of communications. It fulfills its mission by:
Attracting thousands of patrons each month and hundreds more for events and free cultural performances from Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Washington counties; West Virginia, Ohio and beyond.
Enabling hundreds of children from nearby underserved communities to attend screenings—many of them entering a cinema for the first time in their lives—by providing transportation, tickets and a full cinematic experience at no cost.
Making Pennsylvania history by broadening accessibility to screenings for those who are hard of hearing, deaf, nonnative speakers and young readers through Open Caption Wednesdays.
Pioneering sensory-friendly screenings in the region northwest of Pittsburgh, opening new options to families, children and adults impacted by autism and other special needs.
Launching free events designed for senior citizens, incorporating a film screening, live music and a panel discussion and Q&A session with experienced experts around relevant topics.
Offering speakers, presentations, music, dance and public forums at no cost.
Providing immersive experiences alongside films.
Supporting emerging and independent filmmakers by offering free space, technical, and promotional assistance in sharing their films with the public.
Providing Cinema Maker Sessions (CiMS, mentioned above) to introduce underserved middle school students to the basics of filmmaking, including the many career options involved with filmmaking and its intersection with STEM disciplines.
Some of the December events hosted by the Tull include holiday and other music performed live by John Vento and Friends for Sewickley Light Up Night (Dec. 2) and a free, autism-friendly holiday concert by Chatham Baroque (Dec. 4).
More exciting events are coming in 2023, including a runup to the Oscars (Jan-March); an autism-friendly open mic session; an emerging filmmakers showcase featuring premieres of films by artists across the region, and a National Science on Screen® series. A complete listing of all upcoming events for the remainder of 2022 can be found at https://www.thetullfamilytheater.org.