Arts

A conversation with outgoing Kelly-Strayhorn Theater Executive Director Janera Solomon and A Very Electric Christmas at the Byham Theater

By November 26, 2019 No Comments

Janera Solomon. Photo courtesy of Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

By Steve Sucato

With her 11-year tenure as Executive Director of Kelly-Strayhorn Theater coming to a close at the end of the year, Janera Solomon has a lot to reflect on. Since immigrating here from Guyana with her family when she was 9, Solomon has found a home in the arts. She earned a B.A. in Multi/Interdisciplinary Arts from The University of Pittsburgh in 1998 and then took a job as curator of Philadelphia Live Arts and Philly Fringe from 2005-2007. In 2008, Solomon became director of a floundering Kelly-Strayhorn Theater and has since grown the organization in a multitude of ways including increasing its annual budget from $300,000 to $1.35 million, raised its profile nationally and created one of Pittsburgh’s most vibrant and important arts organizations in the process, especially when it comes to dance. I asked the award-winning Solomon about her time as director and the many challenges and successes she and the organization have experienced.

Given next season will be the Kelly-Strayhorn’s 20th anniversary, why not wait until then to step down?

My goal was to develop an organization that matters, one that people could see the value in through our art-making. I feel I have done what I came to do and it is a great point for a handoff. I am proud of the growth and the incredible work we have brought to our studios and stages, of the artists whose careers we have helped flourish and the values we have brought to the community. 

 

What were you initially tasked with in the job?

Find resources, build a program and get people interested in it.

 

How did you go about that?
I started to talk to people. I went out into the community and asked business owners, artists, arts organizations, funders and individuals what they were interested in, where the needs were and what their passions were. Pretty early on we started testing program ideas based on that feedback and on what we thought KST could be and should be.

 

What was your vision for the organization?

We knew we wanted to be really diverse with our programming. We knew we wanted to focus on dance and Jazz because of our namesakes Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn. We knew we wanted to support artists who wanted to take risks with their work, and we knew the programming had to be really inclusive of the [East Liberty] community so that they felt that the Kelly-Strayhorn was their theater. That vision has remained constant throughout

 

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

I am really proud of the over 50 works we have commissioned and the theater being an incubator for artists and their works, our merger with the Alloy Studios, us hosting the National Performance Network conference, and how our audiences have grown locally and beyond. 

 

You have also been ahead of the curve in dance in Pittsburgh including being an early presenter of Kyle Abraham’s work, transgender company Sean Dorsey Dance, the many choreographers involved in the newMoves Contemporary  Dance Festival over the years as well as being the first to present Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company.

Yes, that has been exciting for KST and Pittsburgh. We are an organization committed to social justice. I am also proud of our Pay What Makes You Happy! model for all of our programming. 

 

What were some of the biggest challenges?

Learning about people and organizational management, fundraising, and most difficult for me, because I strive for excellence and integrity, being accused of wrongdoing [in 2014 a former KST employee sued the organization and accused Solomon of a financial conflict of interest] and not being able to defend myself at the advice of our lawyers

 

Were there things you wanted to do but hadn’t yet realized?

I always wanted to do more literary programming, family programming, and more live international music. There were also other artists I wanted to present but for whatever reason couldn’t and we never realized a capital campaign for a planned redesign and renovation of the theater facility.

 

What will you miss the most?

I have friends in the organization that I will miss talking and joking with each day and most of all I will miss the conversations with the artists about what they are working on and thinking about. 

 

KST continues its search for Solomon’s replacement that they hope to name by early 2020. As for what’s next for the 44-year-old Solomon, she says she and her family will remain in Pittsburgh and that she is looking forward to having time for other creative endeavors such as photography, writing and cooking as well as spending more time with her husband Jeremy and daughter Mira. 

 

DANCING LIGHTS 

TV’s America’s Got Talent semi-finalists Lightwire Theater return to Downtown’s Byham Theater on Saturday, November 30 with their family-friendly holiday show A Very Electric Christmas. Part of the
Cohen & Grigsby TRUST PRESENTS Series the hourlong production, set to timeless holiday hits by Nat King Cole, Mariah Carey and Tchaikovsky, follows the story of a young bird named Max and his family as they begin their journey south for the winter. When Max gets blown off course and ends up at the North Pole where he meets Nutcracker toy soldiers, caroling worms, performing poinsettias and an evil Rat King on his journey back to his family. Founded by Ian Carney and Corbin Popp, two former dancers with Twyla Tharp’s Broadway hit Movin’ Out, Lightwire is internationally recognized for their electroluminescent artistry performing in complete darkness, making for a truly illuminating experience. Shows 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Tickets $20-35; trustarts.org or (412) 456-6666.

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