By Emerson Andrews
Pittsburgh Current Intern
One of the most original acts to ever come out of Pittsburgh will be making a return to the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta.
Squonk, founded by Steve O’Hearn and Jackie Dempsey more than 20 years ago, is now an internationally touring troupe, but right here in their hometown is where they will premiere its new show, Hand to Hand.
According to O’Hearn, the idea behind Hand to Hand began to germinate shortly after the 2016 election. This is not unusual, as most of Squonk’s performances are a two-to-three-year process of storyboarding, grant applications and other processes that are necessary for a nonprofit.
Squonk, originally called Squonk Opera, is a fascinating blend of musicians, artists, designers, and other creatives coming together to put on large outdoor spectacles for public consumption. The shows often involve large props or set pieces that the musicians interact with in various ways.
O’Hearn, who specializes in the visual arts, is quick to credit the members of their group who manage those props and set pieces. “It’s really a ten-person ensemble when we’re doing the show,” he says.
This time around, the show will feature two hands standing 25 feet tall, capable of being moved with a complicated rigging system. The group began working on the puppets about six months ahead of the performance, and adjustments to the rigging have been a continual process, even in the final stages of rehearsal.
“One of the things we’re doing at the end of the show, we’re going to invite audience members up,” says O’Hearn. He hopes audience members will have fun working with the puppets themselves, which have been built with safety measures in mind for just that purpose.
Besides the interactivity of people working with their hands to create movement, O’Hearn and Dempsey want to convey the idea of power with the giant hands. In total, there are about seven unique themes and ideas the group decided to play with, both in the movement of the puppets and throughout the different musical movements Dempsey has composed.
O’Hearn says those ideas and themes are still entirely up to audience interpretation. “We think it’s a more engaging activity for an audience when they have to create or invent their own meaning,” he says. The group also prefers a non-narrative setting where they perform as themselves, rather than pretending to be characters in a story.
The process of brainstorming and deciding on ideas is another reason the shows are years in the making. “We try a lot of ideas that don’t work,” O’Hearn says. “You have to be very generous to yourself in terms of failing as you allow yourself to go through it. You don’t get good ideas without going through bad ideas.”
Some may be most familiar with Squonk’s work from competing on season six of NBC’s America’s Got Talent. Squonk made it all the way to the top 48, reaching a live audience of 14 million viewers. O’Hearn believes the group does its best work in a festival setting such as the Regatta.
“We have a strong instinct that art should not be about proving you’re more sophisticated than the guy next to you,” he says. “People should walk away having had a good time in a group.”
In fact, the “opera” part of their original name was inspired not by European-style opera, but by Chinese opera, which O’Hearn says is much more of a spectator event. He likes the outdoor festival setting for its openness and interactivity between audience members, rather than darkened concert halls where people are expected to sit in silence and isolation.
Though they’ve since dropped the “opera” from their name, that spectator event is still very much their aim as a group. In today’s age where it’s far more usual for people to remain in their own bubble, O’Hearn believes it’s an accomplishment to bring people out into a public space to experience something together.
Though Hand to Hand is a show sponsored by groups in multiple cities, its first performances will occur over all three days of the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta, which the group couldn’t be happier about.
As O’Hearn says, “We’re thrilled to be bringing a new show home.”
Squonk’s Hand to Hand will debut at the EQT Three Rivers Regatta Aug. 2-4. squonkopera.org/