MAY 26, 2019
Seeking escapism, met with metal detectors
Pittsburgh Public Theater implements airport-style security measures following recent shootings
By Lissa Brennan // Illustration by whitney olson
In Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a sequel in homage to Ibsen’s classic, heroine Nora returns to the house she famously exited centuries before, door slamming shut behind her. The structure is the same one she left behind, but it’s no longer familiar. The world is different, the house is changed, and so is she when striding across its threshold.
Audiences returning to the Pittsburgh Public Theater for its recent run of Hnath’s Broadway hit also found themselves in an environment once well-known but now strange. Since the previous show’s closing, the Public became the latest entity compliant with the security measures instituted by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the overseers of the downtown Cultural District and owners of the O’Reilly Theater, which houses the Public.
Patrons in search of art, escapism, entertainment, and enlightenment found that the only way they could reach them was by submitting to a screening procedure more in keeping with what we might expect in airports or government facilities — a metal detector, a bag check, and a lengthy list of verboten items ranging from bottles of water to laptops.
“They are lock and step in terms of following the model,” Kevin C. Wilkes, the chief security officer of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, said about the measures instituted by the Public. Wilkes was largely responsible for the development of the current protocols now in place at the Byham Theater, the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, and Benedum Center. Shortly after the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in October, the Trust began to investigate procedures being instituted in arts facilities across the country to develop the model being used here.
“We did our due diligence,” Wilkes said. “We never like to be behind the curve, but like the opportunity to get ahead. We live in a post-9/11 era, and in the world that we live in, we need to be more proactive in terms of protective measures.”
In Pittsburgh, there’s likely more overlap on the rock-sports-Shakespeare Venn diagram than could be expected elsewhere.
“They’re not only a landlord, they’re a partner to us, so we tried to work with them in a way that we felt was most productive,” said Lou Castelli, the Public’s managing director. “For the first go at it, we let them steer and drive because they knew how it had rolled out in the other venues — the agreement being, let’s go through with this as a trial run and then tweak; let’s take into account what’s different about the space the audience and the theater in general.”
One thing this meant was a training process for the screeners that would be considerate of the needs and feelings of a theater audience. “They might not be the typical person coming to a hockey game or rock concert,” Wilkes said, although in Pittsburgh there’s likely more overlap on the rock-sports-Shakespeare Venn diagram than could be expected elsewhere. While the workers in charge of security are not Trust employees — they’re temps contracted from a security service — training to the Trust’s specifications is mandatory.
“We make sure they’re treating all audience members with special care and service,” Wilkes said. “There’s been a little pushback — that’s to be expected — but overwhelmingly the feedback has been very positive. Patrons have been thanking our screeners for making sure they’re safe.”
That theater audiences are more delicate than fans of slap shots and guitar solos might seem a little precious. But it’s practical to anticipate resistance to the new and unfamiliar, particularly in a region where we give directions using buildings that haven’t contributed to our skyline for decades as landmarks.
While we might believe with fervent optimism that theater can change the world, realistically we might have to accept that the world can change theater.
“At their heart, they just object to the fact that it changes their experience and is an invasion of their privacy,” Castelli said. “As we’ve learned, if it’s unpleasant, it’s really unpleasant. There have only been a few people, [who responded this way], maybe three, but I think we’ve lost them as subscribers. We have people with very established routines — they go to Starbucks, they get their coffee, and they bring their coffee in here. They can’t do that anymore.” A large part of softening the blow is warning that it’s coming, and both the Trust and Public are utilizing emails, handbills in ticket envelopes, newsletters, and robocalls to prepare audiences for the screening process.
The audience experience at the Public is now reflective of that at other Trust properties, but diverges from comparable theater companies throughout the country. The Public is part of LORT, the League of Resident Theaters, which has 75 member organizations. One is Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, Rhode Island, which opted not to implement similar procedures.
“To walk into a place that you consider a second home and be met with metal detectors, wands, and other intimidating and sometimes scary safety practices doesn’t allow for that sense of belonging to really take root,” said Bradly Widener, Trinity’s front of house manager. “When you are subjected to a very obvious and intrusive screening process, there are natural walls that are built that aren’t conducive to building the trust and emotional safety that allow our patrons to truly enjoy and absorb the thought-provoking productions we present to them.”
Trinity Repertory is one of 20 theaters contacted for information on their security protocols; the remaining 19 declined to be interviewed for this story, stating that it did not apply to their facilities. It’s worth noting that none of these have a partnership that’s comparable to the one between the Public and the Trust. And while the Trust is making the rules, it’s also footing the bill — all costs connected with the new processes, from equipment to personnel, have been covered by the Trust.
While the Trust’s measures haven’t been universally well-received, most patrons found the protocol to be unobtrusive. “It was a little weird being screened going to see a play,” said Ali Roush, who frequently attends arts events in the city, “but the process was quick and non-invasive; a peek in my purse and a walk through the metal detector.” Hal B. Klein, also a repeat patron, was undisturbed by the action. “I found it pretty low-key. Someone asked me to take my keys and phone out of my pocket and hold them to my chest as I passed through a metal detector.”
The Public’s stage is now occupied by actors playing actors and a klezmer band in “Indecent,” Paula Vogel’s exploration of “God of Vengeance,” a play in Yiddish by Sholem Asch on the relationship between a prostitute and the daughter of a brothel owner. “Indecent,” focusing on art, love, and anti-Semitism through the exploration of a true story almost a century old, opened at the Public on Friday, April 26. On Saturday, April 27, four people were shot on the last day of Passover at Chabad of Poway synagogue in California, six months after the Tree of Life shooting, in which 11 people were slaughtered.
For those who regard environments created for experiencing art as sacred, these security measures are difficult. While we are surely savvy enough to understand it’s a dangerous world, we like to think of theaters, museums, and music halls as exempt, beyond reach. We imagine that it could never happen here, because we are patrons of the arts — we don’t do such things. But as we learn from one attack upon consecrated ground after another, we have to worry about people who are not us being in our spaces. While we might believe with fervent optimism that theater can change the world, realistically we might have to accept that the world can change theater.
“I think that this may be the new normal when it comes to any gathering of a large group of people,” Roush said.
Lissa Brennan is a Pittsburgh-based journalist, playwright, and actor. She is currently appearing onstage in Quantum Theatre’s “King Lear” at Carrie Furnace; editing “Hoard,” a play about PTSD in women to premiere at Off The Wall in Carnegie in 2020; and writing about Kim Gordon’s upcoming exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum.
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