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North Hills Monthly

Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts Seeks to Unite Divided World

Jul 31, 2018 02:19PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Cão sem Plumas

The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts kicks off on Friday, Sept. 21 and lasts through Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018. We spoke with its producer, Scott Shiller, who also serves as vice president of artistic planning for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, about this exciting, upcoming eight-week event.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): In a nutshell, what exactly is the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts?

Scott Shiller (Shiller): The Festival of Firsts features 30 companies from over 20 countries whose works—more than 500+ performances—are created by renowned, globally minded artists. It will feature a full range of arts disciplines including theater, dance, music, visual arts and pieces that defy category, and take place in both traditional and unexpected spaces.

NHM: Why is it called the International Festival of Firsts?

Shiller: Over the course of eight weeks this fall, Pittsburgh’s Cultural District will become a hub of United States, North American, and world premieres. By presenting this festival, the Cultural Trust continues our tradition of shaping the future of American arts through new work, new forms and new audiences. Our commitment to fostering original theatre, dance and visual arts reflects our community and gives voice to a variety of storytellers. These never-before-seen stories give our guests a different lens though which to view our world.

NHM: Why do you think people will be drawn to this festival?

Shiller: There is nothing more beautiful than when the house lights go down, and the stage lights go up. This festival is about connecting and inspiring our community. In that moment when you catch an actor’s eye, you feel it. That sense of connection, anticipation, magic…when anything can happen. It’s where the passion of the artist ignites the curiosity of a guest. Hearts pound, laughter roars, tears well and minds are changed. You become something larger than yourself; you become part of the story.

NHM: Have there been other such festivals here?

Shiller: The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has presented three Festivals of Firsts in the past, in October 2004, October 2008, and in September/October 2013.

NHM: What will make this year’s event different?

Shiller: The breadth of world-class entertainment that is included in this year’s festival spans everything from Broadway’s biggest hits and must-see world premieres, to innovative theater and casual cabaret, to education excellence and inspiring events. The festival welcomes the community with diverse programming from around the world that is easy to access and hard to resist.

NHM: How many countries will be represented, and are any of the artists local?

Shiller: The festival will feature works by 30 companies and artists from over 20 countries. This includes  Quantum Theater’s world premiere of Chatterton, among others. Continuing Pittsburgh’s long-standing history of artistic, technological innovation, creative and groundbreaking firsts, this year’s festival features more locally based premieres and collaborative works by Pittsburgh presenting arts organizations, including Quantum Theatre and Bricolage Production Company.

NHM: Can you give us a few examples of performances?

Shiller: Of course. Karoo Moose–No Fathers is presented by the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town, and takes place in a remote and impoverished village in Karoo, South Africa, where the inhabitants are struggling to survive. A young girl kills a moose, but what is the moose doing there and how did it get there? The multi award-winning story about the disintegration of the family unit and the violation of innocence endured by so many South African children is the focus of the play, which cleverly and creatively combines African story-telling and magical realism.

Deborah Colker Dance, from Rio de Janeiro, will present Cão sem Plumas, or Dog Without Feathers, set in the beautiful yet impoverished Capibaribe River region in Brazil. The company has received critical acclaim and has redefined the rules for what can be done in dance. The work takes inspiration from a poem by Brazilian writer João Cabral de Melo Neto and features projections by Cláudio Assis.

NONOTAK by Noemi Schipfer & Takami Nakamoto is made up of light and sound installations that create an ethereal, immersive and dreamlike environment meant to envelop the viewer. 

Beyond is an immersive audiovisual installation by Barcelona-based research studio Playmodes that explores relationships between space, time and perception. A geometrical architecture transforms space into a container for the abstract language of light and sound.

NHM: What did it take to pull this event together? 

Shiller: Over the last 18 months, the curatorial team behind the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts has traveled the globe searching for the greatest and grandest of new works to bring to the city of Pittsburgh. Quantum Theatre’s Artistic Director, Karla Boos, who served as guest curator for the festival, joined our team of 20 curators and programmers. 

NHM: What was the impetus behind the event?

Shiller: Our goal with this edition of the festival is to reflect the world through unique artists’ voices, and we are honored to present their extraordinary works as part of the Cultural Trust’s breadth of programming. Since the last Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts, our team has learned that artists in the U.S. are working with global partners on the cutting edge of the visual and performing arts, and we are excited to explore these intersections over the course of this international survey. We also wanted to make sure that the 20 countries that are featured in the festival represented a deliberate reflection of work being created in South America, the Caribbean, Africa, India and Asia.

NHM: Will there be something for everybody at this festival, regardless of age or interest?

Shiller: With more than 500 performances, there is truly something for everyone. Date night, girls’ night out, bring the kids—there is even something for your abuela!

NHM: How are tickets sold—individually, or are there package options?

Shiller: Come to as many performances as you like. Tickets are sold separately for each show. Pick one or two or—for the truly daring arts lover—see them all and brag to your friends for years to come. Some of our most exciting engagements are completely free—you just have to reserve tickets in advance.

NHM: What is the main message you’d like to get across about this festival?

Shiller: As artists use their work to connect people across physical borders and around the globe, the breadth of this festival’s programing will demonstrate that we all speak the same language; the language of art, which is universal. Ultimately, we hope that everyone will recognize and relate to the stories we are bringing, but experience those stories in new ways and see the stories through a different lens. In the end, this festival celebrates that there is more that unites us then divides us.

For festival information and tickets, visit, call 412-456-6666 or visit the Theater Square Box Office at 655 Penn Avenue.