Poetry, reminds Marushka Steele, Freeport Theatre Festival’s artistic director, is a distillation of human experience and emotion.
“Autumn is a time to reflect on that,” adds the Allegheny Township resident who founded the community theater with her husband, playwright-actor Rennick Steele, on their Westmoreland County property.
Autumn Sonata, a theatrical evening of poetry, music and dance in four parts, will honor that reflection, as well as the late Louisa Rockwell, an award-winning force in the regional performing arts community, and the brainchild for the Sonata program.
She debuted it there in 2007 and Sept. 28-30 will be the first time it has been presented since.
Rockwell, once based at Chatham University, Pittsburgh, devoted 30 years of her life to theater, dance, writing and teaching in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
Marushka Steele says she will be channeling her dear friend in this revisit to Autumn Sonata, an end-of-season fundraiser for theater projects, including an insulated roof designed to eventually pave the way for air conditioning.
Faithful to concept
“We miss her deeply. We will be absolutely faithful to her concept of a theatrical sonata, incorporating her conviction that the performing arts are interdisciplinary,” says Steele.
“Thus we are using music, performed by (veteran Alle-Kiski Valley artist) Joe Lege on the accordion, piano and violin, dramatic movement from one part to the next, dramatic orchestration of the poetry performed by poets and actors; and, of course, the written words, the poetry itself.”
The musical repertoire, expressing the mood of the poetry, spans the 20th century.
“Joe spreads the many moods of joy every day of his life. He carries that feeling with him wherever he goes,” says Steele.
“And we are thrilled to be working with Howard Bronder. We will be offering the work of three contemporary poets: Louisa Rockwell, Howard Bronder and Rennick Steele; as well as Frost, Dickinson, Kipling, Rilke and Dylan Thomas.”
Bronder of Natrona Heights, who has written seven books of poetry over 30 years, says he is proud to be invited to read.
“I have seen their productions over the years and am very impressed. I admire (the Steeles’) efforts to keep art and theater alive to feed your soul,” he says. “It’s been some time since I’ve read my poetry for an audience, and revisiting them after all these years, I realize that they are still relevant.”
The Point Park University journalism graduate, who also attended Pitt’s master program in poetry, is retired after 37 years as a copy editor, book editor and columnist for the Valley News Dispatch and
“You can trace my style to a diverse group of poets and writers, including the Beat poets like Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg and writers like Hemingway and Raymond Carver, who write like people talk, but leave a lot to the imagination,” he explains.
In keeping with the autumn tone to the show, a time of reflection and introspection, Steele asked Bronder to read his poems about Vietnam, World War I, Thomas Merton, (Tarentum’s) Evelyn Nesbit and the moment when he knew he wanted to be a poet.
Homage to Vietnam veterans
“I agreed with her because they are poems with emotional depth and an ironic sense of humor,” says Bronder, an Army Vietnam veteran whose “What’s In a Name,” which he will read, was selected last year for PBS/WQED’S “Vietnam Stories” website, in conjunction with Ken Burns’ award-winning documentary series “The Vietnam War.”
It was written in the 1997, suggested by a co-worker and Marine veteran Dave Anthony, when the portable Vietnam wall came to Tarentum. “He asked me to write a poem to honor all those names on the wall. It was one of the hardest and easiest poems I wrote,” explains Bronder.
The theater’s Footlight Gallery will feature what Steele refers to as “a photo curated response to the poetry of Louisa Rockwell,” presented by her husband, photographer Russell Rockwell of Florida. “I sent him several of her poems and he responded with photographs which he believes best expresses her poetry. His photography is poetry of another medium,” she says.
Steele issues this invitation: “Poetry is good for the soul! Come and be nourished!”
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.