Martin School opens season with Squonk Opera

Lady Pneumatica

JOHNSON CITY – A half-dozen musicians on instruments as typical as electric bass and keyboards and as unusual as bagpipes and vertical accordion gyrate at the base of a 40-foot steam-breathing Lady Pneumatica. Her giant head is crowned by a wind turbine and mane of sun-colored sails. Her inflatable blue arms rise and fall as cannon drums shoot smoke rings and a labyrinth of air-puffed tentacles toward the audience. Between musical riffs, performers inflate like blowfish and musically activate head tubes that wave in the breeze.

Squonk Opera’s “Pneumatica” is a 30-minute outdoor production – all powered by air, vortex fans and blowers and driven by original live music.  The Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at East Tennessee State University has chosen to start its fall season with this soaring Seussian spectacle as a part of ETSU PRIDE events. Five free 30-minute shows will lift off Friday, Aug. 28, at 4 and 7 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 29, at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., and each will be followed by a talkback with the creators and performers.

“We saw a performance of Squonk Opera several years ago during a meeting, and I’ve wanted to book them since,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of the Mary B. Martin School. “We wanted something a little wild, crazy and fun, as well as an outdoor event, to kick off fall semester and to share with the community. This will be a blast.”

“Time Out New York” called Squonk “a blazingly unique spectacle,” while “USA Today” dubbed them “Surreal. Poetic.” “The New York Times” reviewer Ben Brantley found their family-friendly mélange of music and madness, “ingenious, hallucinatory, hypnotic … a place where squares and hipsters alike can seek refuge.”

Although the Squonk has “opera” in its moniker, their shows are not opera in the traditional sense. “We considered ourselves an opera company of sorts, back in the beginning, because we combine all of the art forms in much the same way that “real” opera does,” says co-artistic director Jackie Dempsey. “This latest show, “Pneumatica,” has been a real joy to create. It’s our very first show in 22 years that is purely instrumental … without a vocalist.”

The process of mounting this production is as super-sized as the show itself. “Pneumatica,” which is the Greek word for “air,” was inspired by a 2,000-year-old work by Heron of Alexandria, about the first person to use steam to power automated machinery. Co-founders and artistic directors Steve O’Hearn and Dempsey and their cadre of engineers, technicians and designers took about a year to create the pneumatic mayhem in their spacious rural Pittsburgh, Pa., barn, says O’Hearn. They spent another year seeking grants to support the project.

“A lot of times, 20 or 30 people will be participating in the creation,” says O’Hearn, an industrial engineer who designs the Squonk sets. “In general, Jackie writes the music and I design the show. We kind of bounce ideas back and forth. So, I’ll do storyboards of ideas for scenes and she’ll come up with pieces of music, and she works with the band members and I work with our technicians and sound designer and lighting designers.”

In their 20-plus years together, Squonk Opera creations have included “Mayhem and Majesty,” “Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk,” “Rodeo Smackdown,” “Squonk Opera’s Inferno” and “Night of the Living Dead: The Opera.” These endeavors have been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (six times) and the Jim Henson Foundation, among other grant funders.

“One of our first shows was in a junkyard. In fact that was the inspiration for all of our outdoor shows,” O’Hearn says. “We had crane operators that were on headsets doing choreographed cranes and we made terraces out of the crushed car cubes … We had big dancing machines, and the sound of the junkyards and the machines were all a part of the concert, and, of course, it was very radically different and really inspiring and so different from going to a concert hall or a theater.

“We took advantage of the smells, the oil and mud. People brought lawn chairs and coolers, and it was like going to a baseball game or something – which is the kind of feeling we want with our shows,” O’Hearn adds.

O’Hearn and Dempsey love the freedom and spontaneity of an outdoor arena. “We love the challenge of doing outdoor work,” he says. “You’re always worried about weather. It’s like being on a sailing ship. You’re always looking toward the horizon to see if the dark clouds are coming.

“But it’s so thrilling. When it works it’s absolutely magical in a way that a theater or a concert hall can never be. I mean the audience is unified in spirit and enjoying these things that make the community, which is really glorious when it works,” said O’Hearn.

“You just have to come and be open-minded,” Dempsey says, “and have an amazing time.”

Since “Pneumatica” will be performed in Johnson City’s Founders Park, on State of Franklin Road near downtown, audience members are encouraged to bring lawn chairs, blankets and refreshments, DeAngelis says, as well as be prepared to be “squonked” by an air-puffed tentacle or two.

For information about the event or ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call 423-439-TKTS (8587) or visit

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