Conversation with Jackie Dempsey

This Pittsburgh native is a co-artistic director, composer, pianist, and accordionist for Squonk Opera, the performance group that is just as wacky as its name implies. Since she founded it fifteen years ago with co-artistic director Steve O'Hearn, they've performed in more than 200 venues across the United States. This month she'll be in Charlotte as part of the Put Your Hometown's Name Here: The Opera series, in which the performance will incorporate bits and pieces of Charlotte's culture and history. And with this as their first performance this far south, Dempsey doesn't doubt they'll have plenty to work with in those departments.


Can you elaborate on what exactly Squonk Opera is?

That's the hardest question. We're a theater troupe. Basically we're a band with a lot of visual spectacle going on on-stage. There are a lot of multimedia elements to it. We consider ourselves an opera company because we combine all the art elements the way that real opera does and we put the “Squonk” in front because it's ridiculous in a different way than real opera.

How did you and Steve O'Hearn begin doing Squonk Opera?

Steve and I started working together in 1992. He comes from a visual art background and I come from a music background and we just started putting stuff together and ended up wanting to do bigger and bigger productions. We didn't have any theatrical background, so we sort of felt our way as we went in, creating our own style of theater based on music and visual arts combined.

How long have you been doing the Put Your Hometown's Name Here: The Opera series?

We've been doing it for about two and a half years. This is the seventh or eighth different production that we've made over the course of our history, and for this show we wanted to work more with the people in the towns where we actually perform. Charlotte will be the twelfth city that
we've done.

Do you have any favorites among the cities that you've done so far?

I bet if you asked everyone in the group they'd have a different answer. Pittsburgh was my absolute favorite because it's my hometown and it was a totally different experience than going out of town. I think one of the more interesting places was Baltimore. It was very interesting doing the interviews with all the people there because a lot of people talked about the negative aspects of living in Baltimore like the violence and the crime and the drugs. But the passion they had for their city was clear because in spite of all of the bad things, they said they would never leave, which I thought was a great testament to what a wonderful city Baltimore is and the potential that it has.

How long will you spend in Charlotte preparing for the performance here?

I came down last month for a planning meeting where I met several of the people who will be involved in the project. We'll come back near the end of October and we'll be there for about a week and we'll do all the interviews, and I'll work with the dance groups and we'll shoot video of the town and gather historical photographs and video of more recent history. Then we'll come home to Pittsburgh and have about three weeks to do all of the preproduction in terms of putting it all together, editing the video.  

Is there already anything you can see that will be unique about Charlotte?

One way it's different than all of the cities we've done so far is that it's the farthest south.  I'm sure that will add a different flavor to it. There are certainly different aspects that will make it different from the Northern cities. It will be interesting to talk to people and hear about how Charlotte has changed over the years, and it seems to have changed a lot. It seems to be a really thriving city. I couldn't believe all the growth and all the buildings going up everywhere. It seems like it's really up and coming.

How did you choose Charlotte?

Charlotte chose us. We do a show wherever anyone would like us to do a show.

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