They were a giggly bunch, last Tuesday night. Some older folks, some high school girls, a smattering of solo guests, but they all chuckled and guffawed with sugary enthusiasm. Maybe it was because they didn't really know what to expect. All they knew was that a man named Peter Reder would guide them through the Carnegie Museum, two hours after the doors had closed and the main lights were shut off. They had heard that Reder might mislead them. But what did he look like? What would he say, and where would they venture? The giggles were anxious.
"When I say follow me," said Reder, "I hope that you will, in fact, follow me." Reder is a small, bespectacled man with a clear pate and an ovular cranium. The London-based performance artist has a breathy, soothing voice, the kind kindergarten teachers use to read books to children. As the tour group followed him into the museum's shadowy corridors, he started to pontificate on plaster casts of African pygmies and the theories of cultural critic Walter Benjamin and his notion of the "Angel of History." The act sounded entirely unscripted -- only a long ad-lib about the museum and its ghosts.
Guided Tour, part of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, began and ended last week (Oct. 13-15) and sold out a month before most people had heard of it. Reder debuted his Guided Tour series at Somerset House, a fabled chateau in London. Originally titled Aide-memoire, the "postmodern" tour eventually became replicable: Reder has traveled around the world -- from Arizona to Singapore -- to find curious historical sites and invent his own stories. When PIFOF staffers saw Reder lead the tour at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, they invited him to perform his intimate one-man-show in Pittsburgh.
"I do like [Pittsburgh]," Reder commented a few weeks ago from his flat in London. "It's quite like Edinburgh, actually." He became particularly enamored of Andrew Carnegie, whose rags-to-riches-to-robber-baron-to-monument-builder story became a centerpiece in the Carnegie Museum's rendition of Guided Tour. Reder offered "artifacts" from Carnegie's life, mostly dubious photos and fragments. Finding a dwarfish access door in a whitewashed hallway, Reder insisted that Carnegie was actually very small, and that he wore top hats to accentuate his height.
The tour took a personal turn when the group was invited into the Section of Birds Office, a cluttered conference room that is typically locked. Reder switched on a slide-projector and said, "I thought I'd tell you a bit about my family ..." This sudden shift incurred even louder giggles, but Reder's family portraits, featuring a deceased father and eerie London backstreets, made for a moving aside.
The strangest visit was to the museum's dungeon-like basement, where a musty vestibule led to a kind of subterranean lab. Guests were startled by two glass cases, where a dead turtle was being skeletonized by writhing piles of pill-bugs.
"I thought it was important for you to see a skeleton being cleaned by bugs," Reder said, his voice still a silky hum. "The only reason I've brought you here is because it's the grossest thing I've ever seen."
And everyone burst into laughter.