Two school buses are parked outside Frick International Studies Academy, in Oakland, but it's not time for a middle-school field trip. Instead, each bus is nearly filled with University of Pittsburgh students (including this reporter) dressed in their Saturday-night best for a ride Downtown to the Byham Theater, where they'll see the sold-out Urban Bush Women/Compagnie Jant-Bi dance performance.
That's right: 50-odd college kids going to the theater on a Saturday night. No frat parties. No half-kicked kegs. Just a taste of culture for the staggeringly low price of nothing, courtesy of Pitt Arts.
"The university objective is getting students out of Oakland, meeting new people, creating new bonds around the arts," said Pitt Arts director Annabelle Clippinger. "They get educational experience in the classroom, but we offer them cultural experiences. The students become more complete, civilized, whole people."
Pitt Arts lives in four playbill-scattered rooms on the ninth floor of the William Pitt Student Union -- and in the city's museums, theaters and art galleries. The program, born in 1997 on a budget of barely $5,000, was conceived simply to get students to shows. It's grown in scope since then. Besides the free events, there's also a discount-ticket program (more than 9,000 sold annually), and "Arts Encounters" that include a chance to meet the artists. "We'll share a meal with them or talk to them afterward," says Clippinger.
Students register online or at the office for tickets, which tend to vanish quickly. With an e-mail list of more than 6,000, the number of students getting out of Oakland and into theater seats has surged. This season alone, 315 Pitt Arts students saw Pittsburgh Opera's Madama Butterfly, and 130 saw Amadeus at Pittsburgh Public Theater. This academic year, Pitt Arts will bring students to more than 100 local events.
Before the Urban Bushwomen/Compagnie Jant-Bi show, near the Byham's coat-check, students sit against the walls in clusters with plates of pasta and Greek salad carefully balanced on their knees, awaiting a pre-show program.
"I've been feeling uncultured lately and this definitely helps me out," says student Jake Kemper, standing next to Jessica Bishop. "Plus, she dragged me."
"No, he was very willing," Bishop corrects him.
Paul Organisak, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust vice president of programming, sees Pitt Arts cultivating a coveted demographic.
"Pitt Arts provides the context for experiencing these cultural events," he says. "It's developing audiences for the future."
Upon hearing the beat of West African drums, the students quickly finish dinner and relocate to the lobby, where they again sit in clusters to watch the pre-show percussion performance.
Nomi Kornfeld nods along as older patrons begin to file in. Hustling through the crowd of twentysomethings, Pitt Arts assistant director Linnea Glick alerts them that, no, it's not the best idea to sit on the floor as the lobby fills up.
But Kornfeld doesn't seem to mind. "Pitt Arts brings a level of cultural entertainment and ideas to our party-oriented culture. I'm just happy to be here."