Fountain of Talk Art, Philosophy, History and More Up for Discussion at First Pittsburgh Humanities Festival

By Carpenter, Mackenzie | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 22, 2015 | Go to article overview

Fountain of Talk Art, Philosophy, History and More Up for Discussion at First Pittsburgh Humanities Festival


Carpenter, Mackenzie, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


From George Takei of "Star Trek" fame to indie filmmaking legend John Sayles to "Rap Lyrics on Trial" and Ronald Reagan: Everything is up for discussion at the four-day Pittsburgh Humanities Festival beginning Thursday in the Cultural District.

The ambitious, possibly groundbreaking conference on the humanities - dubbed "Smart Talk About Stuff That Matters" - is sponsored by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Humanities Center at Carnegie Mellon University, whose director, David Shumway, came up with the idea several years ago.

Inspired by the success of the Chicago Humanities Festival - the other big one is in Adeleide, Australia - Mr. Shumway, professor of literary and cultural studies at CMU and author of a book on the filmmaker Sayles, approached the Cultural Trust. He noted that Chicago's festival has, for 25 years, been a huge draw. More than 100 separate events were scheduled for Chicago's 2014 festival, which brought names such as Lena Dunham, Patti Smith, Renee Fleming and Colm Toibin.

While Pittsburgh's version may not enjoy the same bench strength - yet - "both Chicago and Pittsburgh have increasing numbers of educated, culturally active citizens," Mr. Shumway said, "and a humanities festival seemed to me to be a way to celebrate the changes in our city, and to create the conditions for our continued growth as a center for innovation and culture."

Already, Mr. Takei's appearance is stirring interest among those who might not ordinarily be inclined to attend anything evoking the ivory tower. "People are coming out of the woodwork for this. It's huge," said Paul Organisak, the Cultural Trust's vice president of programming, of the appearance by Mr. Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu, the helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise on the original "Star Trek" television series in the 1960s and in subsequent films.

The 77-year-old actor-director/gay activist/social-media maven will be addressing the conference on its last day, at 7 p.m. next Sunday at the Byham Theater. Mr. Takei, who has 8 million "likes" on his Facebook page, is considered - at least by some blogwatchers - to be the most influential person on Facebook.

"We were looking for a closing event that was both exciting, entertaining, popular with a strong story to tell," added Mr. Organisak. "When you listen to [Mr. Takei's] life story, from living in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, through his work fighting for gay marriage, he's a perfect wrap-up for a festival that's very substantial."

Mr. Shumway said he wanted to find a new way of thinking about an age-old discipline that encompasses art, philosophy, literature, history, languages - but which has also struggled for relevance in higher education as job-seeking students increasingly opt toward the sciences, technology and engineering. …

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