Category Archives: interview
The March 2017 Edition of Pennsylvania Bridges – “Helping Hearts” – is now available online & in print.
Depressed areas create despair for residents and youth alike, and a sense that opportunity exists elsewhere. But Terry Vassar of Brownsville, Pennsylvania, decided that he could make it where he lives, and raise others up in the process, through his 180° Empowerment Center, a 501.3c organization headquartered in Brownsville.
Vassar, proud father of five children and a Windows R Us franchise owner, explains the inspiration for the Center’s name: “180 is about making a complete turn-around. Anytime anyone came to Jesus, they would have their life turned around 180 degrees.”
From high school graduation until about age 28, Vassar said that while he had a good family, “…some of us find love in different places, and I found mine in drugs and street life. But at 28, I realized I had no life, and went back to school,” adding that once he rededicated his life to Christ, he didn’t need to go to rehab to quit his habits.
After completing a degree in Ministerial Studies from Shiloh Bible Institute, Vassar worked as a telemarketer where he “ . . . learned how to be a communicator and have people skills,” which benefitted him though managerial and mortgage broker jobs, and would later help bring the Center to the Brownsville community.
Vassar’s experiences on the street, along with personal development through hard work, seeded the idea for 180° Empowerment Center in 2007. However, it took time to build connections with the school district, and create a location, at 165 Market Street in Brownsville. Once in place, he moved ahead with his vision, working with Brownsville Area School District Superintendent Dr. Philip Savini, Jr., Ph. D, to bring the Center’s outreach programs to the district, starting in December of this year.
The Center provides English, math, and Spanish tutoring for 7-12 grades, along with PSSA, SAT, and ACT preparation. In addition, grief counseling, career awareness, student aid workshops, and suicide awareness and prevention programs are available to the area students, or anyone in need.
On request, life development courses and credit counseling are also available.
California University interns from the Department of TRIO and the Hispanic Student Association have stepped in to volunteer their tutoring skills. Lisa Driscoll from the Department of TRIO and Academic Services facilitates the relationship between California University and the Center.
“She’s awesome and it’s been a great partnership. She was instrumental in getting everything in line to start in December,” Vassar said of Driscoll.
Furthering technical literacy skills for Brownsville school district students is Fab Lab, which as Vassar calls “A new, 21st century way of doing design.”
Fab Lab, instructed by Brandon Prentice from Intermediate Unit 1, features classes in Laser Cutting, 3D Printing for Beginners, and a Vinyl Sticker Tutorial. While working through these classes, students learn about design software and 3D modeling to produce projects for the individual class instructions. New Fab Lab classes will form in early 2017.
Vassar’s message for the area is a positive one: “I believe that people in the Mon Valley area, because of the depression, believe they can’t do it here. But by the grace of God, I am. I want kids to be able to duplicate what I’ve done. I want kids to find out what they love to do, and work on developing their strengths.”
Those wishing to donate and/or participate: 180degreesempowerment.com/about, and click on “Lend a Helping Hand.”
Photos: (top) Students show off self portraits made during Fab Lab (bottom) Students participated in a basketball clinic offered by the Center at Brownsville Area High School this past August. Future clinics are planned.
Story by Keren Lee Dreyer for Pennsylvania Bridges
For over twenty years, the California University Theater Department and Community have teamed up for a Holiday production. What was once offered as the Nutcracker Ballet at this time of year, changed when the school’s ballet program shifted to a more inclusive musical theater.
For five years, A Christmas Carol was the show, then three years, A Miracle on 34th Street, took the stage.
“There’s not a lot of high quality holiday musicals out there as securing the rights are near impossible,” says the Musical Theatre Department head and Director, Michele Pagen, PhD. “Then Harry Connick, Jr. created the wonderful song, ‘The Happy Elf.’”
The song was such a hit, it inspired an animated special under the same name by Film Roman, an IDT Entertainment company, the same animation company known for producing The Simpsons. The special inspired an additional 19 songs that came on an accompanying CD. Following the success of the animated special, Andrew Fishman reworked the book, with music and lyrics by Connick who had added five new songs for the musical.
The story centers on Eubie the Elf and his friends Hamm and Gilda. While sorting through Santa’s naughty and nice list, Eubie notices an overwhelming amount of kids on the naughty list, all from Bluesville. He takes it upon himself to visit Bluesville and introduce them to the spirit of Christmas. Unfortunately, Eubie’s nemesis, Norbert finds out and plans to undermine his efforts for his own selfish reasons.
I was fortunate to be permitted to a rehearsal at Steele Hall, where the performance will also take place, by Dr. Pagen. The cast is huge and the complexity of blocking and choreography is a massive undertaking.
“We have a cast of 58, ages ranging from 6 to 56,” Michelle stated. “I want every single one of them to have a part, not merely to be stage dressing. Then there’s the challenge of coordinating schedules for so many players.”
Dr. Pagen holds auditions on the same day for all roles and casts one at a time in one day. Jesh Myers jumped right out for the lead role of Eubie. “Jesh shares most of the characteristics of Eubie, particularly when he began to sing,” Dr. Pagen says.
As I watched rehearsals, all of the actors, dancers and singers were wonderful. The music, superb. A few stood out and I decided to sit down and talk briefly with them so you know who they are when you head out to watch this wonderful production, Pennsylvania Bridges readers.
Jeshua “Jesh” Myers (Eubie the Elf). Jesh, pictured top right, began singing at age three. His mother had an all children’s choir. He is a sophomore Theater Major and gets super excited about the audition process. It’s his first major role in college, his last was in High School. His biggest challenge is finding a balance between school work and dedicating time to his character. Jesh is working hard to find a balance in Eubie’s character also. He wants him to be excited and animated but not too over the top. I found his comment about auditions interesting as most actors dread them. His answer was very inspiring.
“It’s what I want to do as a career and the audition process is part of that, so I want to do my best.” Jesh continued, “I know if I do my best, I feel like whatever I end up with, I earned.”
Mark Barrett (Hamm the Elf). Mark is a junior Theater Major. He has reveled in the past month and a half of rehearsals. The role of being an elf has inspired Mark’s imagination to wander and he enjoys the role of being Eubie’s best friend. It’s the human element of friendship, interwoven with the imaginative aspects of the character that Mark is enjoying. He too has found the most challenging part of the production finding balance between school work and character development time. Playing Hamm however, has been a joy.
“Hamm is mostly kind of child-like,” Mark says. “He’s innocent and joyful and how they interact with each other is like letting their inner-child out.”
Kayla Grimm (Gilda the Elf). Kayla is a junior Theater Major. She started in theater at age 5. Not entirely sure her future was headed for theater, Kayla also had a major interest in science. Eventually, she settled on theater. I have to take an editorial moment and say, I absolutely adored her character. From the moment she comes on stage, every subtle nuance from the way she shuffles on her tip-toes to her sheepish mannerisms when talking with Eubie, just great stuff. When we sat down to talk, I was taken aback slightly that her voice wasn’t the high pitched Gilda voice I had heard onstage.
“I really love doing voices,” Kayla explained. “Every character I play, I create a voice for them. For Gilda, she’s very, very happy person and full of energy, especially when she’s around Eubie.”
Jordan Brooks (Norbert the Elf). Jordan is a Cal U Alumni. A professional actor, he is currently on break from the Missoula Children’s Theater and will resume productions in January of 2017. Jordan was a late comer to the theatrical field. It wasn’t until middle school that he developed his love for theater and never looked back. His character, Norbert, is the play’s heavy. He is always scheming and a complete heel. I love his performance, possibly my favorite character. To sit and talk with him after watching him on stage, again, a bit surprising. He is the nicest, most charismatic person you could meet. You can tell in his quote when I asked what his motivation was for coming back as an alumni.
“I’m so happy the Holiday Show is community based and the public is welcome,” says Jordan. “That’s really what the Christmas spirit is all about, everyone coming together.”
One final aspect of the play I would like to cover, the costumes. Imagine if you can, prepping 58 costumes for people of varying shapes and sizes. That enormous task is being executed by the Costume Shop Manager, Joni Farquhar. Typically, Joni works with a designer to help with the costumes, but not for this production, she is the designer as well. Her walls are lined with various costumes, designed specifically for the Elves’ various jobs. As pictured, this is the shirt for the tailor elf. Each elf has the smallest details and touches worked out by Joni. Measuring tape trim with a spool of thread pocket emblem, just by looking at the costume, one can determine the elf’s job in the North Pole. I won’t share more, you have to come and see the rest of Joni’s wonderful creations for yourself, live and in person.
“The Happy Elf” will be performed at 7 p.m. Dec. 8-10, with matinees at 2 p.m. Dec. 10 and 11. All shows are in Cal U’s Steele Hall Mainstage Theatre. Performances are open to the public.
Ticket price is $12 for adults, seniors and children. Cal U students with valid CalCards pay 50 cents, plus a $5 deposit that is refunded at the show.
Main Campus – Steele Hall
816 Third Street
Room: Steele Hall–Mainstage Theatre
Name: Steele Hall Box Office
Story by Tomato Elf, Fred Terling, for Pennsylvania Bridges
There’s a lot of great local music. As a reporter and music enthusiast, I’ve been fortunate enough to report on a few bands that prove the best music isn’t necessarily being generated out of studio music machines. Nor does the local flavor include bands mass replicated by the machine based on what’s currently hot on the Billboard Top Twenty. They write their own songs and play their own instruments.
This month, I sat down with Zosia West, the front woman for Echoes Never Lie. They are a metal band, yes a female lead in a metal band. The band includes Mike Beaver on Drums, Jason “Sledgehammer” Iampietro on lead guitar and John Ploskina on bass. Ploskina is the newest addition to the band, only being a member of the metal quartet for six months.
“I guess we’re kind of a different genre, sort of more lite metal or performance metal, if there is such a thing. If not, I just invented it!” Zosia laughs.
Echoes Never Lie formed four years ago. Zosia had just left the band River Runs Scarlet and ENL was looking for a lead vocalist. They previously produced a demo CD, but nothing on the scale of the soon to be released EP. It has taken a year of fundraising and production to get it finally finished.
“There was a lot of back and forth in the creative process. There’s gutting and rebuilding, then gutting it again,” Zosia remarks. “We’re all pretty proud of what we’ve come up with.”
ENL has toured out of state to venues in Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia. Locally, they have played The Alter Bar and Hard Rock Café (among other venues) in Pittsburgh and The Mainstage Theater in California, Pennsylvania.
I’ve seen ENL a few times and no matter the size of the venue or who is headlining, they have the largest turnout and most rabid fans. They come out of the gate like a hurricane and fans swarm the stage like metal minions to rock out at the beckon call of front woman, Zosia West’s summon.
Dancing around the stage like a Little Red Riding Hood succubus, West’s vocal growls bounced manically with her strong singing voice. The band crushes with lead guitar, bass and drums all culminating with a stage presence that looks like something I would see on a much larger stage and venue.
I asked Zosia where the stage Zoey comes from as she is very different from her off stage persona.
“On stage Zoey is someone I aspire to be. She is a super hero type who can’t be stopped and commands the crowd,” West says. “I mean, everyday we’re not that. I’m sitting here right now in my scrubs with my dog.”
So how does one become a screaming to operatic performance metal front woman? Zosia attended Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera for fourteen years studying opera. After graduation, she attended Point Park College for musical theater with minors in acting and dance. Her current fitness regimen includes Crossfit, 4 days a week of weight training, voice lessons, piano and pole.
For her immediate future, she plans to keep performing and promoting the EP. In March of 2017, she will begin filming as the lead in the independent feature film, Dead Edit. If all goes well, Zosia will one day realize her dream of following on the path of idol Jared Leto.
“I love that he does very odd, juicy acting roles and then gets to go on tour with his band,” Zosia echoes. (Editor’s Note: Pun intended.)
You can find out more about Echoes Never Lie and listen to their three cut EP at: www.reverbnation.com/echoesneverlie/songs.
Story by Fred Terling, Lead Tomato, for Pennsylvania Bridges
Photo of Zosia West by Ron Short