Get Squonked with Jackie Dempsey

By Leslie Moore

Get Squonked with Jackie Dempsey

Squonk Opera: If the name conjures up a fun and unusual image, you’d be right on track. That’s exactly the type of feeling musician Jackie Dempsey and musician/visual artist Steve O’Hearn, creators of Squonk Opera, want you to experience when you attend one of their performances. Actually, “performance” is too tame a word to describe the wacky, original music, squeaks and honks, puffs of steam and 40 foot climb into the air by Lady Pneumatica that make up this year’s “Squonk” experience.

Jackie Dempsey and Steve O’Hearn created Squonk Opera 23 years ago, soon after Jackie finished graduate school, earning a Master of Arts in music. Jackie and Steve met when he was doing some small productions with another artist, but there was very little music in the shows. Of course, Jackie was interested in providing the music. The three started working together and soon realized they wanted a full band, with bass and drums, and started holding auditions. “We figured that if we played music that people could tap their toes to, that we could also present them with all sorts of wacky visuals with no storyline, and they would be okay with that. When people are enjoying music, they tend to be more open to what’s happening in front of them. And we love to surprise people with the unpredictability of the show.”

After a few different names, none of which stuck, they decided to call themselves Squonk Opera. “We call ourselves an opera because we combine all the arts like traditional opera,” Jackie explained. “Then, we put a funny word in front of it so people would know this was something different!” A new show is debuted every other year, each with its own unique name – the current show is called “Pneumatica.”

At first, Squonk Opera travelled around the country like most bands, doing shows in clubs and bars and art gallery basements with whatever props they could squeeze into one van. But soon they were making bigger productions, starting with a 1995 commission from City Theatre’s Marc Masterson to create “Night of the Living Dead: The Opera” based on the cult horror film from the ‘60s. By 1999, they had created five different multimedia shows, one of which was picked up by commercial producers in Toronto, which then led to an Off-Broadway run. The show received rave reviews including “ingenious, hallucinatory, hypnotic” from The New York Times and “surreal and poetic” from USA Today and was transferred to Broadway in 2000. Since then, the Squonkers have created six more original, multimedia spectacles. They have performed on three continents, in over 30 of the United States and even made it to the Top 48 on America’s Got Talent.

Today their productions are combined with educational activities developed by Steve, the science geek of the group, and taken into schools across the country. “Pneumatica,” the show coming to Georgetown County, combines a musical production guaranteed to entertain with a lesson on the science of air. “Steve loves researching and developing the science aspect of our shows.”

Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, her hometown, Jackie is understandably proud of the free concerts/workshops they do each year with Pittsburgh’s inner city youth, especially those kids that don’t have access to the arts in their schools. “It’s fun to use the intersection of art and science to excite the kids,” said Jackie. “Children’s programs are a little more hands on – I love seeing the reactions and the wheels starting to turn!

I asked Jackie about the process of developing a new show, and she told me, “It takes a while to map it out. There’s a lot of planning involved, and we have to raise the money – we’ll first build a model of the potential set to show funders. Then it takes nine months to a year to build the set, write the music and develop staging ideas.” A range of talents from musicians to engineers to graphic designers contribute ideas throughout the process of development.

Jackie was named after her father, Jack Dempsey, (no, not that one), and inherited her musical talent from her drummer dad. “My father was a drummer and a singer. In the ‘50s, he was leader of a band called Jack Dempsey and the Pastels – they all wore pastel zoot suits!” Jackie’s mom was the leader of the Pastels fan club, of course, and the couple will celebrate their 60th anniversary next month. They still live in their Pittsburgh home where Jackie grew up with her sister, Debbie, who lives nearby.

“I grew up hearing my dad play,” remembers Jackie. “He played rhythm and blues, jazz and rock, but when I went to college, I studied classical music. My classical training has been invaluable in the creation of Squonk – when Steve asks for musical gymnastics I’m prepared!” Jackie grew up playing piano, taking lessons all through school, and added the accordion after joining Squonk Opera.

Since the show is mainly performed outdoors, Jackie travels a lot between April and November. She and her partner of 15 years, David Wallace, relish the occasional down time that life as a professional musician/performer offers. This past July, the couple was able to travel to Nova Scotia for a vacation. “We love to explore new places,” Jackie told me. “We planned which days we’d be in which towns, but we left the rest to figure out as we went. It was amazing.” David is the guitar player for Squonk Opera as well as a visual artist/musician with his own creative projects.

When they aren’t on the road, Jackie and David enjoy quiet, homey pursuits, such as searching for new items for their home in antique stores and quirky junk shops. “We live in an older home in an older neighborhood, and David is a big gardener. Our yard is really gorgeous thanks to him.” The couple also enjoys relaxing evenings at home, watching movies and hanging out with their three kitties. “David cooks and I bake. I love making berry cobbler and can do a nice apple pie. David’s Indian chicken curry is probably my favorite dish, but he does make a wonderful pesto!”

Before Squonk starting touring so much, Jackie had 50 piano students – because she loves it and to make ends meet. “For years Steve and I didn’t get paid. We would pay everyone else but us. At last, we’re both getting a full time salary, but it took us nearly ten years to get to that point.” She still teaches a bit from home but her main focus is Squonk. “We have to be okay with not knowing every year whether or not we’ll make it! That’s just the way it is in the arts.”

Jackie, Steve and the Squonk crew will travel to Georgetown the last week in September. On Friday, September 25th, the group will give concerts/workshops for nearly 2,500 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in the Georgetown County Schools. On Saturday, September 26th, the group will perform three concerts in Downtown Historic Georgetown, on Front Street, at 11 am, 12:30 pm and 2 pm. Both days are gifts to the community by the Pawleys Island Festival of Music & Art as the well loved organization celebrates its 25th year of bringing the arts to our community. The concerts are free to the public. Don’t miss getting “Squonked!”

For more information on Squonk Opera’s performance, visit or

About this writer

  • Leslie Moore Leslie Moore is the editor for Strand Media Group. A 25 year resident of Pawleys Island, she is blessed with a life filled with the love of family and friends and satisfying work to do every day.

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