PITTSBURGH — Karla Boos describes herself as a high-level, outside-the-box wizard. For the past 27 years, as the founder and artistic director of the Quantum Theatre Company in Pittsburgh, Boos has been waving her magic wand and pulling rabbits out of the hat, staging original productions of plays in unorthodox and often technically challenging spaces throughout the city.
Always on the lookout for the perfect place for the next play, Quantum has moved from venue to venue, producing more than 80 plays in such diverse locales as the historic Allegheny Cemetery, the Pittsburgh Zoo, The Mattress Factory, the Andy Warhol Museum, the Giant Eagle Warehouse, outdoors in Mellon Park, and in a modernist building in the Allegheny Center (renamed Nova Place and reborn as a technology hub) for a production of Henrik’s Ibsen “The Master Builder.”
For Boos, the huge, rectangular floor at Nova was very luxurious. The space had been gutted but there was heat, electricity, and working plumbing. She barely had to raid her giant warehouse, stocked with three different heating systems, chairs, and a detritus of things that people had built for Quantum’s productions over the years.
“You could see an expansive view out of every window, on all four sides,” Boos said of the Nova space. Strangely, though, “with its lowish ceiling, there was also a sense of oppression and, at times, when they were rehearsing, the wind would whistle through. You felt like you were in Norway in a great tower.”
“Our approach is very emblematic of Pittsburgh,” Boos said, “ a combination of authenticity and innovation. We go into spaces from the past, vestiges, quite raw, where there are often peeling historical layers and we bring in state-of-the art technology to realize their potential.”
Boos collaborates with talented Pittsburgh theater “techies” to accomplish this remarkable amalgam of past, present, and future. She works with Joe Seamans, a gifted film, video, and projection designer whose past credits include Nova and National Geographic. “Seamans makes incredibly sophisticated projections to create a world that might be crumbling.” Boos also works with C. Todd Brown, a lighting designer who “can wire just about any building,” she says.
Quantum’s technical collaboration is not new. Fifteen years ago, when the company was producing Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Boos approached Illah Nourbakhsh, head of the robotics department at Carnegie Mellon University. It was just at the time that the department was gaining its reputation in the field. “We wanted the audience to be able to text message in real time AND we wanted the robotics folks to set up printers in trees, so that the audience could read the messages on large scrolls. Beyond the technical aspects of the show, they had to figure out what printers and what paper could work/last outdoors.”
Another successful collaboration was with District 5 Sound, led by artist and CMU sound designer Sarah Pickett. Quantum adapted Nobel prize-winning novelist Jose Saramago’s All the Names. The audience entered into a black room in the old North Side Carnegie Library where their first experience was sound-based. Barbara Luderowski, founder of The Mattress Factory art museum, came up with the idea of adding live sheep into the production on the second floor of the space.
This year marks the 57th edition of the Carnegie International contemporary art exhibition, the fourth iteration since 2004. Renowned for bringing international artists to Pittsburgh, the International runs from Oct. 12, 2018 through March 25, 2019. Running parallel with the International this fall, from Sept. 21 to Nov 18, is the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. As the Guest Curator of the Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts, Boos is responsible for selecting 29 works from 18 countries, in collaboration with the Cultural Trust staff curators.
Quantum’s production in the Festival of Firsts will be Chatterton, a play based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel of the same name (opening Sept. 21.) Boos envisions the play as resembling three-dimensional chess. It will be performed in a large downtown venue (site still not definite) with the audience given some agency to design the show that they will see. “They will be moving through space following certain characters or storylines.” The play will set in London in three centuries — in the 18th-century world of Thomas Chatterton, the 19th century world of pre-Raphaelite London, and in the present.
Chatterton is precisely the kind of work that Boos wants to do now. At this point in her career, she is interested in producing large-scale original works, although she simultaneously wants to encourage younger artists to display forward-thinking courage.
We go into spaces from the past, vestiges, quite raw, where there are often peeling historical layers and we bring in state-of-the art technology to realize their potential.[/pulllquote]
With the recent hiring of a new Managing Director, Stewart Urist, who will take over executive authority for the company and a new Director of Production, Jerard Craven, Boos hopes to return to the more traditional role of an artistic director.
On the not-so-distant horizon is a new production of King Lear, in collaboration with the Bricolage Production Company in Pittsburgh. Tentatively scheduled for May 2019, the play will be produced in the Carrie Furnace, a space that Boos describes as “a palace monument to the steel industry,” with grounds like a park. Carrie Furnace was the smelter where the steel was forged for the Homestead Steel Works. It has been preserved by the Steel Industry Heritage Foundation. The idea of producing Lear there thrills Boos. “It’s a play about hubris, an elusive past, and power,” Boos said. “We will definitely be able to use amazing technology to make magic in that outdoors space.”
Like Pittsburgh, Boos is deeply affected by the past. But like the city — which has moved beyond steel to be home to Google and Uber and the CMU Robotics Lab — Boos is trying to make her theatre company reinterpret the past in ways that are iconoclastic. She never stops asking herself: “Why does that tradition exist, and why shouldn’t we bust it open?”