The Quantum Theater

Quantum Theatre is a kind of laboratory, an incubator for the amazing, christened in 1990, rededicated every year with the rites of spring to its mission to bring forth artists forging new theatrical ground.

Hours: Box Office is open Monday through Friday 10 am – 5 pm

Admission Price: $38-$50 depending on day of the show; group discount tickets are also available

Site Information: Varies per production; call412-362-1713 for further information 

Location: Offices located at 218 N. Highland Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15206; performance location varies

Site Information: http://www.quantumtheatre.com

The Quantum Theatre isn’t your typical theater. The River, their most recent production as of December 2016, was performed in a modified drydock in the Aspinwall Riverfront Park. The play, written by Jez Butterworth, dealt with a man’s non-linear love life as he brought various women to a fishing cabin in which he grew up. To create the stage for The River, Quantum built an entire temporary edifice out of the drydock that straddled the Allegheny River, with a large gap built down the middle of the stage that filled with water to symbolize the titular river (both the literal one and the one existing between the characters). At the climax of the play, which called for the lead actor to fall into the ‘river,’ a door at the back of the stage would open, draining the gap into the Allegheny and letting in a rush of cold October air – a fittingly chilling moment for a haunting climax.

The Quantum Theatre takes pride in their mission to provide an extraordinary experience, experimenting with theatrical productions in a non-traditional sense. Since its debut in 1990, Quantum has held performances in a variety of spaces, ranging from a Giant Eagle warehouse to the Andy Warhol Museum. The theater rotates location for each performance, migrating around Pittsburgh once every 1-2 months. Karla Boos, the Artistic Director of the theater, is the lead decision-maker for Quantum’s productions; however, the location decisions lie in the hands of her team. Locations are chosen with regard to practicality, safety, and most importantly, entertainment! Once the location has been secured, the Technical Director and the Director of Production ensure that a safe, stable stage is created with materials supplied locally by Construction Junction, a nonprofit dedicated to the resell and reuse of construction materials.

Outside of the performances, Quantum also plays a role in the community by providing educational programs for children and students. The organization supports current and future artists and performers by conducting a high school residency program, as well as a variety of other educational programs with the community. Artists make their way through inner-city schools to help students interpret classic theater and literature. On top of education, Quantum also provides volunteer opportunities in which interested individuals can dive into the full culture of a nonprofit setting, either working individual shows or special fundraising events. Quantum values their volunteers as an integral part of the experience they work to create, and offer an exciting perk: all volunteers can watch performances free of charge. If this unique theater has piqued your interest, it’s time to go see a show! You never know what’s in store next at the Quantum Theater.

Inconceivable: Pittsburgh and Quantum’s Mechanics

An essay by Daniel Schatten

Edward Soja’s Theory of Spatiality posits that there are three aspects of every location’s space: its “Perceived” space, the actual shape and layout of the location; its “Lived” space, the people populating the location on a long-time basis, such as employees or residents; and its “Conceived” space, the space observed by its viewers, the mental construct that is a sum of its parts and contributes the most to the “feel” of the location. Soja’s theory applies quite well to most locations; a coffeeshop, for example, might have its friendly employees as its Lived space and an aura of relaxation and quiet in its Conceived space, despite its Perceived space being little more than a hole in the wall. But as with any rule, there are exceptions, and Pittsburgh’s Quantum Theatre seems to acknowledge Soja’s theory, look it over, and say, emphatically, “Nah.”

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Fig. 1: The company’s logo, with slogan: “Theater that moves you.”

Quantum Theatre is a loose-cannon theater that doesn’t play by the rules. They have no real “location,” no “home base” beyond some office space in East Liberty. They are an entirely ephemeral location – here one month, gone the next, with nary a trace. It can be argued that all theater takes the form of Conceived space, replacing the real location and actors of the performance with a facsimile of differing events and locations – transforming, say, a classically-trained bartender, a waitress majoring in theater, and an unused high school gymnasium into Romeo, Juliet, and 17th-century Verona, respectively. By this logic, Quantum is the epitome of theater’s modification of space, as with no home location and a rotating cast of actors, it exists only in a Conceived sense!

From another angle, however, Quantum slots nicely into Soja’s theory. While Quantum only exists in a Conceived space, it could not exist without the locations it temporarily inhabits. What gives most theaters their Perceived and Lived spaces are their constants: a theater will tend to have a recurring cast of actors and regulars, each with their own colorful and interesting personalities, as well as a location in which they perform, be it an opera house, a park, or the aforementioned high school gymnasium. Quantum Theatre differs in that it is not a theater that is creating its own spatiality; rather, it is augmenting the locations where it is performed.

The October 2016 production of The River took place in the Aspinwall Riverfront Park, near the Highland Bridge. The idea of a drydock being transformed into a fishing cabin, of course, is fantastic in and of itself, and a great example of Quantum’s defiance and transformation of spaces. But Aspinwall itself is no stranger to transformation at all: when Pittsburgh was still a soot-stained dystopia, ruled by gods named Frick and Carnegie and the idea of theater in the city was as alien as a shopping mall in North Korea, the banks of the Allegheny were polluted, grimy wastelands. The docks were used to transport iron, steel, slag, and other essential parts of the steel mills that defined the city, and massive boats filled with dirty metal and dirty men were the most common sights were one to visit Aspinwall. As Thomas Bell wrote in Out of this Furnace, “bad times had settled like a pall over the steel towns, and many things happened… before times got good again.” (Bell, 44.)

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Fig 2: A boat arrives at an Aspinwall dock in 1912, bearing steel from the furnaces. Pittsburgh City Photographer. Aspinwall Pumping Station, 1912-08-19. 1912, Photograph. University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA. Historic Pittsburgh Archive. Web. 12/2/2016.

But times did get good again, and Pittsburgh eventually lunged out of its ‘Soot Age’ and grew to become a city defined more by its medical schools and sports teams than its polluted landscape or legions of immigrant workers. Frick and Carnegie’s empire fell, the buildings were cleaned and refurbished, and gradually the atmosphere (the Perceived space, and by consequence, the Conceived space) went from “industrial hellscape” to “hipster heaven.” As to Aspinwall, the once-ruined section of the riverbank has become the Aspinwall Riverfront Park, a pleasant little garden with odd yet intriguing modern art and a tranquil atmosphere, situated only a few meters from a charming restaurant located on the docks. While the drydock is still an inauspicious and original location for a play from a Perceived perspective,  Aspinwall at least has a precedent for Conceived-space transformation… as does all of Pittsburgh.

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Fig. 3: Quantum Theatre’s October 2016 performance of Jez Butterworth’s The River.

Part of Quantum’s appeal is its unique connection to Pittsburgh. Certainly, the project could work in some sense in a place like Cincinnati or Boise. A company could easily perform Othello in a random warehouse or build a replica of a medieval castle in an office building in any given city. But Quantum’s plays are not simple transgressions of location, performances proclaiming “look! It’s Tamara in a Jewish temple! Aren’t we wacky?” Every Quantum Theatre play relates intrinsically to its location of performance, tying in the existing Perceived spaces with the performance’s specific Conceived spaces. The River, of course, takes place on the Allegheny river, a performance of the death-focused Dream of Autumn was set literally six feet under (in a sewer location that would later be renovated into the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library), and Tamara’s aforementioned setting in Rodef Shalom relates to the temple’s dual function as an elaborate art museum; while the Perceived and Conceived spaces will never be identical, Quantum puts in a heroic effort to get the two as close as possible.

What Quantum takes advantage of is Pittsburgh’s unique history as a transformed city, its pre-existing Lived and Conceived space; certainly, there are older cities, and cities with more interesting buildings, but one would be hard-pressed to find a city that has undergone such an intense transition. From an aesthetic standpoint, it makes perfect sense: what better audience for theater in unusual locations than a population who have lived through an entire change in their city’s milieu? As Karla Boos herself stated in an interview with American Theatre, “Quantum’s audience is made up of the most adventurous of folks—people willing to go having no idea what they’ll see, and frequently to a place they’ve never been. They’re all ages and backgrounds. They’ve been rained on, frozen, and boiled, but they’ve also seen fireworks go off at sunset at exactly the right moment, with a  flock of wild geese for good measure—that sort of thing.” And from a symbolic standpoint, it holds a much more meaningful purpose: rather than turning an unusual space into a temporary site of culture, Quantum is continuing an evolution that nearly every place in Pittsburgh is undergoing, putting a reference on the ledgers of ever-developing parts of the city.

Quantum is not merely a strange “Conceived-only” phenomenon that chooses Pittsburgh places as its host; it is a way of adding to the existing Conceived spaces of the city, a way of augmenting places in a city on its way to becoming one of the most advanced in the country.

Changing Quantum, Changing Pittsburgh

As Maya Angelou once said, “If you don’t like something, change it.” People change, jobs change, the climate changes, Pittsburgh changed. From the steel mill to a devastated economic downfall and to a rise to wealth again, Pittsburgh is constantly changing. The Quantum Theatre’s continuous set location change for each production is appropriate for Pittsburgh. I suppose it would be easiest to discuss the Quantum Theater and change by first defining what I mean by change.

In its most literal sense, change is defined as “to turn or convert into” by the Oxford English Dictionary. The way in which I will use it is widespread. It can be a haircut, what is considered good music, science techniques, the weather, etc., anything where there is noticeable, well, change. The theaters nontraditional productions bring in visitors from around the world and have been placed in unique places around Pittsburgh such as the Pittsburgh Center for Arts, Homestead Pump House, and even the Pittsburgh Zoo. This year, they are celebrating their 25th anniversary and 75th production. That’s a lot of change, right? On their website it says, “We are interested in real life and how it intersects with a theatrical experience—resulting in plays staged outside where a moon may rise, or not, or an urban excavation where street noises will infiltrate, or a warehouse in winter where the audience might need blankets… then watch a performer strip naked and take a shower.” So is the Quantum Theatre all about location, location, location?

Oddly enough, the theatre sounds like it might have a bit in common with the masterful work of Edward Soja. He breaks his “Trialect of Being,” which is how he discusses space, into three sections. First, “historicality,” the Quantum Theater is all about progression through the years, from show to show, and how the audience is effected after a production. “Sociality” is being in the world of the production and the experiences and emotions the audience feels along the way. For example, in the theatre’s most recent production of Ciara, the sociality would be how the audience feels at what they are watching during the one-act monologue. “Spatiality” is the space we are in; not necessarily just a map but the physical space. In the case of the Theater, it would be their most current set. Space, interesting! More on this in a second.

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Fig. 1. Edward Soja’s Trialect of Being.

Let’s move back to change. As Pittsburgh natives are aware, there have been a lot of ups and downs in the city’s history. The rise of Carnegie’s steel empire, and the eventual collapse, which led to the economic rescinding, the rush to abandon Pittsburgh. There were several renovation programs to reinvent devastated areas of Pittsburgh such as the Hill District. As Dan Fitzpatrick from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 2000, “In the second half of the 20th century, public and private officials spent more than $5 billion trying to repair Pittsburgh and its old neighborhoods. Yet, the city’s population never again moved higher than 676,806 — its head count at mid-century.” But Pittsburgh is coming back to the game. Trendy restaurants are popping on every corner, the red light district has been transformed to the Cultural District, and the colorful street art is starting to bring young people back into the city.

Comparatively, it is proven that arts rejuvenation serves at a catalyst for economic improvement. The Quantum Theater’s constant and continual productions are rebirthed every cycle. They focus on using a variety of set locations such as an art gallery or basement to put on productions that make the audience ponder about the moral line. Because what’s a better way to make an audience think than to make them uncomfortable?

For example, one of the Theaters more recent productions was called Chickens In The Yard and aired in November and December of 2015. The play involves, you guessed it, chickens and humans morphing between each other. According to Sharon Eberson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The chickens of the title are merely bystanders and not so much as laying an egg when a fourth chicken is placed among them, just as a fourth character is introduced to the proceedings. It is explained that it will take time for the new chicken to gain acceptance — a big hint in a play that more often makes its points organically.” This play brings back the idea about change. Is it necessary for people to change? For Pittsburgh to change? For the world? The play’s director, Adil Mansoor used the chickens as mediator for his subtle message: everyone needs to be accepting. With a society that is continually revolving, we have to understand that change is going to happen whether we want it to or not. You can either fight it or accept it. I say, and the Quantum Theatre says, accept it.

Let’s look back into American history during the 1960’s, the era of the Jim Crow laws. August Wilson was one of countless African Americans that faced relentless prejudice, even in the classroom. Today, he is famous for his Pulitzer Prize winning plays. Wilson grew up in the Hill District and changed schools because of bigotry against him. According to the Centre Theatre Group, Wilson dropped out of school at age 15 after being accused of plagiarizing a paper. Because what man of color would be able to write with his own thoughts? His thirst for knowledge eventually led him to self-educate himself at the Carnegie Library and implore his experiences in his community which eventually led him to become a dazzling playwright. Would Wilson have been taken more seriously if he was from a wealthier community? Would his situation have differed if he was not a man of color? I wonder how his education would have turned out if he had been born in the 21st century.

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Fig. 2. The school that August Wilson left after his teachers did not take him seriously. Gladstone School. 1915. Pittsburgh Public Schools Photographs, Pittsburgh. Historic Pittsburgh. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.

I think Wilson would be proud of the Quantum Theatre and their emphasis on community (and of course, location, location, location!). The theatre ensures that their plays are showed in multiple districts in Pittsburgh, not just one. That’s the fun of being a part of a non-traditional theatre – you can make the rules! Most of the theatre’s locations are accessible via the Port Authority bus system in neighborhoods such as Downtown, Homestead, Lawrenceville, East Liberty, Highland Park, Shadyside, the list goes on. Additionally, the theatre ensures that the set location is accessible to as many people as possible, by picking sets that are handicap accessible, have multiple fire exits, along with the capability to build a safe and structured set. Even though each show changes the location, the company leaves an emphasis on audience accessibility.

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Fig. 3. A makeshift set from the Quantum Theatre’s most recent production of Ciara.

With all of the change that Pittsburgh has experienced in the past couple of decades, it seems like the Quantum Theatre fits in quite nicely. It’s definitely kept up with the times and the evolution of the city of Pittsburgh. Be sure to check out their next show for an exciting show that will be filled with unexpected surprises along the way. And don’t forget about to think about the space of the show! Soja would be proud.

Quasi Quirky, Theatrically Thrilling

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Quantum Theatre is an organization dedicated to redefining theatrical ground and the spaces in which they exist. They work to bring to life discussions of people, spaces, production, art, and the entire consuming experience of modern theater with a twist. While the word “theatre” may be their defining characteristic, Quantum is so much more than just a theater company. You would never know from the outside looking in, but they are creating an entire culture of their own and it’s beginning to penetrate the greater Pittsburgh culture. There’s a lot to say about thinking, working, and living outside the framework of established institutions and Quantum is sparking that conversation.

We’re being handed the opportunity to explore new terrain in the cozy comfort of Pittsburgh, as a hometown or even just a short-term college town.

As you may have guessed from the first glance at this post, the culture that Quantum is establishing can be conveniently described as “quasi quirky” and “thrilling”. It’s not too extreme, but it’s the right formula to cause a reaction. It’s different and people, even outside of the theater community, are taking notice. Working to break molds, with an international focus and an aesthetic nature, Quantum is a hybrid of classic theater and modern multimedia. Quantum commonly transforms classics into adaptations that focus more on environment than just content. The theater is also known to collaborate with all different forms of art. In the past, they’ve partnered with ensembles and dance companies to bring together different people of the Pittsburgh creative community; giving more value to their experimental mission. A “let’s see how these fit together” kind of mindset that is playful and captivating. 

Quantum utilizes and embodies so many different pieces of life to not only express, but educate. Relying on history, art, creativity, science, sociology, psychology, and beyond, they push boundaries that elicit feelings of discomfort, confusion, thrill, and even belonging. There’s endless opportunity to find a personal connection, or even seek an experience that teaches us how to appreciate spaces outside of our comfort zones.

Taking into consideration literary concepts, we can analyze how Edward Soja’s Theory of Spatiality gives Quantum’s environmental approach even more depth. Real, imagined, and lived space play a crucial role in how we interact with the physical and conceptual spaces of theater, especially Quantum’s kind of theater. Soja’s first trialectic is focused on being. It’s made up of thoughts centered around historicality, spatiality, and sociality. Historicality begins to explain how experiences affect individuals in the long-term. There’s a long history attached to Pittsburgh theater. There’s any even longer history attached to some of the plays and pieces that Quantum works with. Take a look at one of the most prominent theaters of Pittsburgh in the early 1900s below and consider how history has transformed the physical and mental spaces of that experience today.

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Fig 1. The Miles Theatre and the Lyceum Theatre. 1915. Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh – Historic Pittsburgh Image Collection, Downtown (Pittsburgh, Pa.). Historic Pittsburgh. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.

Taking into consideration how this affects Quantum, there’s a large personal component attached to the arts. How we interpret theater and the way in which we derive meaning from words, movement, and senses is learned behavior. It’s built on past experience. One of the reasons Quantum is so successful in fulfilling its mission is because their theater elicits reactions that challenge what we’ve known and learned. We found ourselves sitting where we’ve never sat before, feeling what we’ve never felt before, sensing what we’ve never sensed before, and liking what we’ve never liked before. Edward Soja may have been an urban planner, but his theory goes far beyond just architecture and city landscapes.

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Spatiality really supports the concept of environment. It describes space in both a physical and mental meaning. To really adventure into the detail, spatiality breaks down further into three subcomponents referred to as lived, perceived, and conceived. To make it simple, lived is how space affects our life, perceived is equivalent to reality, and conceived is the space within our imagination. It’s a lot to take in, but it builds a strong argument for the functionality of Quantum. Past experience, reality, and imagination are the very basic atoms of what gives life to theater as an art.

Moving into the third and final category of Soja’s theory, sociality is the space in which we interact with people. It’s the relationships we experience. In the case of Quantum, sociality can be the audience around you, a connection you feel with a performer, or the confusion you feel when a performance breaks the status quo of a concept you’ve been taught your whole life.

Space is such a crucial piece in the development of a production. There’s a ton of intangible considerations we could talk about for days, but there’s also just as many physical concerns. In our class visit to the site of Ciara, the staff spoke about the importance of physics in building the sets for each production. Distance, tension, measurement, and weight can also be seen as forms of space that have meaning. While Quantum is all about being unconventional, there first focus is safety. They have to maintain space in a way that keeps performers and guests safe, maybe not comfortable per se, but none the less safe from physical harm.

Diving even further into defining space and how we can use space to turn things upside down and inside out, Simon Nicholson suggests that it is “loose parts” within our environment that spark creativity and open up our minds to think differently. These parts can be natural or synthetic. They can be moved, carried, designed, lined up, or even imagined. They don’t necessarily have a structure or any type of guidelines, but they do have meaning. Disorganized meaning, a hard concept to grasp, but nonetheless fascinating. Loose parts are significantly more engaging than something static, even when it comes to conceptual, intangible ideas. The theory of loose parts is like a philosophical adventure that is somehow comforting; entirely discombobulated and unplanned, but in the end, valuable as a whole. While it was developed with child development in mind, it can be applied to anything and everything. We’re all children at heart anyway right? In a recent interview, Ms. Boos described how she chooses what to pieces Quantum will perform:

“I just do stuff that moves and compels me and that I don’t understand at all.”

That’s the beauty of Quantum. Everything is a challenge; a learning experience that broadens our understanding of some aspect of literature, theater, performance, or life in general.

The fullness of an environment depends on its loose parts. For Quantum, there’s thousands of particles, and specs of thought that cause the interactions, reactions, and connections. From a booming voice to a single note of music, every piece is important, but it’s how we mix and match those pieces that is central. Inventing, creating, exploring, questioning, and reinventing loose parts is the basis for the vast majority of learning. Luckily, Quantum fully embodies these activities. As mentioned previously, it’s so much more than just a theater.

Quantum was founded with the vision of bringing a new light to Pittsburgh theater and it most certainly has. In the words of Ms. Boos, “I knew I wanted to make my own work, carve my own path.” A 25 year stretch of exposing the natural world in all its complex simplicity.  It’s meant to be contradictory. Most of Quantum’s shows didn’t exist until they were brought to life by the environment, a new thought, or a twist. While the organization does think outside the box, it’s always remains interested in reality and real life experiences. It tackles social issues and ideas surrounding humanity; working to create characters and stories that are raw and impactful; that leave the audience with more than just a good laugh or a smile.

“…a far-off, magical, scary, too-close-to-home, knee-slapping, sob-inducing tale.”

Quantum is a community made up of loose parts. It’s a discussion of historicality, sociality, and spatiality. It’s a breeding ground for open-minded thought. A theater that welcomes flaws, oddities, and most importantly, the comfort to be your true self. Moral of the story: Quantum recognizes that people need people. People that will teach us how to be open. People that will encourage us to grow and think differently.

Works Cited

Eberson, Sharon. “Stage Review: Quantum Gets Quirky with ‘Chickens in the Yard’” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

Fitzpatrick, Dan. “The Story of Urban Renewal.” The Story of Urban Renewal. N.p., 2000. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

Soja, Edward. Thirdspace: Journeys to Lost Angeles and Ither Real-and-Imagined Places. Cambridge MA: Blackwell Publishing Inc., 1996.  53-70.

“August Wilson Biography.” Official Tickets Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, Kirk Douglas Theatre. In Downtown Los Angeles and Culver City. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

Gladstone School. 1915. Pittsburgh Public Schools Photographs, Pittsburgh Historic Pittsburgh. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.

“Home – Landing Page.” Quantum Theatre. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.

“Oxford English Dictionary.” Shibboleth Authentication Request. Oxford English Dictionary, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

“Know a Theatre: Quantum Theatre of Pittsburgh, Pa.” AMERICAN THEATRE. 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.

“The Learning in Loose Parts.” Communityplaythings. 2015. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.

Bell, Thomas. Out of This Furnace. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1976. Print.

American Theatre Editors. “Know a Theatre: Quantum Theatre of Pittsburgh, Pa.” American Theatre. Theatre Communications Group, 14 Oct. 2014. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.

Pittsburgh City Photographer. Aspinwall Pumping Station, 1912-08-19. 1912, Photograph. University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA. Historic Pittsburgh Archive. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.

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