Karla Boos: “All the World’s a Stage”
As a kid, I lived in Wheeling, W.Va., but I wasn’t born there. My dad worked for Titanium Metals Corporation and, before Wheeling, we moved a couple of times around the country to places where Timet plants were located. I was 10 when we settled in Wheeling, so I think of myself as a West Virginian.
In my formative years, Wheeling was much more vibrant than it is today. It was like a “little Pittsburgh,” in way, along the Ohio River. The National Road went right through town, which helped to make it a hub of industry. Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, for example, was in full swing when I was growing up.
My father was a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. My mother was a former teacher and a very broad-thinking, educated person. I’m in the middle of three sisters, with one brother, who was the oldest. Both of our parents have passed and, sadly, we lost our brother to blood cancer when he was just 45. So, three sisters remain—and a sister-in-law; four women, and our offspring. They are amazing people, each one.
“All the world’s a stage”
- Quantum Theatre, founder and artistic director (1990–present)
The first piece of theatre in which I ever participated was in 1976, as a dancer. It was a musical based on West Virginia history called “Time Steals Softly,” which was really long and boring! It was staged in the amphitheater at Oglebay Park, where our community performed its summer musicals. That’s where I met director Harold O’Leary, who became very influential in my life. Hal ran a wonderful community program that’s attached to Oglebay Institute in Wheeling called The Towngate Theatre. It was non-professional, but that special “thing” that turns people into artists was definitely going on there. I don’t know if I would be the person that I am if that hadn’t been a part of my background. Hal and I remained very close until he passed away in June of 2018.
So, I went to college, but dithered a bit and ended up, for lack of a plan, at Bethany College, which had a beautiful campus nearby in the hills of West Virginia. After two years, I transferred to the University of Pittsburgh and then, driven by aesthetic curiosity, to graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita. Cal Arts does its best to train artists to believe in their own unique visions and to follow their own voices, so it was a good place for me. I wanted to produce the kind of theatre that most interested me and that proceeded from my influences. Cal Arts was also a very international place, and it was there that I decided that my work in the arts would have an international bent, if I had anything to say about it.
Growing up, I was very into nature. And I liked classical music and dance. I was also an avid reader. When I came to see what other artists were doing around the world, I discovered that I felt most connected to those who were working on a bigger plane. At the time, I felt that American theatre tended to be boxed-in by “realism” and the addressing of localized issues, and I still don’t know that our American theatres are fully embracing the imaginative possibilities of the art form. I want to push boundaries and help people understand something broader and more universal about life. As an example, three years ago in London, I saw a play about American whistleblower Edward Snowden. Most of the way through, it seemed like a normal play but, in the last 15 minutes, the stage turned 180 degrees. The actor playing Snowden kept falling as the whole room turned. But the people who were talking to him never moved and ended up hanging upside down by their feet, as if nothing had happened. All the while, Snowden fell and fell again, to a new floor. That was an amazing, imaginative thing, and it appealed to me. All my life, I have tried to think in a more broad and transcendent way, about history, nature and the human condition.
When I conceived Quantum Theatre, it didn’t feel like I was starting a company; it felt like I was an artist intent upon making work that was large in scope and reach, and Pittsburgh seemed like a great place to do it. After all, I was familiar with the city from my days at Pitt, and it was of a manageable size. I found that I could arrange meetings with people who would listen to me. And, even though I was talking about doing something different, they responded.
In Pittsburgh, I encountered a kind of openness and an enabling quality that I still feel today. I tell young people that if you can articulate what it is you want to do, and it delivers something that people feel is unique and meaningful, you can leverage that into something that grows. If you enable people to become attached and involved with your creativity and your creative process, they will want to be a part of what you create. There is a great tradition of philanthropy in Pittsburgh, and support for the arts. People here want to create. They want to enable things.
At Quantum Theatre, we have built something that has stretched our creative capabilities to the edge, and we have even stepped out over what were once boundaries. That’s what artists do. And it’s been great for me, through the years, to wear many hats, and to learn that there are multiple functions when it comes to accomplishing creative things. I hope this has made me a good partner for my colleague, Stewart Urist, who came to Quantum as managing director and has since been promoted to executive director. These days, I’m trying to play more on the artistic end so that I can go as far as possible in what might be the last phase of my working as an artist. And, happily, I have wonderful colleagues.
Purposefully, Quantum Theatre does not maintain a traditional performance space. Rather, we stage our performances at other locations; for example, at the Union Trust Building, the North Side Carnegie Library, Allegheny Cemetery and the Carrie Furnace—a former blast furnace at the Homestead Steel Works, located along the Monongahela River in Swissvale. For the Carrie Furnace performance, our audience had to make a quarter-mile walk to a second location between acts one and two. Just imagine experiencing theatre in unusual places like these.
For what we do at Quantum, the bar is set very high, but we try not to obsess about obstacles—such as money, or the fact that we’re in Pittsburgh—that might present challenges to pursuing the most imaginative productions possible. Imaginative thinking, such as choosing to stage a production in the Union Trust Building or at the Carrie Furnace, is a wonderful way to explore how we might tell a story. That’s what it’s all about, in the end. The story is there, but how do you tell it in a way that makes the audience feel it in their gut? That’s the real trick, in any art form.
When I was still a young woman, I had my years in Los Angeles, at Cal Arts and afterward, working with experimental artists. I came back to Pittsburgh because I thought I could do my thing here. And there was a person I wanted to talk to about my ideas, and it was August Wilson. I knew from local lore that he often hung out at the Crawford Grill, the famed jazz club, which I knew from my time as a Pitt student. So, I went there and, amazingly, found him, surrounded by an entourage. Nevertheless, I approached him and asked, “May I talk with you?” Well, he shooed his entourage away and talked to me for a long time. He allowed me to explain what I wanted to do and gave me the kind of encouragement that I will never forget. I saw him a few more times over the years, like at the opening night of his play, “King Hedley II,” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and he remembered me, calling out, “Hey, theatre girl. How’s it going?” What a generous person. I have learned, through the years, that people are, by nature, generous. You just have to engage them.
The work we do at Quantum Theatre is for people with open minds. There is a segment of the Pittsburgh population that really is participating in culture, and some discovered us, thankfully, a long time ago. But we can also appeal to people who have no tradition of attending the theatre because going to Quantum is not just going to the theatre; it’s going to the Carrie Furnace, or another exotic, inspiring location. We try to get our work in front of lots of people, and we brand it big so that it reaches an audience that might still think they don’t like the theatre. Once you get them in there, I hope the work speaks to a broad, diverse range of people.
With respect to theatre companies that choose their work so that they’re offering a broad range of possibilities for different targets, I don’t get it. At Quantum, we choose what makes us feel like we have to do this. We don’t think about the audience at all in making the choice; all we can do is try to represent our intense connection to something. And, if we do it right, hopefully other people will make the connection to it, too. It would be impossible for us to have that feeling about the work if we were choosing it more strategically; that is, based on what we think some types of people want.
So, this year, like everyone else, we’re living with the uncertainty of COVID-19. But we’re committed to and have planned to produce three wonderful works: “An Odyssey,” a contemporary take on the epic Greek poem, which will be staged in August in the Schenley Park Ice Rink, a colossal outdoor space; a play called “Chimerica” by Lucy Kirkwood, which we planned to produce in June, but have rescheduled for November. “Chimerica” will be staged in a 15,000-square-foot floor of the United Steelworkers Building near Point State Park. And then, in the spring, we will produce a world premiere by a Pittsburgher named Michael Mitnick, called “The Current War,” which is about George Westinghouse and his battle with Thomas Edison. We plan to produce this work under a large tent in Westinghouse Park, another outdoor show. We believe that we can establish safe circumstances for audiences to attend all of these performances. But if our 12-month season turns into 18 months because we have to wait and do “An Odyssey” in Schenley Park next summer, so be it. We don’t control the world. We have to live with the uncertainty of the times, while planning for the future, and praying for a vaccine for COVID-19.
We work with all kinds of people in the city, and always have, under many administrations, and with the goodwill and the history that says we know what we’re doing. We’re very collaborative. And we listen. There’s no set way to make things happen. The process is different every single time. Projects proceed from artists who have great ideas, like staging “An Odyssey” in the Schenley Park Ice Rink, a space that is a contemporary place of sport, to offer the feel of what a Greek arena might have been like. It’s so much fun to let the artists think with their good brains and figure out how to get people onboard, slowly and carefully.
When we started, we were just a bunch of itinerant theatre artists looking for any place to perform. But quickly, the directors and designers exploited whatever they had for so much imaginative good that it became apparent that we didn’t want a traditional theatre. We were willing to take the risk of not knowing where we were going to perform the next thing. In fact, our approach to staging productions costs more than if we simply maintained our own building. It’s a lot to take on, but it’s endlessly exciting and flexible. No two productions look or feel the same, and I don’t think I could ever turn away from that, after living with it, as I have, for so long.
I’m a big cheerleader for all the arts in Pittsburgh. I go to everything, and I don’t like everything I see from my competitors. But chances are good that I’m going to like something in any 12-month period, from everyone. Every theatre artist goes a bit outside his or her comfort zone sometimes, and those performances tend to be the ones I like. I’m also a major multidisciplinary arts appreciator. I love dance. I love music. I love Chatham Baroque. I love the Pittsburgh Symphony. I love the Staycee Pearl Dance Project. I love Barebones Productions. I love Beth Corning and Corningworks, Mark Southers’ Pittsburgh Playwrights—and lots more than these people and organizations that I just rattled off! But most of all, I love a packed theatre.