Though Karla Boos built Quantum Theatre to experiment, intersections formed fertile ground for that experimentation: where performance meets unconventional space, where art meets community, where theatre meets real-life. The company’s founder and artistic director notes the latest production, Aditi Brennan Kapil’s Brahman/i, is no exception.
“I love poking at form because I’m experimenting with audience behavior in quote-unquote ‘theatre,’” she says. “I likechallenging the idea that the play is up there and you’re here in the dark and there’s this metaphysical divide [between you and the play].”
While Quantum has always experimented with how it engages audiences, the 2014-2015 season does so in especially new ways. The wildly successful Tamara (voted best play of the year by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) was a fully immersive experience that included a champagne party in the garden, following characters all over Shadyside’s Rodef Shalom, and sharing a fully catered dinner with a table of fellow theatre-goers.
“We’re putting audiences in different situations throughout the whole season,” Boos explains. And for Brahman/i, “we have done everything to convince audience members to behave as if they are in a comedy club, that it’s okay to get up, that it’s okay to flag your server.” From the space’s design (small cabaret-style tables, arranged between the stage and the bar) to the opening comedy act by Vince Ventura to your complimentary Kingfisher beer and naan/chutney snacks, you know as soon as you walk into the room that you’re not in a typical theater—and with Quantum, you never are.
Brahman/i doesn’t just represent an intersection of experiences; it’s also an intersection of communities. At the heart of the play are questions about gender identity and sexuality, about colonialism’s legacy and the immigrant experience, complex questions of the self without any easy answers. With these issues in mind, Boos assembled her team, drawing together talented artists to whom these questions matter deeply. Director Shishir Kurup, Boos’ friend from the 1980s, has written and produced a number of plays about the American experience of Indian immigrants, and actor Sanjiv Jhaveri caught Boos’ attention at a reading of one of those plays, performing the comedic role in Kurup’s Merchant on Venice. Her design team includes prominent members of the GLBTQ+ community, and even Brahman/i’s sidekick “J,” David Bielewicz, is a practicing musician who founded the open mic night at Hambone’s in Lawrenceville.
“Every show I’ve worked on, it’s a team effort, and there’s a reason Karla has assembled each artist or team member,” says costume designer Richard Parsakian. “As a member of the GLBT community, I loved that [Brahman/i] spoke of tolerance and acceptance…a very universal message.” In Pittsburgh theatre, Parsakian says, these issues “haven’t been approached in this way before, in terms of comedy. It’s usually pretty serious.”
Quantum’s mission statement declares that the company “is a kind of laboratory, an incubator for the amazing…rededicated each year with the rites of spring.” With spring looming, expect Karla Boos and Quantum Theatre to keep innovating and bringing unique experiences to Pittsburgh audiences. April’s world premiere of All The Names will push the boundaries even further than Brahman/i when answering the question “What is theatre?” Boos is working with the Mattress Factory’s Barbara Luderowski and a team of artists whose work may look as much like installation as theater, to build another immersive experience—one in which audiences will move freely, have a lot of choices to make and autonomy to shape their understanding of the story and events.
“What you go to the theatre for in 2015 is not exactly the same as what you went to the theatre for in 1995,” says Karla Boos. “That’s why when we’ve done something, we’re not going to do it again. We’ve already done it.”