Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Dystopian literature has long held wide-ranging views of Earth’s dismal future, but none included elaborate hats — until now.
On Friday, Quantum Theatre presents “Far Away,” a chilling play by Caryl Churchill reimagined as a fully-filmed digital performance. The play envisions the whole world engulfed in a war where nothing can be trusted and benign items like hats are used for sinister ends. Married actors Andrew William Smith and Lisa Velten-Smith star in the show, which will be available to stream through March 7. Tickets start at $10 at quantumtheatre.com/faraway.
“The play deals with deep things. The hats are key to us understanding this world that turns out to be not so far away from our own,” Quantum artistic director Karla Boos said by email.
Costume designer and Carnegie Mellon professor Susan Tsu assembled a talented team of milliners, many from the Pittsburgh area, to create the play’s fanciful hats. She remained tight-lipped about their function in the plot, however.
“I think that the message that [Ms. Churchill] has to give us is an extraordinary one,” she said. “And her use of the hats will be a wonderful surprise for the audience. I don’t want to give it all away because I think she places them in the play in such a way as to pique everybody’s curiosity and challenge their preconceived notions of just about everything.”
Quantum has a record of adapting to artistic challenges, choosing nontraditional theater spaces to perform. The pandemic led them to experiment with streaming for the first time last year with another Churchill work, “Love and Information.” Now working with filmmaker Joe Seamans and his longtime director of photography, Mark Knobil, Quantum has gone all in on film.
Pandemic restrictions and working fully remote have been particularly challenging for costumes, Tsu said. Imagine trying to do fittings over Zoom and evaluating where alterations need to be made. Throw in high-definition cameras, and it gets even tougher. Fixes during film shoots that would take seconds now become a game of telephone tag between the designers, actors and crew members.
“If you can imagine standing at one end of a room and trying to see a tiny detail about 25 feet away, that’s what a Zoom fitting feels like,” Tsu said. “Kind of giving it your best guess.”
With the many hats, the only guideline besides size that Tsu gave her milliners was not to use green, which would blend in with green screens used in the film to make audiences believe the hats are worn and displayed in a surreal competition.
“One of the things that has been joyous for me has been to see the hats coming in and see the creativity that has gone in them, the devotion to detail, the fantasy,” Tsu said.
“That I think is a product of COVID. I think if we were doing this show at another time, No. 1, I might not have gotten as many volunteers, and No. 2, everybody’s mind would be different. The hats would be different.”
Despite the devastation the industry and audiences have faced as the pandemic stretches on, Tsu maintained theater would survive. She celebrated the ever-unpredictable creativity of Quantum and Ms. Boos, calling her the “Mother Courage of Pittsburgh theater.”
“Out of difficult times and pain and loss can still come creativity and beauty, and it can surprise us when it does that,” Tsu said. “And I think that is indelibly a part of human beings. I’m humbled by that and delighted by that, and I hope that our audiences will find that the case as well.”