Experience ‘King Lear’ at the Carrie Furnace
The Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark is definitely not your typical stage, but it’s the perfect setting for a play with a very rich history.
The Swissvale site, part of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, will be the setting for Quantum Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”
Part of the former Homestead Steel Works, the furnaces are the only surviving pre-World War II blast furnaces in the country. The location includes the communities of Rankin and Swissvale — and is sandwiched between the historical industrial behemoths of Braddock and Homestead.
Rivers of Steel and Quantum bringing “King Lear” to life is a pioneer program of industrial preservation, according to Quantum Theatre.
“The site is incredible, not only as a feat of engineering, but for its present life, after use as a cog in the steel industry,” says director Risher Reddick. “This is a director’s dream. It takes real chutzpah to do a project of this scale, but it’s really special — and somewhat risky. You have various safety issues with the space, and the fact it is being performed outside, but Quantum and Rivers of Steel have made sure the place is safe for everyone.”
Why Carrie Furnace?
Artistic director and Quantum Theatre founder Karla Boos attended a reading of an edit of the show at Bricolage Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh by Bricolage Production Company founders Jeffrey Carpenter and Tami Dixon, who were then cast for this production as King Lear and The Fool.
“It was wonderful,” says Boos. “I had fallen in love with ‘King Lear,’ and I immediately thought about this site. The Rivers of Steel are not letting this crumble. It is such an important space, and artists are fascinated by it.”
The intimate location will seat 150 guests.
Boos says she loves the charm of Carrie Furnace, which represents the steel industry’s heritage in this city. She recalls the upcoming anniversary of the Battle of Homestead, a clash between union steelworkers and private security that took place at the steel plant in July 1892.
“It is a majestic industrial site,” Boos says. “And I hope that people will come out to see the show. They have to know that we might have to cancel if there is a weather issue, or they might get rained on or it might be cold, but it will definitely be a unique theater experience.”
Performances will be 7:30 p.m. May 10-12, 15-19, 22-26, 29-31 and June 1-2.
May 9 is “Community Night” with complimentary underwritten tickets for residents of Swissvale, Rankin, Braddock, Munhall, Homestead and West Homestead.
Reddick says he is fascinated by the remnants of iron production at the site, and how the furnaces remain as monuments to the steel industry which dominates Pittsburgh’s identity. The remnant aspect of the site resonates for him because the play is “about the stripping away of identity on the way toward the end of life.”
Shakespeare would absolutely love this setting “as long as he got paid” and he would be super-pleased his play is still being produced, Reddick says. He said the playwright would also appreciate the connection between steel no longer being produced and King Lear’s identity being taken away.
“It’s pretty cool, because it’s a play I’ve been working on all my life,” says Carpenter, who has played the character of Edgar, but is playing Lear for the first time. “It’s an amazing opportunity with an amazing backdrop. I want to take some of the energy and have it motivate me. There are so many ghosts here. You can feel them.”
Now in its 28th season, Quantum Theatre is a company of progressive, professional artists dedicated to producing intimate and sophisticated theatrical experiences in uncommon settings, exploring universal themes of truth, beauty and human relationships in unexpected ways.
Boos has devoted her time to eclectic experimentation, staging works in environmental sites that inspire directors, designers and performers and delight audiences. She thinks about diverse spaces that showcase Pittsburgh’s character, history and architecture, such as a grand museum, an abandoned industrial site, a modern office tower, a beloved city lake and a waterless indoor swimming pool.
The Carrie Furnace production fits with a long tradition of re-imagining classics in never-before-seen ways.
“People are looking for an experience that is like no other,” Boos says.
The Quantum script is an edit by James Kincaid and Julian Markels.
Widely regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, the story begins in Lear’s palace in the shadow of the Carrie Deer, an iconic sculpture created from materials sourced on-site by the Industrial Arts Co-op in the late 1990s, according to Quantum Theatre. Machinery on the site dwarfs the human protagonists and a trio of towering puppet figures imagined by set designer Tony Ferrieri .
Ferrieri says he tries to make a set look like he didn’t do anything to it.
“What you do should fit the site and keep the integrity of the site, kind of like icing on a cake,” Ferrieri says. “This is an amazing space which embodies the history of this city and an opportunity for people to see this dinosaur of the steel industry.”
In addition to Carpenter and Dixon, the cast includes Dana Hardy Bingham, Ken Bolden, Lissa Brennan, Monteze Freeland, Jessie Wray Goodman, Catherine Gowl, Connor McCanlus, Joe McGranaghan and Michael Angelo Turner.
The design team features Ferrieri, Susan Tsu on costumes, C. Todd Brown on lighting and sound by Steve Shapiro.
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 412-320-7889, [email protected] or via Twitter .