It’s only Tom Stoppard and the question of the root of human consciousness, but rising American director Rachel M. Stevens eagerly takes on The Hard Problem for Quantum Theater. The Wallingford, PA, native puts her life and theater chops to work at a point in her career trajectory that seems just right. Her journey is taking her between New York and Pittsburgh and Stevens is enjoying the ride.
Growing up in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, Steven became fascinated with theater from first playing “make believe” with her brother and following his path through school plays (debuting as Gretel in The Sound of Music at age 5) to college and grad school.
“I come from a very tight, small supportive family,” says Stevens. “My grandparents lived down the street from us–me, my brother Marcus and mother and myself. When my brother was seven he asked for a little sister” and she became his “biggest fan”.
Her commitment for further study in theater was confirmed when she came to Pittsburgh to see his work at Point Park University and she wound up in the MFA program in musical theater. Stevens was initially on stage in school and college projects, but the concept of directing clicked for her.
“I always wanted to be in charge of how the time machine was built and our environments…I loved creating concepts that elevated the storytelling.” She went on to earn her MFA in New York at the Actors Theater Drama School at Pace University.
The show her brother was working on at PPU was the musical Floyd Collins at PPU, which Stevens would herself stage in Pittsburgh along with The Spitfire Grill for Front Porch Theatricals’ 2016 season.
“It was a great experience. I loved the company’s family,” she says, likening the close-knit company to the appeal of her early theater experiences.
Front Porch fell between her earliest regional stints as an assistant director at City Theatre and for two world premieres–most recently, the Broadway hit musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 as well as The Bandstand, a new musical debuted at Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey.
“Stoppard’s hard to resist,” Stevens confirms. “Arcadia was one of the most mesmerizing experiences I’ve had in the theater.”
And Quantum is a truly comfortable match for Stevens. The Hard Problem is the stuff of which Artistic Director Karla Boos has built Quantum with its production history distinctively characterized by choices of plays and venues vary significantly from those of other regional companies.
“My relationship with Karla is fairly new, “ says Stevens, but “we are very kindred spirits.”
Stevens was still awaiting final word on the venue for this Stoppard play when we spoke to her in early August and the location is still to be announced as this story is posted. But the mystery for her creative team adds to the anticipation of yet another unforgettable audience experience for Quantum fans.
Quantum describes the play as: “Bristling with intellectual energy and wit…exploring the complexities of consciousness, and the nature of belief.”
The Hard Problem had its premiere at London’s National Theatre in 2015, and Quantum presents its regional premiere.
Stoppard introduces Hilary, a young neuroscientist who questions the source of consciousness at the same time she’s working through some personal sadness and loss. She and her colleagues raise all the hard questions that will keep audiences members’ own brain cells working through Stoppard’s adroit dialogue gymnastics. Like Arcadia, this script promises to awaken those drowsy thought processes to consider the questions of science through characters whose lives represent the human experience while they consider technology’s role in understanding the mind.
Stevens considers it “the journey to find where our hearts live beyond our brain,” noting that she identifies with Hilary’s “twinkling optimism about the way the world functions.”
As rehearsals begin on September 26, Stevens has prepared through her intuitive process–reading and rereading the text while alternately her personal work with production conferences and her own wedding to PPU alumnus Joey Scarillo in Pittsburgh in late August. She’s made the shift from wedding to production planning with a design team of colleagues she knows that includes Stephanie Mayer-Staley, scenic designer via Point Park University, and Andrew Ostrowski, the lighting designer who also lit her wedding.
Regarding her found space venue, “starting from scratch is scary,” Steven admits. But she’s up for the challenge. This director’s own journey on the location of this production is like that of Quantum audiences–surprise us and we won’t mind a bit as Stevens aims to “make this play soar off the page.”
She describes it as “finding where the audience’s heartbeat is in the play…I don’t think there is another company that can do that.”
Sure, Stoppard’s writing can seem dense, but she works to ‘distill it down the gorgeousness of the language.” Steven seriously admits, “I try not try to think about it too much.”
To get there, she describes her process as reading the text “like a story” about six times to date, “writing questions, underlining things”. She then asks “What is the scene really about?” and “What does the character really want?” And “what is the journey EACH of these characters is on?” As she begins working with her cast, they’ll travel to “find where their hearts really are.”
Quantum Theatre’s The Hard Problem continues its 2017-18 season, Oct. 27 to Nov. 19 on the 5th Floor of the Energy Innovation Center at 1435 Bedford Ave. Red Hills, runs through Sept. 10. Pittsburgher Gab Cody’s Inside Passage has its world premiere, March 2-25. For details on plays, venues, special events, and tickets, the Quantum Theatre, quantumtheatre.com.
Design team for The Hard Problem:
Stephanie Mayer-Staley, Scenic Design
Andrew Ostrowski, Lighting Design
Angela Vesco, Costume Design
Joe Spinogatti, Projection Design