These days, Jed Allen Harris says it takes a certain kind of script to draw him from the flexible confines of academic theater. He helped lay the foundation of today’s dynamic Pittsburgh’s theater community through his bold and risky work in the mid-1980s. It’s that kind of opportunity that lures him back to Quantum Theatre.
Karla Boos, Quantum’s artistic director, enticed Harris to return for John Hodge’s Collaborators. The playwright is known for the screenplay for Trainspotting (1996) from the Irvine Welsh novel, and the just released T2. The 2011 Olivier award winner had an acclaimed London run, but Quantum’s version is one of less than a half dozen productions in the US.
Now, Harris directs Collaborators on a rough-hewn stage in a warehouse space in Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood behind Bakery Square.
Hodge’s “surreal fantasy” connects two historical figures–a former physician turned writer Mikhail Bulgakov, (1891-1940) and Russian dictator Joseph Stalin (1878-1953).
Hodge asks: what if the novelist-playwright had been pressured to create a work in honor of Stalin’s 60th birthday?
Bulgakov’s works were banned and reviewed negatively by the state. But when he appealed to Stalin for permission to emigrate, the murderous ruler called him personally. Despite Stalin’s permission to continue work for the Moscow Art Theater, the playwright’s artistic range was stifled.
Hodge’s episodic script is in part inspired by Stalin’s documented admiration for Bulgakov’s work, but spins surrealistic scenes that Harris relishes bringing to life.
“It’s an unusual play,” Harris observes, “Karla is really the most adventurous programmer in the city. I immediately fell in love with the script.”
“To me, this play asks the question ‘How much do you sell your artistic soul and live with yourself–and be able to get to sleep at night’,” says Harris.
Perhaps the play resonates more with current events than anyone might have imagined when Boos invited Harris to stage it. Harris figures audience members will appreciate the relevance without his production imposing what people might think about Russia and its leaders.
Audiences might spot one moment in Harris’ production that intentionally references the present while the story is bound to stir up associations with recent US-Soviet relations in the 21st century.
In Collaborators, the year is 1938, Bulgakov’s dreams disrupt his sleep in his Moscow flat. He wrestles with his conscience about his assignment to honor Stalin and also with the tyrant who threatens him with the typewriter.
“The play has so many different styles,” which was part of its appeal for Harris. There’s a silent movie style opening that moves quickly to intimate moments for the writer and his wife Yelena.
Bulgakov’s squelched play about Moliere is referenced when the French playwright’s appearance. Other surreal elements include one silent character who “makes things appear,” Harris chuckles as he imitates his staging in the space during our visit.
Harris most recently returned to Quantum in 2014 for the revolutionary farce Pantagleize. The design team with CMU roots that supported him for The Task in 2010 is back. Scenic designer Narelle Sissons also created the setting in the Gage Building for that production, which also featured costumes by Susan Tsu, lights by C. Todd Brown, and sound by Joe Pino. Harris calls it one of his most favorite productions ever.
Two actors already familiar to Harris lead a cast of 11.
“The three times I’ve worked with Tony Bingham have been at Quantum,” says Harris of his Mikhail Bulgakov. He says the role requires “a very delicate touch in many ways as he has to be part of the humor of the play and yet is a tragic figure.” Dana Hardy, who plays Yelena, also happens to be Bingham’s wife offstage. Their characters travel from despair to joy and back again.
Harris says he knew Martin Giles would be the “perfect actor” to play Stalin “for his combination of cynicism, humor and presence.”
The ensemble is completed by Ken Bolden, Dylan Marquis Myers, Nancy McNulty, Joe Rittenhouse, Mark Stevenson, Olivia Vadnais, and Jonathan Visser.
Never shying away from the most complex and even controversial projects, Harris paved the way for the varied theater scene Pittsburgh boasts today. His Theater Express (founded 1976) featured many Carnegie Mellon alums in bold plays and musicals. Not everyone would have programmed Marquis de Sade’s Justine or Beckett’s Endgame, but Harris did. For more than 20 years, he worked with CMU alumnus Marc Masterson, founder of City Theatre..
“The joke was that my show was usually the least attended at City Theatre,” laughs Harris. He staged some 30 productions, crediting Masterson’s comfort with taking such risks for some of his own most memorable directing experiences.
In a 100-seat space provided by the University of Pittsburgh on Bouquet Street, City served up the kind of taut and compelling repertoire for which Harris is known. Some of his favorite productions there include the premiere of Marie Irene Fornes’ The Danube (“Still one in my top 10 of all times,” says Harris) and the unforgettable Pittsburgh premiere of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, along with classics by American writers such as Tony Kushner (Slavs) at City on the Southside.
A protégé of Yale and CMU theater legend Leon Katz (1919-2017), Harris was a part of the Leon Katz Rhodopi International Theatre Laboratory in Smolyan, Bulgaria for six years. He revisited one of his favorite City scripts, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class at Theatre Sofia, among his international projects.
While a stint at Bricolage first drew him back to the professional stage here in 2007.
As a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon Drama–where the educational experience outweighs commercial appeal–he says he gets his “theatrical jollies”. He has directed productions including Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and other large projects such as Nicholas Nickleby, co-directed with Gregory Lehane.
Harris invites the adventurous nature of audiences here, but warns, “As I’ve been doing for 40 years…” Well, you’ll have to experience Collaborators to complete his sentence.
(This writer isn’t saying how long we’ve known Jed and his work, just that we go “way back” and reminisced about Theater Express, a directing class at Pitt, costumes built for one of his City Theatre productions, and Jed’s unmistakable laugh!)
Collaborators, the final production of the company’s 26th season, is at Quantum’s unique warehouse venue behind Bakery Square at 6500 Hamilton Avenue, Pittsburgh (15206). Lot and street parking surround the building. Do dress in layers–a cozy Quantum tradition–as temperatures and sunny days still vary in April.
The production runs April 6-30 with tickets at $38-$51. Details on additional events, nearby restaurant options or pre-ordering a dinner to enjoy onsite are at also on Quantum’s website.
Photos courtesy of Quantum Theatre