In the Steel City, a blast furnace becomes the setting for Shakespeare

It’s a “once-in-a-lifetime” show.

Lear lords over his kingdom.

Lear lords over his kingdom.

Photo by Heather Mull Photography / Courtesy of Quantum Theatre
Rossilynne Culgan

In the play “King Lear,” the title character’s identity gets stripped to nothing, and eventually, he finds a new path forward.

It’s a story akin to Pittsburgh’s, as the town’s identity as the Steel City transforms. So it’s only fitting that this new production of “King Lear” take place at the site of a blast furnace.

“The furnace is this really exciting echo of Pittsburgh’s identity as a steel city,” the show’s Director Risher Reddick said. “In the way that Pittsburgh had that slow process of stripping away that identity and finding its way forward, it echoes very beautifully the story of Lear.”

Quantum Theatre will perform “King Lear” at Carrie Furnaces, the now-defunct Swissvale blast furnaces — the only surviving pre-WWII blast furnaces in the country. The curtain, so to speak, will rise on May 10 for several weeks of performances held on Wednesday through Sunday evenings through June 2.

Though the site has been home to art exhibits and concerts, Quantum representatives believe this is the first theatrical performance at Carrie Furnaces. The performance is the result of a partnership between Rivers of Steel, Carrie Furnaces, and Quantum Theatre.

Over the years, guerilla artists snuck into Carrie Furnaces and made art there — actor Jeffrey Carpenter (who plays Lear) among them.

“Jeffrey grew up and went to high school in Swissvale at the time that the mill closed,” said Karla Boos, Quantum’s artistic director. “He personally experienced the blow to the region that that was.”

The performance incorporates elements of artwork, such as the Carrie Deer, a sculpture created from materials sourced onsite by the Industrial Arts Co-op in the late 1990s. It also features Carrie Furnaces’ native plants and concrete relics, all nods to the show’s theme and to a celebration of local history.

The show indicates “a transfer of power to the generation to come — a kind of stripping away to what is most core,” Boos said.

“We look at that great furnace, and I think we feel our identity as a region, both its glory and its folly and the need to move into a future,” she added.

The performance is completely outdoors, with the audience experiencing the first and second acts in different areas of the site.

“The place is like a cathedral in Pittsburgh to industry and a whole character of our past that had grandeur and hubris — things that are present in ‘King Lear,'” Boos said. “It’s a crumbling relic and yet you feel the power and all the lives touched and lives lived. You know you’re in the presence of all of that, and that’s so perfect for ‘King Lear.'”

The only surviving pre-WWII blast furnaces in the country.

The only surviving pre-WWII blast furnaces in the country.

Photo by Heather Mull Photography / Courtesy of Quantum Theatre

Why should you go?

“King Lear” is among the clearest of Shakespeare’s plays, Boos said, and it focuses on relatable themes like the emotions between parents and children, the old yielding to the new, and coming to terms with mistakes.

Plus, she said, Lear hasn’t been performed in Pittsburgh for a while, and its themes resonate in today’s political climate.

The setting, of course, is a major draw. Reddick called it “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

"Creatures of the furnaces."

"Creatures of the furnaces."

Photo by Heather Mull Photography / Courtesy of Quantum Theatre

What to look for

In addition to admiring the setting, take time to appreciate the detailed costuming, the work of Susan Tsu. For example, when Lear divides his kingdom among his three daughters, he’ll wear a cloak with a map of England. Other characters are designed to look like “creatures of the furnaces,” Quantum said, referencing hard hats, along with iron and gold adornments.

Also be attuned to sounds, including noises made by the furnace, and lighting, as the show will take place during sunset.

Other tips

  • Chairs are provided.
  • Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and dress in layers.
  • Expect a two-hour runtime.
  • There’s free parking on-site.
  • Tours of Carrie Blast Furnaces are available before the show on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Tickets

Find tickets online or by calling 412-362-1713. Prices range from $43-$63.