Faculty and students are bringing this epic story to life at Quantum Theatre, April 5–27.

April 5, 2024
By Shannon Musgrave

Quantum Theatre in Pittsburgh is known for taking its productions into the community, for pushing the artistic envelope, and for working with artists from Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. Its current production, “Scenes from an Execution” by Howard Barker, does all that and more.

Andrew Smith (associate professor of acting) directs the production, which stars Lisa Velten Smith (assistant professor of voice) as Galactia, a rebel painter commissioned by the Doge to paint a vast canvas celebrating a triumphant battle. The cast includes Head of School Robert Ramirez as Urgentino, Randy Kovitz (adjunct acting professor) as Prodo, Bria Walker-Rhoze (assistant professor of acting) as Gina Rivera, and senior acting students Leyla Davis as Supporta and Mariana Garzón Toro as Dementia. The creative team is also packed with CMU talent. The set is designed by Chelsea M. Warren (associate professor of scenic design), lighting design by C. Todd Brown (associate teaching professor of lighting and production technology), intimacy direction by Tomé Cousin (professor of dance), wardrobe supervision by sophomore costume design student Kendall Swartz, and lighting tech by Thomas Feather (staff lighting technician).

A few of the team answered some questions about the show, their process, and what it’s like working together outside of the Purnell Center for the Arts…

Andrew Smith
Lisa Velten Smith
Bria Walker-Rhoze
C. Todd Brown
Randy Kovitz
Leyla Davis

Q: What is it like working with your CMU colleagues/students/professors outside of school?

Andrew: It is a fantastic experience. It has allowed me to see people in new lights, to understand their working methods. It’s also allowed me to get to know them as people. At school, we can get very busy, so it’s allowed me to spend quality time with quality people. And it’s been really impressive. The students’ consistency, creativity, and ability to weave in professionally was seamless and that was really nice to see.

Leyla: It is truly amazing watching them work. I am learning new things from them every day. It is such a privilege to work alongside these incredibly talented people and see how they apply all the skills that they teach us in class.

C. Todd: It is great to see professors and students practicing our art-form. It sometimes feels very theoretical within the walls of Purnell. It is a good way to remind ourselves about the power of vulnerability—we are showing each other a different perspective on ourselves.

Lisa: I appreciate the familiarity we all have with one another and the understanding that we are all going to dig in to make the best show we possibly can.


Q: What has been your favorite part of the process so far?

Randy: Collaborating with Lisa Velten Smith on our main scene has been a joy. She is a wonderful actor and I’ve always admired her work. Going head-to-head with her is challenging and is making me a better actor.

Lisa: I love rehearsals because it’s the period of time where everything is a discovery and the wrestles are great.  I get to put on my detective hat and work to figure the scenes out. The other day, Leyla and I were doing “take” after take on a scene; exploring where the blocking felt right in our bodies and even though it’s so exhausting – it’s one of the more thrilling aspects of being a working actor. It’s why we get paid. Why we are hired. To dive into these roles and search for the authenticity of the moment. And when it happens! Ah, the satisfaction. Like finding that puzzle piece that fits perfectly.

Andrew: My favorite part so far has been working with the text that served as almost a gravitational black hole in the sense of drawing everyone towards it. Everyone involved in this project was very dedicated and committed from the start because they believed in and were deeply inspired by the text. And that really created an ecosystem that allowed everybody to thrive. … And while it’s one of the biggest, most expansive, most intellectually challenging shows I can think of, this process has been fueled with so much curiosity and peace. I have slept soundly throughout the entire process. And that is a big deal.


Q: How does the work you do at CMU influence your professional work and vice versa?

Bria: I practice what I preach. The techniques we’re teaching our students are ones that we use on stage. We’re not just theorizing in class. Yes, we talk theory, but then we put it into practice. You must test concepts out. See what works for you on any given day. Being able to practice my craft also helps me work from a place of empathy and understanding in the classroom. I understand what that student is thinking and feeling. So, then, I’m able to more effectively guide them through their learning processes.

Lisa: I’m sure most teachers would say that we are better at our craft because of the need for detail that we pour into our classrooms. I view it as a huge responsibility to deconstruct the elements needed as an actor and then to develop a course, a lesson whereby that information can be absorbed and carried forth. So much of teaching is also about listening thus every conversation, every dialogue informs my acting career. I am grateful to have had the opportunities that have allowed me to practice what I preach. Everything that I teach, for the most part, is based on experience.

C. Todd: Working with students who put so much of themselves into their work inspires me to continue to do the same. Bringing things back from professional work is important—things that I discover on a show feed directly into what I can pass along to my students.


Q: What excites you about telling this story?

Lisa: How often do we see an unapologetic female anti hero in a play? One that doesn’t apologize for contradicting herself, one that is passionate and caring, hilarious, crazy, and works herself to the bone to paint what she fundamentally believes is a critical contribution to the forward momentum of society. “Someone needs to speak for dead men.” Yeah. That excites me.

Bria: The piece is set in 16th-century Venice, but the ideas explored are incredibly relevant to the world we live in now. I’ve always loved mixing the classics with contemporary work. That definitely excites me!

Andrew: It excites me that this challenges audiences. This is a play that respects audiences and understands that they’re going to think and they’re curious. They don’t want to be spoon fed a particular message or a particular story. This is a play that raises questions and wrestles with them, and does it with a strong sense of language and passion that is complicated and interesting, but also extremely accessible and alive.


Q: Why should people come see this show?

Bria: Because Lisa is killing it! Also, the play explores thought-provoking ideas and themes through drama and comedy. You have a painter, who is also a woman, wanting to represent truth. Wanting to speak truth through her art but various people with various agendas are getting in her way. I think, as artists, we can all identify with that.

Leyla: People should come see this show because there is a little bit everything and something for everyone. There is comedy, there is drama, there is female empowerment and an INCREDIBLE cast.

Randy: For the public, they should come to experience this dense and wonderful play and enjoy this beautiful production. Our students and colleagues should come for the same reasons, plus to see us practice what we preach.

Andrew: Because it’s passionate. It’s funny. It’s deeply engaging. It has many different arguments about art and its place within society and the role of the benefactor to the artist and the truth. What is the truth? It’s a play about today in that sense – in terms of who gets to define what the truth is; who’s pulling the levers of power in the quest for the truth. But ultimately, a reason to come see it – it will make you think, it will make you feel, it will inspire your brain as well as your heart.

“Scenes From An Execution” by Howard Barker, produced by Quantum Theatre, plays April 5–27 at Abiding Missions in the neighborhood of Allentown.


Student and artist ticket discounts are available by calling 412-362-1713.

Interested in volunteer ushering? Click here!
Ushers help set up concessions, direct patrons to their seats, and help the show run smoothly. Ushers arrive at 6:00, and get to see the show for free.