The recent CalArts' site-specific, all-female production of King Lear at the Brewery Arts Complex in downtown Los Angeles was not only an artistic and design triumph, it was a victory behind the scenes as well. Much in the same way we asked the creative team for that production — director Travis Preston, set designer Chris Barreca, lighting designer Chris Akerlind, costume designer Ellen McCartney, sound designer Jon Gottlieb and co-designer Leon Rothenberg — to provide us with their personal thoughts on the production in the October issue of Entertainment Design, we've asked the technical crew to do the same in this Theatre Crafts special supplement. To that end, technical director Bill Ballou, associate technical director Lorrie Snyder, video coordinator Lap-Chi Chu, and car-wreck designer/associate technical director Michael Casselli have been kind enough to take us through some of their challenges on this project, from the change of venue (Lear was to be housed in the massive construction site of the CalArts REDCAT space in Frank Gehry's unfinished Disney Hall, but construction delays led the team to the Brewery), to the Brewery's uneven floors to kangaroo rats hiding in the vehicles used in a car crash to depict Lear's final step into madness — truly unique stories for a truly unique production.
One of the technical challenges in the Center for a New Theatre's King Lear was created by the change of venue. In the early design stages of the show, one of the scenic and directorial elements that emerged was the moving audience platform. This was to be essentially a block of raked seating that could move freely around a larger space while carrying its capacity of 140 people.
The show was originally slated for the unfinished REDCAT space in the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA. The space in which the moving audience platform was to work has a new concrete floor with a hard-trowel finish, ideal for air casters. When the show was moved to the Brewery, one of our first concerns was about the floor surface.
The large space at the Brewery was built in 1903 to be Thomas Edison's first generating plant west of the Mississippi. It was enlarged in 1905 and is now 60' × 200', open except for a large smokestack along one of the long walls, off-center to leave an open space of about 110' long. Since the building has no basement and was originally built to house enormous gas turbines, we weren't terribly concerned about the ability of the floor to support our unit. The difficulty lay with the surface of the floor itself. The concrete is stamped with a 3' × 3' “tile” pattern of grooves about ⅜" wide and ⅜" deep. While the floor appears quite flat to the naked eye, initial sightings with a laser level showed that it slopes about 4½" over its width to two floor drains in the middle of the room. There are also numerous cracks from 99 years of settling and earthquakes. The cracks and stamped grooves could probably have been smoothed enough for the air casters by using caulk and metallic tape, but the “dished” shape of the floor was incompatible with the rigid steel-truss structure we had built.
Our first thought toward leveling and smoothing the floor was to pour a new surface and finish it to the specifications of the air casters. Quick volumetric calculations with a laser level indicated that it would require about 40 yards of material to level the east end of the room required for the movement of the audience unit, or twice that much to pour a new floor in the entire room. Since the space is a rental, we had to consider removal and disposal of the material after the show closed.
Peter Carlson of Carlson and Company suggested the solution we finally used. He pointed out that the loaded unit, while heavy, did not present a large point-load to the floor (under 10psi when the casters are inflated, under 65psi when sitting on its Teflon pads). Peter's suggestion was to level and tamp dirt and gravel, and cover that with a metal surface. This solved most of our issues with a wet pour and also appealed visually to Chris Barreca, the designer.
We scheduled six days in the space prior to our scenery load-in on May 17. Brian Garber and Wes Wyse, members of the technical team, organized the deliveries and equipment. On May 10, 36 sheets of hot-rolled steel, 8' × 20' × 3/16", were delivered to the site, along with the heavy equipment and the first of three loads of 25 tons of base (a mixture of sand, gravel, and dirt often used for building and repairing dirt roads). We set benchmarks around the room with a water level, and then calibrated a rotating laser level to those marks to determine the high point of the floor and establish a level grade. Working with a student crew, Michael Casselli set up a level beam around the area in which the first plate would be laid, and then carefully screeded off the fill material with a steel bar. Once the area was level, we lifted the first steel sheet using a telescopic handler fitted with a spreader bar and two edge clamps. Michael was able to set one edge of the sheet against the wall of the room and then carefully lay the sheet over the fill without disturbing it. Once the sheet was down, we went over it with a gasoline-powered tamper to compress the base. The sheets were laid out in a bond or brickwork alternating pattern, and we had previously determined the order of installation in a CAD simulation to avoid driving over any of the installed sheets with the handler. Each sheet was laid in the same manner: fill material was brought in with shovels and wheelbarrows, screeded to level, then the sheet was laid leaving an escape route for the machinery. As the sheets were laid down, two welders with TIG machines carefully evened up the edges and tacked them together every six inches. After the welding, we filled the remaining seam with a tough caulk to minimize voids, which would defeat the air casters.
The resulting floor was durable, within budget, and fit well with the architecture of the room and the rest of the production design.
Associate Technical Director
Chris Barreca's original design concept for the audience-seating unit was an object that would look from the outside like an old-fashioned box camera. Essentially, it was a black cube with a telescoping snout that would force the perspective of people sitting within through the 12' × 12' aperture at the end of the snout. The required floor plan dimensions were to be 30' × 30', the unit had to seat 140 persons, and it had to be able to move both forward and backward and to pivot while fully loaded.
Early discussions between technical director Bill Ballou, Barreca, and myself led to “evolving” the unit to a bleacher-style seating configuration in order to accommodate the required audience, with some type of fabric canopy to enclose it. Bill and I then began to look at different options for providing the required movement. We first considered using surplus railroad tracks and wheels for the linear motion and a turntable arrangement for the pivoting moment. We abandoned this train of thought after a few days of research as the turntable would be expensive to build and would limit us to only one location for that effect. Also, the manpower and arrangement of winches and lines needed to move the unit along the tracks seemed clumsy at best.
We then turned to air casters as a viable option. We began discussions with Jerry Stemple at the Air Caster Corporation, laying out our needs. Our biggest concern was how to provide the required controlled movement once the unit was “flying.” After quite a bit of back and forth, we settled on two electrically controlled drive wheels that could be deployed or retracted by providing air to two small air bladders, and a pneumatically controlled pivot point about 3" in diameter to be installed at the center point of the unit. The speed and direction of each wheel could be controlled with a joystick and rheostat by an operator seated on the lowest structure of the unit underneath the audience.
While all of this was going on, Bill was busy doing cost and initial engineering breakdowns on the type of structure we could build to support the necessary weight and accommodate the air caster package. We finally settled on an arrangement of three 30'-long steel box trusses supporting six ladder-type trusses that looked a lot like giant stringers for a staircase. On top of these “stringers,” running at 90° to them, are 2" × 2" steel tubes with welded-on tabs that bolt through the ladder trusses to provide insurance against racking and are then the platform base for ¾" plywood “treads” and “risers” that complete the support structure of the unit. Bill did a 3D AutoCAD drawing of the entire structure and we began construction. It took three hired professional welders, Prudence Wehnert, a tech student in the final year of her masters degree program who was the ATD for the construction phase, and a revolving cast of approximately 12 other students eight weeks to complete construction and initial test assembly.
The last issue to solve in the construction of the unit was the overhead canopy, side walls, and front snoot that would enclose the audience within the unit and force sightlines through the 12' × 12' aperture. This was made a bit more complicated by a later design decision to present the unit to the audience in the first act as an unclad structure that would then be dressed to the box camera appearance while the audience was in another space for the second act. We used a rental package of 12"-square aluminum box truss to form the uprights and flat roof section, which was clad in 16oz black commando cloth. The side and back panels were hung on curtain track, which was suspended from the box truss so that they could be slid back and tied to the rear uprights for the “unclad” first scene. The front of the unit was built as a 14'-high × 17'-wide flat (black Duvetyne on ¼" plywood on square steel tubing framing) with an opening 12' wide and 9' high. Four trapezoidal flats formed a “snout” 3' deep that projected away from the audience and further reduced the opening, focusing the audience's view. On the inside of this “proscenium” we hung a traveler track rigged for a standard center-split black drape, pulled from one side. The entire proscenium flat (including the snout and drape) had to be installed and removed during mid-show changeovers, so student ATD David Taylor designed two castered tip-jacks that were integrated into the framing and allowed the whole piece to be easily detached and rolled away to storage.
The final weight of the completed unit was 14,446lbs; fully loaded with audience was 42,446lbs. We used eight 30"-square air casters to float this load. After some consultation, we rented a “roots blower” — type compressor capable of supplying 300cfm at 12psi. Due to ambient noise concerns, the blower was situated outside the performance space and the air was sent to the unit through a combination of 3" PVC pipe and 3" medium-duty air hose, approximately 150' run total. An initial test revealed that the blower was putting out air in excess of 270° Fahrenheit, which was much too hot for the air casters. We then installed an after-cooler, which is essentially a very large radiator arrangement of pipes through which the air passes while being cooled by a large fan. After the installation of the after-cooler, the supplied air temperature never exceeded 78° F, even on one 98° evening.
When the unit was completed and actually floating on the steel floor, the last few issues of operation had to be addressed. As the driver, I had to be able to see where I was going while seated under the unit at the control panel. Two methods were used for this. First, a small lipstick-type camera was installed suspended from the top of the unit aimed toward the aperture, which allowed me to see both the audience and their point of view on a monitor installed at the control panel. Secondly, at the suggestion of David Taylor, we used blacklights suspended under the driver to pick out and illuminate the spike marks for the 14 separate moves that the unit went through during the scene. The spike marks were painted on the floor in Rosco UV paint, which was invisible to the naked eye until the blacklight hit it. Our scenic artists Angelique Powers and Kimberly Manuel were instrumental in doing the research to make this approach work.
Reid Takashashi of Strategic Technical Services, Inc. did the final engineering studies and recommendations for the unit. He used Cosmos Rev. 2.5, a structural analysis program, to create a computerized model of the unit (based on our AutoCAD model), run load cases, and analyze the results. Using the software, he was able to subject the computer model (with values put in for equipment and audience loads) to seismic shocks of varying magnitudes and from all directions. He worked along with us as we assembled and completed the unit, recommending additions, which we built into the AutoCAD model. When the model survived the theoretical seismic testing, David Taylor made the few necessary structural additions to the real unit.
The video portion of CalArts' Lear began in the workshop years prior to the event at Los Angeles' Brewery Arts complex. Designer Chris Kondek and director Travis Preston worked out as much of the video content as they could in the rehearsal process. Since Kondek and Preston were separated by nine time zones, design associate Laura Clemons attended rehearsals in Valencia and gathered/generated video content in California. Rehearsals with full-scale set pieces were vital to Preston's work, which needed to work seamlessly with the technology. However, since CalArts did not own all the video equipment Kondek needed, video was rehearsed with a scaled-down setup. Even without a full complement of gear, video discoveries happened (the use of a large roving video projector on wheels to light Movement Three, for instance, was discovered in rehearsals).
In the days prior to the director and cast moving down to the Brewery, video gear was loaded into the space. Matrix Video Solutions supplied all the video projectors, routers, and mixers. Positions for the projectors were found in different corners of the massive raw spaces. We wanted to remain flexible with our gear as to allow for changes and discovery during the tech process.
Once the Valencia rehearsals moved to the Brewery, Preston and Kondek could finally tech the full video content. Working in a site-specific space such as the Brewery imposes the usual challenges: no pre-existing wiring, no hanging positions, no running positions, etc. While the Brewery was an indoor space, natural daylight flowed in like an outdoor venue. Working around daylight limited the hours when we could see the projections. Kondek would render video imagery during the day, then see the video projected full scale during rehearsals only at night. Notes and new ideas generated from the rehearsal were quickly discussed between the director and designers, then the group disbanded for the night. Because of contractual obligations, the production had to be out of the space by 12:30am every evening. Working in darkness throughout the night was not an option. On the positive side, we could sleep every night. On the negative side, dark time was precious.
While using two separate spaces created double the work for our crews, it did provide us with an opportunity to have dark time for notes in one space while rehearsals happened in the other.
To run the video content, Kondek specified Wet Electric's Production Designer software. Clemons was able to familiarize herself with the new software during the Valencia rehearsal process, as well as prepare video content for the show. Having all the video content localized in the hard drives of the Production Designer system greatly simplified a complex process. In Lear's video-heavy room (which, ironically, was the “small room”), we were running nine video projectors and 11 video monitors over four independent channels of video.
Production Designer could independently run groups of events via MIDI triggers, which could remain under human control. This allowed the video content to remain flexible to all the nuances of live performance. The ability to run, trigger, and manage all that content under one system saved not only rehearsal time with actors, but setup time with technicians. Such simplification via centralization was essential to making Lear possible, for in addition to prerecorded video content, we used live feeds from four handheld video cameras simultaneously. All the mixing and switching for the show was possible with one operator. With all the complexities of our video setup, we were able to pick up and use Production Designer very quickly. More importantly, the system worked reliably, and we all know how important that is.
Car Wreck Design and Construction/Associate Technical Director
It was in the spring of 2001 that Chris Barreca asked if I would be interested in designing and building the car crash sculpture for the show. My background is in the visual arts, I am a sculptor as well as a scenic designer, and my interest lies in large scale, kinetic installation. This seemed like a good challenge, so I agreed.
Initially, the model depicted two older model cars, heaped on top of each other in a seemingly static configuration. The sculpture was to appear in Scene Four, where Lear's dissolution finally takes hold amidst the raging storm in the heath. After considering this, I became certain that instead of the finality of a crash, I would attempt to capture the moment right before impact, trying to harness and freeze the destructive force that is the result of an automobile accident. Working with a limited budget, I started to search for the ideal cars for this piece. I soon found the first car, a 1973 Dodge Charger, sitting outside my home.
I live in the high desert, about 70 miles above Los Angeles, on a piece of property that was at one time the telephone relay station. The Compound, as we affectionately call it, was built in the 1920s and has accumulated many things, including a fair selection of cars. The Charger had been sitting in the yard for at least 15 years if not more. It was missing a front end, as well as the engine and most of the drive train. This was fortunate, because I would have had to remove the engine and transmission anyway to make the car lighter. The body was in fair condition, but the interior had seen better days, and would require an extensive cleaning due to the fact that it had been used as a habitat by many of the creatures that live in and around the property. After securing permission from the owner, our landlord, I prepared to get the car down to CalArts to start constructing the crash. I soon realized that the sculpture would require more work than I was able to do myself, so I enlisted six students to assist me and created a special topics class in mechanical construction. With six assistants, I figured we would make fairly quick work of it.
In order to move the car, it was necessary to hire a flatbed wrecker to drive it down to the school. When it arrived, we donned our protective gear and started to tear the Charger down as far as we could. There was a lot of animal refuse in and around the car, and we had wear dust masks and gloves to keep ourselves healthy. It was dirty work, and proved to be too much for a number of the students, so our ranks were reduced to a core of three dedicated students, Arny Cano, Efren Delgadillo, and Matt Downs-McAdon. I had them remove all the body panels, the doors, the dash, and the seats so that we were left with a shell of the car. I had to make it as light as possible in order to lift it up so I could position it as precisely as possible based on the research I had done concerning crashes, and the CAD drawings I had done during my design phase. I realized that the final look would be established in the studio, but I used the drawings to rough in the feeling that I wanted. With the car stripped down, we were ready to pick it up and start to position it.
Since we were working in the CalArts prop shop, I needed to construct a freestanding frame, which would support the weight of the car safely. I ended up designing the frame using commercially available scaffold from Saf-Way, utilizing their systems scaffolding This system is similar to the type of steel they use in rock-and-roll construction, and goes together quickly and easily. As the car left the ground, there was a feeling of relief and satisfaction to see the sculpture starting to take form. After much positioning and re-positioning, we reached a point that I was happy with. The next step was to build a rolling carriage to support the frame.
I designed the carriage using 4" square tubing. Wheels were placed at five points to supply a footprint wider than the car itself. I knew people would be climbing on the car and wanted to assure that everyone would be safe no matter what they decided to do on and around the car. We plotted the support beams so that the angle of the car would be maintained and transferred all measurements onto a CAD drawing so that we could go up to the metal shop and construct the carriage. We also built a platform out of 3" tubing for the frame to sit on.
After securing the car to the frame with bolts, we removed the exterior support and broke down the scaffolding and I had my team replace everything we removed, and stepped back to take a look. I was very pleased with the end product and we finished off by taking pictures of the crew posing in the car. But after spending a semester working on the project, we soon found out that it was being put on hold. So with half the sculpture done, we ended up storing the car in the parking lot at CalArts until further notice.
When the project started back up, we were informed that the venue had changed from the RedCat site in downtown Los Angeles to the Brewery, a sprawling artist complex southeast of downtown.
I should mention at this point that my role had changed since I first started working on this project. Instead of being responsible for the car crash alone, I had agreed to become the associate technical director. With these added duties, my timeframe with which to complete the sculpture became quite limited. We were able to allot four days to completing the sculpture, and I was able to free up one crew person to assist me.
The next car also came from our property in the desert. This car was a 1982 Peugeot, which also had been sitting for a very long time. A family of kangaroo rats had taken up residence in the engine, but we assumed they would move out when we transported the car. This time I rented a trailer and towed the car down myself. It had been sitting so long that we needed to use come-alongs to get it up on the trailer. We got the car down to CalArts and moved both of them into the prop shop to finish. We followed the same approach for the most part, though we did have to remove the engine and transmission from the Peugeot. This took a bit of work because of the burrow system the kangaroo rats had set up inside the hood and engine. As we removed more and more organic refuse from the car, we noticed that there was a small furry creature in the car — actually three. We were able to get rid of them without too much trouble, though it did take the good part of the three days. We ended up suspending the car from a beam in the ceiling, foregoing the scaffold based on time and money constraints. I had originally intended to have both carriages nest into each other but dispensed with this idea, instead making a carriage that mimicked the other. I positioned the Peugeot so that it appeared to be pushing the Charger up and out of the way. We made good time and finished the second car in the time we had.
With the new venue came new challenges that had not been figured into overall construction of the show and the specific design of the sculpture. In order to access the room into which the cars would roll it became necessary to modify the pre-existing hydraulic ramp, moving it about 1' to the right. This also allowed for the required spacing for a fire escape stairway to be installed. The ramp was all diamond plate steel and I-beams, making it quite heavy and difficult to move. In order to reposition it, I also had to sink new 1/2" threaded studs into the concrete sill. Fortunately this went smoothly and we were able to set the ramp into its new position with the assistance of our telescoping forklift. We also had to temporarily repair some large divots in the floor so that the cars would roll forward smoothly while being pushed by four stagehands.
It was decided that both cars would move simultaneously during the scene, though we needed their appearance to be a surprise. In order to hide them, we built a large steel slip stage for the cars to live on. With this extension added to the ramp, we were able to mask the cars so that they could appear on cue. After having actors in and on the cars, a few safety modifications were made and they were put into rehearsals in the space. In the end, they were pushed into three separate positions for the scene, with working headlights, taillights, and interior lights. The whole scene was lit with only video projection, which gave the scene a very threatening and disruptive look, perfect for Lear's final step into madness.
Presented by Center for New Theatre At CalArts June 11-23, 2002 The Brewery Arts Complex, Los Angeles, CA
Producer/artistic director: Susan Holt
Co-producer: Carol Bixler
Producing director/director: Travis Preston
Scenic design: Christopher Barreca
Costume design: Ellen McCartney
Lighting design: Christopher Akerlind
Sound design: Jon Gottlieb and Leon Rothenberg
Video design: Christopher Kondek
Technical director: Bill Ballou
Car Wreck Design and Construction/Associate Technical Director: Michael Casselli
Associate technical director: Lorrie Snyder
Production stage manager: JP Elins
Lead scenic artist/properties manager: Mary Heilman
Properties artisan: Christian Johnson
Assistant stage managers: Chad Bauman, Erin Cass, Monica Jordan
Scenic and technical team: Shaughn Buchnolz, John Collins, Efren Delgadillo, Matthew Downs-McAdon, Brian Garber, Margaret Goddard, Dustin Lancaster, Kimberly Manuel, Scott McKin, Angelique Powers, Javen Roy-Bachman, Brandon Rud, David Taylor, Kelly Wyse, Wes Wyse
Assistant scenic design: Chiao-Wen Lin
Assistant lighting designers: Tony Mulanix, Justin Townsend
Master electrician: Fred Geffken
Lighting crew: Andrea Bell, Matt Carpenter, Jon Gothard, Tracy Otwell, Matthew Shima, Jonathan Winans
Assistant costume designer/costume shop manager: Karen Murk
Costume director: Martha Ferrara
Head draper: Tanya Lee
Costume crew: Sandra Burns, Charlotte DiGregorio, Enrique Fonseca, Jeaw Nye Tan
Sound crew: Jamie Bennett, Jacob Davis, Montana Johnson, Cricket Myers, Jamie McElhinney, Michael Peters
Video coordinator: Lap-Chi Chu
Video controller: Laura Clemons
Video crew: Jamina Brown, Edward Carbajal, Catherine Cooper, Scott McKim, Austin Switser