Two seasons ago, when Douglas Wager's production of Ah Wilderness went up on the thrust stage at the Guthrie, the Minneapolis-based theatre had not planned the seven-state tour that ends May 11. Nobody knew the show would play a variety of proscenium houses, big and small, with varying degrees of technical capability. Because the Guthrie had not saved the scenery and because the set had to be reconfigured for proscenium stages, the show required a complete rebuild. In fact, it required two.

Eugene O'Neill says he wrote “a play true to the spirit of the American large small town at the turn of the century.” When rehearsals began for the thrust production two years ago, Wager called for an effect both dreamlike and nostalgic, and he asked Ming Cho Lee (scenery), Allen Lee Hughes (lighting), and Scott Edwards (sound) to “evoke the sense of a dream remembered, with space, light, and architecture meant to suggest a feeling of time and place without too literally representing it.” Zack Brown's costumes, in contrast, were to “feel extremely individually realistic in detail, putting the characters into strong visual relief.”

Photo: Michal Daniel

That suited Lee, who didn't want to create real locations and real backstage headaches. “I mean, Richard is in his living room, then he's out in a bar, then he's at the beach, and then somehow, without any intermission, he's back in the living room again,” the designer says. Because the play is about family, he considered dotting the stage with family portraits. Since it takes place on the Fourth of July, Lee thought about making the stage resemble an American flag. Finally, after visiting O'Neill's Monte Cristo cottage and doing period research, Lee settled on an image of a house on a beach.

The “house,” a one-dimensional cutout, white, with black lines and a blue roof, looks like it might have been created for a children's book; it stands in front of a three-sided, sky-colored box cyc, and dominates the stage as the audience enters. The house flies off for most of the production, and action generally unfolds in front of the cyc, on a painted floor that is grass-green downstage and water-blue upstage. Pieces of light olive molding that don't quite touch the floor outline a sitting room wall in front of the cyc. Lee simultaneously created the feel of outdoors (wicker chairs) and indoors (a bookcase with glass doors, a chandelier over a lace-covered table). Although he converted the Millers' sitting room into a dining room by adding a table, he defined the bar and other areas with painted backdrops that flew in. “One of Ming Cho Lee's amazing strengths,” says artistic director Joe Dowling, “is his ability to distill the essence of the piece and the flavor and mood into a very simple design.”

Although the concept didn't change for the tour, adjustments needed to be made. Guthrie technical director Jeff Dennstaedt says furniture that had been swapped in a trap room at the Guthrie now came and went from the wings, since not every venue had trap facilities. “Some flying units in the show are not identical to what they were here. Some [theatres] have the height and flytower and can fly these units and some can't. In some places, these units won't be used at all,” he adds. A white open-framed parlor wall, a bigger wall with pipes against worn wood for the bar scene, and a chandelier are among the scenery pieces and props that some audiences aren't seeing.

“Ming came up with two basic versions, a wide configuration backdrop of 53' and a backdrop of 41',” Dennstaedt says. Each of these blended into the sidewalls the same way. The Guthrie carries an adjustable show deck for the grass and water floor treatment, created from panels that can be added or removed to fit different stages.

Audiences in Ann Arbor, MI, the first to see the large set with all its elements, responded enthusiastically. Andrew Hause, technical director for the University Musical Society, says the Guthrie crew had been averaging four hours of sleep on the road before facing the two-day load-in; partly because the theatre traveled with its own lighting package and a pre-set wasn't necessary, the show was easy on the presenter.

The Plot Thins

Audiences in the smaller venues had to rely entirely on Hughes' lighting to create the feel of different environments. And Hughes had to adjust to a good deal more than missing backdrops in some venues. “At the Guthrie, I had a rep plot,” he says, explaining that he found many instruments in place, ready to be used in any plot he devised. “There was no limitation in terms of color,” he adds. That helped when he tried to achieve an effect required by “that hateful line in the play, ‘This is the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen.’ At the Guthrie, we used a lot of instrumentation to do that. I had to make decisions about what to keep and what to lose,” he continues. “We loaded the cues and the counts from the Guthrie, and then I translated and started cutting.”

Hughes had lit a severe thrust, and as you might guess, a proscenium required a different plot. In this case, however, it required four of them. The ideas in the design stayed true to the original and Hughes maintained the basic focus; the two configurations required one plot for the whole set in the small box equipped for flying, another for the abbreviated set in the small space, and two more for the whole and abbreviated sets in the larger space.

Hughes only had the opportunity to tech two of these. Because the Guthrie doesn't have a proscenium theatre, techs took place at Concordia University in St. Paul, MN, the first venue on the tour. “We teched the small set with the walls and the small set without the walls, so the expanded version I didn't see,” he says, adding that his assistant, Karin Olson, is the head electrician and is there to maintain the show on the road. Hause says Olson had come to Ann Arbor with Tartuffe [see sidebar below] and knew how to plan, too.

Matt Reinert, who executed the lighting at the Guthrie and prepared the tour, packed enough to keep the design relatively consistent. Equipment included an ETC Obsession 1500 console with ETC Source Fours and Sensor dimmers, Strand fresnels, Wybron Colorams, GAMProducts Twin Spins and Film/FX units, High End Systems AF1000 strobes, and L&E cyc lights. “This is a pretty straightforward show,” says Reinert. “We are using ETC Smart Twofers [dimmer doublers], which are great on a tour. Not only do they double your dimming capability in terms of control of wattage, a lot less multicable is required.” Fixtures are pre-attached to “meat racks,” a 7' by 6' piece of Unistrut with five units bolted to it; the meat rack clamps to the house system and goes back to the dimmer rack — what Reinert refers to as “an old-fashioned way of touring.

“We went into techs with the idea that the more that we ask the venue to supply, the fewer venues we can go to, so it's a balance point,” he explains. “If we ask a house to supply eight electric pipes, some can't do that. We rely on venues to supply onstage circuits.” The Guthrie took only five overhead electrics, which Reinert says sets the biggest limit on what they could do. Even though different venues require different plots, Reinert says they attempted to keep equipment as standard as possible. “We don't want to do a whole lot of modifications per venue,” he notes.

Dressing a Dream

Brown gave Wager the sense of authentic costumes he had requested, researching the period largely from This Was Connecticut, a collection of photographs assembled by Martin W. Sandler from the archives of the New Haven Colony Historical Society. “We could almost pick individual characters directly out of the many wonderful snapshots reproduced in that book. Also, we tracked down an issue of McCall's magazine from June, 1906, which contained a number of patterns that middle-class women of the day would have used in making their own clothing,” Brown says.

Although he tried to maintain “a certain level of faithfulness to the actual patterns, colors, and fabrics worn during the period,” Brown also wanted “to create designs which would resonate with the tastes and sensibilities of a modern audience.” That meant avoiding period conventions that might confuse spectators and destroy the sense of “dreamy days of summers past; girls typically wore white summer dresses with black stockings and black leather boots. Also, men almost always wore dark wool suits in the summertime.” Instead, Brown used cotton fabrics and a palette of white and beige with touches of greens, golds, and browns.

Scott Edwards, who collaborated with Wager on the sound design, says he changed very little, and the small modifications had less to do with touring than with remounting; Wager wanted a few more screen doors to close, for instance. “We tour with a pretty sophisticated computer playback system,” he explains, “the same one we use on our mainstage. We loaded in files from the last time we did the show.” Some of the equipment Edwards used on the road included a Mackie d8b digital console, SWE Sound Productions SFX1000 computers using Windows, SIA SmaartPro Live, XTA AudioCore, and Sonic Foundry software programs, a Denon DN-C630 CD player, a Tascam 103 cassette player, a Sennheiser evolution 100/EW100 wireless mic system with DPA 4016 elements, Telex and Clear-Com beltpacks, headsets, and receivers, eight EAW KF300e speakers, two EAW SB1000s, and four JBL Control 1s mounted in two pianos. Processing was via XTA 226 and 200s; amplification was via Crest 3001/5001s. The sound gear was provided by Audio Visual Film Group of Minneapolis.

Wager selected the music, written early in the 20th century by Charles Ives. “The songs that are sung or played in the script — the ones O'Neill calls for — are still there,” he explains. “But all the surrounding music is Ives. It's not a sweet, sentimental musical world.” Edwards, who used this discordant music mainly during transitions, says all the piano music was recorded, as were surrealistic fireworks. “Doug came with some initial ideas and then we went through them together. We used all the source material we could find.”

Edwards knew from the onset that the sound would feel different in different venues of different shapes with auditorium capacities that range from 300 to 3,000 and left it to board operator and mixer Ryan Richards to go into every hall and try to recreate the design in each place, setting relative levels in the computer. When the University Musical Society brought the show into Ann Arbor, some spectators sat next to speakers while others were far from the stage. Richards had to set levels that wouldn't deafen some or leave others struggling to hear, and he had to do it fast. In South Bend, IN, acoustic paneling distorted directions, so that sound seemed to be coming from the opposite side of the house. “We had to reorganize speakers backstage to bounce sound around,” Richards says.

The show continues to move from town to town in two trailers with the set, props, wardrobes, all of the sound, and much of the lighting equipment. “It's not like a normal tour,” stage manager Rita D'angelo says. “It's a huge creative process every place we go because everything is slightly different.” After adapting the set to the stage, the actors have to adapt to it. D'angelo says actors arrive half an hour before half-hour. In that short time, they sometimes deal with new exits and entrances or with small changes in blocking; since they also move some of the scenery, they need to know their marks, too.

Many of those involved feel the show does better in the box than it did on the thrust at home. O'Neill, after all, had a proscenium theatre in mind when he wrote the play. “It feels more natural this way,” Dowling says. “Even though the basic set is the same, when you change from a thrust to a proscenium, the focus has to change. You can set it within its own world. We're very proud of this big and impressive display of what the Guthrie can do.”

The tour, which has swept through Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, South Dakota, and North Dakota, ends May 11 at Bemidji High School in Bemidji, MN.

Tartuffe on Tour

Talk about mood lighting: lighting designer Marcus Dilliard keeps the stage so dark for the first scene of the Theatre de La Jeune Lune's touring production of Molière's dark comedy Tartuffe that it is almost impossible to make out the actors' faces.

This wasn't a problem for a company that, in the physical tradition of the commedia dell'arte, communicates effectively with body language. Sonya Berlovitz designed period-influenced costumes for the women, big gowns that gave them strong silhouettes and volume to break up a space that relied mostly on vertical lines; these costumes didn't interfere with movement but added a swishing sound that enhanced the effect.

Berlovitz's eclectic design meshed contemporary details with period costumes, something she often does when she works with director/scenic designer Dominique Serrand. Costumes for the men were simple but distinct. Tartuffe wore gray rather than black, and a panel in front of his costume opened and closed.

“We looked at religious costumes from the period, and we were in shock at what we saw,” Serrand adds. “People were piercing their own skin with crosses, shaving their heads in a particular way, bleeding and flagellating themselves, and wearing crowns of thorns. Tartuffe's open chest is based on representations of Jesus in the 17th century,” fashionable at the time. Tartuffe's servant, Laurent, had a cross carved into the back of his hair.

Daniel Lori, who co-designed the set with Serrand and served as technical director, says the show went on the road in two configurations, one without some of the components for smaller spaces. Actors adjusted blocking with each move, although props were in exactly the same location in relation to one another. The space between walls varied from house to house, and the distance of furniture from the walls and from the edge of the apron varied with it. The light plot needed to be adjusted for the inventories available at assorted venues, since Jeune Lune did not carry much equipment.

University Musical Society, the presenter in Ann Arbor, worked with the larger set; the 30'-high walls required a large load-in crew. “A lot of units had to be backlit,” says UMS technical director Andrew Hause, adding that the show required at least 10 carpenters and five electricians. Once the stage was ready, the show went smoothly.