Surely the cry of "En Garde" rang in production manager Dan da Silva's ears when asked to tackle the seemingly Herculean task of organizing the site-specific Secret History of the Lower East Side. Da Silva's technical battlefield: the open-air rooftop of Seward Park High School, built in 1929, on the Lower East Side. The piece was presented by En Garde Arts, whose previous site-specific productions have taken place on a Hudson River pier, an amphitheatre near the East River, and inside a dilapidated theatre on 42nd Street.
As production manager, da Silva says his job was "pulling together the people and materials necessary to handle every aspect of the production that the stage manager does not deal with." This task led him to put together a formidable team of neighborhood residents and students, as well as the experienced team from Progressive Production, headed by scenery constructor Joseph L. Robinson.
With its impressive views of Manhattan and the Williamsburg Bridge, working in such a space certainly had its advantages, but it also presented da Silva with a number of actual technical difficulties. One of the biggest challenges was dealing with an elevator that stopped at the fifth floor, meaning all supplies had to be carried up the final flight to the roof via a none-too-wide staircase. "We carried a mile of 2x4s up the staircase, and we literally built the set with a mile of 2x4s," he notes." That was a hassle great enough for da Silva to seriously contemplate hiring a crane for materials to be transported up to the roof, and a chute for striking the materials post-run; he eventually nixed those ideas, because they posed even more problems.
Other challenges included a fluctuating electrical supply, constructing stable sets for the actors (mostly platform sets) and solid seating for audience members that could withstand the elements. (Although the audience generally roamed around the rooftop, da Silva oversaw the construction of huge bleachers that could support 120 to 140 people for one of the scenes.)
And then there was the potential for Mother Nature interfering with the carefully planned event by making an entrance in one of her more inclement roles. There was no real way of protecting the equipment from the elements, so all da Silva and team could do was hope for no rain. "You can take electronics inside, which we got by building rolling carts for all our electronic setups," he says. "You can take dimmers inside. But once you have hung a light or a speaker 16' in the air, there it is--and there it stays." Thankfully, there was little rain (more specifically, there was only one day of it)--but there was wind--very strong wind--which da Silva says clocked in at "60 miles an hour at one point."
Safety-conscious da Silva saw to it, therefore, that the sets for the six scenes (three main plays and three entr'actes depicting life on the Lower East Side) were so tightly constructed that at strike time it took saws and sledgehammers to dismantle the set. While the crew may have grumbled a bit at the time-consuming strike, it left da Silva smiling. "It was almost impossible to take the set pieces and audience platform apart quickly," he notes, "and I knew the way the set had been constructed was why no one got hurt the entire time of the show--and why nothing ever fell down."
Lighting-wise, the space itself had at least one advantage. The roof of the school was once used as basketball courts, and features an I-beam skeleton ("to prevent basketballs from falling down six stories to the ground"). This allowed for "a million different places to hang lighting units using I-beam clamps," all courtesy of Production Arts. Only about 30 units were used to light the F-shaped space (measuring approximately 285' long--in NYC terms that's north to south--and 140' wide, east to west) and one ETC Express 250 was used for the approximately 25 lighting cues.
Simplicity was key when it came to the lighting, but lighting designer Christien Methot nevertheless created a lovely old-fashioned carnival effect through a string of light builds along the length of the rooftop. For another monologue, Chinese lanterns were placed along the floor, another festive touch, though the scenes themselves were for the most part concerned with the less picturesque aspects of life on the Lower East Side.
Sound was more involved. Long cable runs were needed to draw power from two different sources, and a licensed electrician was brought in to tie power into two of the building's circuit breaker boxes on the fifth and sixth floors. After each show, da Silva explains, "We had to disconnect the power source from the fifth floor and the sixth floor." It took approximately 45 minutes each night for the workers to strike any cabling from the circuit breaker boxes to the roof. Since students were going to be roving throughout the school the next day, no equipment could be left in the hallways. The loudspeakers (the sound equipment, provided by Hear No Evil, was rented from Sound Associates) were "hung with span sets and shackles." Actors used Sony wireless mics, and one of the main challenges was stopping sound from "bleeding" from one scene to another. That objective wasn't entirely achieved, but the team came close and used pieces of 4x8 sheets of white foam in one scene to act as a buffer and a large black piece of drapery in another. Da Silva was pleased with how much sound bleeding they did prevent, and says, "Even if you were to put walls up in an open space like that, the sound would go up and over the top and back down."
Following his Lower East Side run, the ever-stalwart da Silva was ready for his next encounter with an event requiring perseverance and creativity as he headed uptown to work on New York's Fashion Week.
Secret History of the Lower East Side ran from September 8 to October 4. Scenic design was by Richard Dennis, with costumes by Mary Myers. Methot was assisted in the lighting design by Andris Kasparovics. Sound design was by David Schnirman, and props were designed by Kathy Fabian.