Arthur Miller's The American Clock is a kind of WPA mural for the stage, presenting a vast panorama of desperation and survival during the Great Depression. The play is structured around a New York family, the Baums, who, like Miller's own clan, descended from upper-middle-class comfort to genteel poverty after the 1929 stock market crash.
Woven in and around their story are dozens of vignettes depicting the political and social turmoil of those years: A stockbroker faces ruin. A farmer struggles to save his land from the auction block. A prostitute discovers the economic theories of Friedrich Engels. As the desperation builds, Lee Baum and his father must pretend to be estranged so that Lee can qualify for government assistance and a job with the WPA Writers Project. With its vivid parade of characters and evocative score of period pop tunes, The American Clock is a lively, unsentimental portrait of a nation struggling to survive without a safety net.
LD Jeffrey S. Koger had a few struggles of his own in designing the Signature Theatre's revival of the play. This was the initial production at Signature's new Off Broadway home, located on the far west end of New York's 42nd Street. Naturally, the building was barely operational before the production began performances. "They were actually building a theatre around me," he says, "so I never had dark time in the theatre. There were always workers in the theatre during techs."
Then there was the production itself. As staged by Signature artistic director James Houghton, the entire cast remained onstage, watching the action from the sides when not in a scene; their presence formed a constantly shifting stage picture. Actors stepped out of the story to comment on the action. Lines were divided among two or more speakers. The effect was fluid and cinematic; for the lighting designer, it was a big, big challenge. "I had 70 specials in the air," says Koger. "That's a special every couple of feet." Still, the designer adds, "We'd go to rehearsal, and I'd have a special every 2' or 3' and Jim would say he'd need one between them. We put in a lot of hours sitting and cueing. There were a lot of changes. Fortunately, I had a really good assistant, Liz Shapiro. Between the two of us, we were doing 20-hour days for four or five days."
E. David Cosier's set featured red and white American flag stripes across the floor and side walls, with a rear scrim depicting a lightly cloudy blue sky. Mini-strips placed behind the scrim by Koger revealed a series of human silhouettes at certain points. These lights represented the LD's only use of color in the show, "a mixture of three blues," he says. Otherwise, "from the first time I read the play I said, 'This doesn't have any color.'" The other major set piece, a giant picture frame around the center stage area, was not a major problem: "I knew all about that in plenty of time."
Then again, Koger, the resident LD for the Signature Theatre, has worked extensively with Cosier and Houghton. This close working relationship was particularly helpful with The American Clock, as the company was racing to finish its new theatre in time for the production's opening. Koger notes that he had considerable input about the theatre's needs from a lighting standpoint. "We got to plan a lot of it," he says, adding that the space is equipped with an Express 250 console and Sensor dimmers from ETC. The rig for The American Clock, which comes to about 150 units, was rented from Big Apple Lighting.
Although the result looks effortless, Koger notes, "It was a killer for that kind of show. I had 250 cues in a straight play. I'm not used to that. I knew it was going to be tough but I didn't think it would be that much--every second someone comes out onstage somewhere else." Still, he's happy with the result and with the new theatre: "It seems like a nice space." Good news, as he can expect to put in many more hours there as Signature continues its season-long tribute to Miller.