The St. Bart's Players presented Godspell in the sanctuary of St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City, October 4-14, with a live band and a woman playing the role of Jesus. The lighting was by Douglas Cox. The set design by Shawn Lewis was minimal and flexible; costumes, by Kimberly Glennon, were a funky mix of 1970s and 80s thrift store finds. The high-energy production used the space creatively.
Douglas Cox was contacted to do the show because he had worked with set designer Shawn Lewis on several projects. Lewis is resident scenic designer for the Actors Studio MFA program at the New School, of which director Christopher Presley is a recent graduate. Cox came into the project when rehearsals began, about six weeks before opening. "They had a fairly brief rehearsal period," he recalls, and he attended two or three rehearsals "just to get the feeling for blocking, cue timing, things like that."
Big Apple Lights supplied 18 ETC 19º Source Fours, seven 26º Source Fours, eight 36º Source Fours, three 50º Source Fours, eight Altman 6x22s, two Altman 6" fresnels on floor stands, two Great Performances FS400 followspots, and two GAM Twin Spin gobo rotators. Equipment was placed on booms in the left and right "upstage" corners of the chancel playing space for backlight, and FOH booms in the left and right transept balconies.
"Shawn and Chris and Kim and I sat down and discussed how to approach design in this space," Cox explains. "We were dealing with one of the most famous architectural churches in New York City, and we were also fairly limited on budget and on rehearsal time in the space, plus there's a very heavy schedule of events in the church, so we felt the physical production should be simple to set up, maintain, and strike.
"First off, we felt that to compete with the classic Byzantine architecture would be pointless, so we decided not to top it but to embrace it, but on our terms. We came up with an approach where the actors manipulate all the scenic and prop items, and I also stretched this at times into having them manipulate the lighting."
For instance, during the parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the floor-stand-mounted fresnels is wheeled center stage, two actors hold a translucent cloth, and the story is told with shadowplay behind the cloth.
Another example is in the opening scene, where various historical philosophers expound their ideas. The actors were dressed in dark trenchcoats with white masks on the top half of their faces. They appeared in different spots around the space, including in the balconies and in the nave, and had flashlights which they held below their chins for eerie uplighting.
"In the opening of the show we wanted to reveal very little of the church. Quite literally we were depicting a world of darkness so we decided to use lots of shadows and templates, including the idea of the actors introducing some of their own light.
"As we move into the main body of the show we started to use the architectural form of the church rather than the detail. We wanted to use the nave, which is the audience seating area, the choir, lectern, and pulpit areas, but rather than the formality of a church we gave it a more chaotic feeling. For scenery there were drop cloths covering things, props came out of boxes which were thrown about, and from my end I wanted exposed lighting fixtures onstage, so that's where the idea of the upstage booms came in. I really wanted some visible lighting up there; I thought that was important to establish the fact that we're making a theatre space here.
"The colors in the backlights in the chancel were R16, R78, R89, and R11, R68, R26. Acknowledging the pop rock nature of the score, those colors are a little bolder. It has a real theatrical look; those are colors you're not expecting in a church." The FOH booms had softer colors like R67 Light Sky Blue and L205 half CT orange.
"Only at the end of the show, for the crucifixion, do we start using the architectural possibilities. That's the first time we moved into the high altar area, and used really strong color choices. That was lit with floor-mount units which cast these ominous shadows; it worked really well, and when the director saw them he just loved them and started moving the actors around to really make use of all that shadow work." For this dramatic and moving scene, ETC Source Four 36º units were hidden behind the altar rail with R26 Light Red and R132 Light Hamburg Frost.
"In the final moments of the show we chose to light the marblework and this wonderful mosaic of the Trinity above in a more traditional way so that you can see the detail. At this point the shadows, rather than being ominous, give a sense of majesty and power, and I felt that to reinforce the architecture up there reinforced the point of the show and how the story would move on from the end of the play, how the Word would be spread.
"It was quite a lot of fun to work with the architecture in that way and I was very happy with the way that worked out. In general, we found that in this kind of large space, simple choices performed in a large way worked well. For instance, with the onstage lighting booms, big color washes boldly done were very effective. We also carried this through sets and costumes; they had a big dropcloth, and rather than moving it out of the way, having two people grab it and run down the aisle in a big move also worked well. That's one important way to deal with a big space. It really makes a statement.
"To add to the theatrical feel of it, use of followspots, which is of course very common in a musical, but to give the director freedom we also used them as roving specials, if he wanted to put someone in an odd corner somewhere. Given our time and the budget and the hanging positions, to try to light every little corner, again, we would be competing with the architecture and it would just become pointless. Using followspots as both specials and traditional spots gives the feeling that people are manipulating them in the same sense that the actors are manipulating the props.
"One thing that's important, because there are so few units, every unit had to be pulling its weight; you really had to think through each unit and what it's doing and make sure that it pays off in some way. At one point I use breakup templates, and they work both as stationary templates but I also had gobo rotators. They were used mostly in the opening, for that feeling of shadows while the philosophers are singing. As the chaos increases, all the philosophers trying to out-shout each other, the templates started to slowly move, to reflect that chaos in the lighting."
Speaking of chaos, "It was very interesting doing this show in these times, September-October 2001," Cox concludes, "because during the load-in the church remained open for prayer and meditation. It was nice to be doing a show with an uplifing message at a time when you would see people come into the church seeking some type of comfort; it was a good time to be doing a show like that."
Cox's upcoming projects include an Off Broadway revival of Shepard's Fool for Love, and "an opera rarity," Boccaccio by Von Suppe, which will be its first New York production in over 50 years, for the Bronx Opera Company, to be performed at the John Jay College Theatre at Lincoln Center.