The Dream Life of Bricks at MASS MoCA

This past summer, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, MASS MoCA, presented a dance theatre work in some of the little-used buildings and courtyards of its North Adams complex. From the mid-1800s to the 1920s, the site was home to Arnold Print Works, which dyed cloth. Sprague Electric Company bought the complex during the Depression and was a major employer in the region until the mid-1980s when it went out of business, causing economic devastation in the community.

Choreographer Martha Bowers says her site-specific work is based on the notion that place holds memory. For nine months she conducted historical research and talked to people who had worked in the various buildings during their heyday. The Dream Life of Bricks is a "metaphoric reflection" on how the life of the buildings has influenced the lives of the people around them. Choreography and text were taken from interviews and stories of local residents of all ages.

Several groups participated in the event: Dance Theater Etcetera, dancers from Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival and the Williams College Dance Company, Drury Drama Team from Drury High School, Greylock Theatre Project, the Dream Life Choir and Musicians, composed of local Berkshire residents, and the Sprague Ladies, women who used to work at Sprague Electric, several of whom are now on the MASS MoCA volunteer staff. Music was composed and conducted by Philip Hamilton.

The audience was led on a tour of the "backlot" of MASS MoCA, where they encountered various scenes, then were taken into one of the buildings for more elaborately staged dance and theatre pieces. Larry Smallwood, MASS MoCA's resident lighting designer and production manager, had the task of turning this circuitous route into a series of performance spaces.

AS: What did you have to do to get the site ready?

LS: We chose a location at the back of the site, a building that hasn't been used since the site closed. As we got closer, in the month before, we had a running order and a plan about how the show would run beginning to end. I was digging around in the building, trying to wrap my head around the technical details, and realized that while we were OK on the first floor, the second and third floors of the building were structurally unstable enough to preclude us from using the space. We had this master plan and we had to pull a huge chunk of it out at the last minute.

So, we decided on a different building, Building 6. It's a huge building, 40,000 sq. ft. per floor. We decided on that and spent the rest of that week power-washing and getting that place into some reasonable semblance of being able to load-in and use it. Running power, 500' at 2W, from three or four different building power distribution systems, to racks of dimmers hidden behind garage doors under tarps, here and there in the main building, so we figured out our infrastructure, got working power and some work lights into the buildings.

AS: Can you take me on a "tour" through the piece?

LS: The audience took this trip through time, and the building's history, and the city's history. They started in the cafe, and we had one of the community groups, the Greylock Theatre Project--they're kids and they write plays, and actors from Williamstown Theatre Festival do the plays. We started the show with interviews and stories written by these kids, and then we took the audience across the bridges to the back of MASS MoCA, and they saw a couple of staged plays that the kids wrote, and they found dancers and community members and performers sleeping all over the back of the campus.

The audience walked all the way through the back and cut across the bridges again, over a big drop in the river, into one of our big courtyards, and our first performing dance venue was there. We had a space about 120'x70' between three buildings in a big rectangle. At this point it's 8:30, so it's sunset, and now I'm more excited because I get to start figuring out the lighting.

Then the performers all walked through the audience and into Building 6 that we chose for the center of the work. You walk into Building 6 down this horrible wet, dark tunnel with 6'7" ceilings, and they were whispering stories in the dark. We brought the audience through that tunnel and up to the second floor of the building into a somewhat more traditional theatre situation. We set up seating risers for 100 people and made a performance area where house left, as you sat in the house, which was very long and not very deep, there was a small Kitchen set there, down front there was eight beds made of bricks with these beautiful satiny pillows, and upstage of that there was a large dance lane, and upstage of that was more dance space, the band, the choir, and a wrecking ball set.

When we brought the audience upstairs they saw staged acting in Kitchen scenes that were reworkings of the same scene over and over again, and you switch from a Kitchen scene to a dance piece and a Kitchen scene to an acting piece. There was an Employee dance piece, where they all came out in lab coats with big beakers. The band played all live music with the dance, and it was very powerful, and Philip Hamilton's music is amazing. Then we would cut back to the Kitchen, then go to a didactic lecture on the nature of art. There was video in the Kitchen windows. It was kind of all sorts of media and theatrical specialty going on.

AS: The video was projected onto glass windows?

LS: We built a flat construction set of three windows for the back wall of the kitchen, RP'd them, and used video projectors. Most of it was static and some of it was narrative. There was this big, beautiful blue sky and the clouds are drifting, then the scene changed and everything runs backwards, and the video rewinds on the screen. The next piece had a mechanized soundtrack, and the actors were like machines all of a sudden, and the windows were just static brick. So, we used video in a couple different ways. Instead of offstage lighting effects we had video and we made a two-minute film in one of the abandoned rooms in the back of the building and that played with audio and a story during one of the Kitchen segues. It started as a lighting effect and became quite a bit more. It was interesting because it was multilayered. I'm interested in video as light as an aspect of production.

AS: How did you light the various pieces in the different areas?

LS: The Kitchen scene I lit as naturalistic as I could, kind of deadpanning what they were up to. And then we concentrated on the video in the background, in the windows. We projected some gobo stuff that was over-the-top and ridiculous, but also live video and some video that we made with dialogue. That was the strong lighting element in that area. That was great because it lent a sense of depth to it, there was an upstage story or action that was either counterpoint or supportive to what was going on downstage. That was very fun. I think about video as lighting a lot, that's one of the things that I'm most interested in following up on, is how I can use video and projection to do things that light can't, which is kind of a track I've been going on the last couple of years.

LS: The "Sprague Ladies" were 10 women who worked here back in the day. The oldest one was 86. Many of them work on our house management staff. A lot of ideas they had ended up in the show. That had some very super-dramatic, dark moments. I used some really warm, deep color, to reinforce their dialogue and give them a set amidst this abandoned building, and then it progressed into a big kick line piece at the end, and that was pretty straight musical theatre, so it went from as sculpted and low-angle light as I could manage, creating this 50' vista of these backlit figures, into a giant flashing light kick line with a rockin' band thing that went on at the end.

AS: Did you use Chorus Pink?

LS: [Laughs.] Of course I did! And then beyond that there was an upstage dance set with a big piece of sculpture--there was a giant wrecking ball. So that was really a dance piece concentrated on the architecture. I created lanes in this huge space based on their performance space, so they were very much in and out of the light, and actually that worked quite well and I was pretty happy with it. All the time the band was playing, so the band was either in or out of the composition depending on what we wanted. Sitting in the front row, it was 80' to the upstage line of the performance space, so I could do a thing downstage and just bring the piano up all the way upstage, and you had this incredible depth of field, which I have rarely experienced. In between those two spaces, the band [all the way upstage] and this downstage area with the Sprague Ladies and their kickline, there was lanes for dance, and we concentrated on these really long 120'x25' dance areas. There were three lanes of that size, and I just did my best to follow the choreography, to pull down and special out their trios.

Lighting-wise it got to be very challenging just because the spaces were so huge, so on the giant dance numbers I was going with the music and reinforcing the story of the piece with a couple of big moments. So, it was really general utility lighting and then hitting the high points. I would have liked to have done more, but that's really the situation--the crunch, the time, all that. And the vastness of the space I really found challenging. You work a lot in a 42'x32' box, doing dance. You put your booms where you want your booms, and you know your angles and you know your systems, and it works, and these spaces were just so big and they were 14' tall, 120' long. It was challenging for me, and I think I learned a lot, and I would do things differently, but that's always a good experince. It's one of the best things about site-specific work. For me it's challenging to figure out, since you have nothing, how to get the systems you want in a sensical way, with the equipment that's available or that you could even begin to be able to rent, working with the architecture, which I always find to be the most interesting thing.

Then, the sections outside, at the very beginning of the show and the very end of the show, for the very first section, we had an 80'x60' performance space, with the band and the chorus and like 40 dancers, and that was right at twilight. I had a warm and a cool look, basically, so I had two systems per side to get that look, and then some general illumination, and then on top of that a half-dozen specials for a trio so I could pull things in and out from bright and full to small and poignant. That was the first thing that we really got finished, and I ended up using not nearly as much equipment as I would have liked, but so much more than I really should have to get the job done, but just fighting with the daylight, and the twilight.... I think it came off, and I got done what I wanted to get done, but it was pretty challenging. It was different day to day, which was a little frustrating, but it was beautiful, and it worked, and their costumes ended up where I needed them to be, and I think it was a beautiful piece.

At the end, the performance space was 120'x120' for the final scene. I was fortunate, because it's the audience area of our big concert venue, so some of the infrastructure that I'm used to was there. None of it was pointed in the right direction, but I had the basics to get done what I wanted. The band was 120' from the downstage line for that performance, and there were a lot of big bows at the end, a lot of people. MASS MoCa is a huge place and I do a lot of work inside of huge places, but I have not gone into the unused portions of the building very much in my time here. They're just as vast, but you need to start from scratch. It was fun, and a lot of people were excited about it.

Photos ©2002 Kevin Kennefick


Lighting Package, House Equipment/Systems, Show Perishables
Brenda Shepard, Barbizon New England, Boston, MA

Electrical Contractor, Consultation, Coordination
Art McConnell, Gem Electric, Adams, MA

Seasonal rental - scrollers, effects units, low-voltage cable
Andrew Gmoser, Silent G Productions, Yorktown, NY

Seasonal rental - iron, Source Four barrels
Dan Gerstenhaber, High Output, Boston, MA

Show-Specific Rental - additional feeder, stage-pin cable, twofers, etc.
Kris Knutting, Limelight Productions, Lee, MA

Lighting Equipment


ETC Source Four PARs


ETC 50° Source Four 575W


ETC 36° Source Four 575W


ETC 26° Source Four 575W


ETC 19° Source Four 575W


ETC 10° Source Four 750W


LSI QM500W T3 with barndoors


LSI 500 series PAR-56 500W WFLs


Altman three-cell 1kW Ground Cycs with trunnion


ETC Expression 3


ETC Express 48/96


ETC 48x2.4kW Sensor touring racks w/CEM and patch panels


ETC 24x2.4kW Sensor dimmer rack


10' sections Tomcat 12"x12" light-duty truss


battery backup exit lights


line-voltage exit signs


48" 2x32W T8 flourescent fixtures


6x30A power distribution unit


template holders


floor bases


50# base with pipe


1.5" pipe, #40


5-wire Camlok to Camlok 2/0 Feeder Cable


5-wire Camlok Tie Tails


Socapex Multi-cable @6x100'


Socapex Multi-cable @6x50'


Socapex Multi-cable @6x150'


Socapex Multi-cable @6x200'


various stage-pin jumpers




5-pin DMX cable