Designing and building Paul Brown's controversial metal set for the Broadway revival of Man of La Mancha

Take one of the more durable musical theatre warhorses of the last 30 years, add a director and designer better known for site-specific theatre in London than a musical on Broadway, throw them together on the stage of the Martin Beck theatre, and what do you get? A production of Man of La Mancha with a set that has alternately amazed and confounded theatregoers since its opening in December.

Directed by Jonathan Kent, former co-artistic director of London's famed Almeida Theatre, with sets and costumes by Paul Brown, an Almeida mainstay with extensive credits in opera, the latest Broadway revival of La Mancha has become one of the most polarizing shows of the season, a phenomenon that seems to have as much to do with the set as with the production itself. While most reviews applauded Brian Stokes Mitchell's turn as Don Quixote, Brown's set managed to ignite the ire of some critics. The Baltimore Sun called it “stunning if overpowering” in its Washington, DC, out-of-town tryout, a common sentiment for its Broadway opening as well. And yet Brown's work also had many champions, and not only among critics; an informal sampling of designers who saw the production found it to be stunningly original.

Brown has taken the notion of a 16th-century Spanish prison and blown it sky-high — literally. Built almost entirely of steel and painted to give it a rusty sheen, the curved set ascends 31" up, up into the grid. It is ringed by a clanking metal staircase, which can come together to bring prisoners in or out of the cell and then pull apart to keep them trapped; other features include an array of ropes and pulleys, funereal catacombs, and nooks and crannies. For Quixote's flights of fancy, the entire metal structure twists up to reveal glimpses of the outside world: clouds, flowers, moons, mountains.

La Mancha marks not only Brown's Broadway debut but also his first foray into musical theatre. His previous work with Kent included two productions at the Almeida, one of which was The Tempest; because it was the last production at the theatre, he was able to rake through the ceiling and the floor of the space and fill it with 10" of water. Other work with Kent included shows in derelict stations and an old film warehouse in London. “Our work tends to be a bit more offbeat than normal theatre,” he says.

Brown had never seen a production of La Mancha done before, and while he was grateful not to have any preconceptions of the piece, he also realizes that, with a show this beloved, many others do. That may also have been why the response to his design was mixed. “It's not a new piece and it's not a rare piece,” he explains. “People ‘own' it, if you know what I mean. It's rooted in people's pasts. Very few people don't know something of it, and therefore come with preconceptions.”

As in their previous collaborations, Brown and Kent worked closely together during the modeling process of La Mancha. “It's a blank canvas for both of us when we start off,” he says. “He works out his ideas as much as I do. Both of us develop the show side by side and hopefully the two go hand in hand.”

The imposing height of the prison set was a concept that came early in the designer's discussions with the director. “Height was a starting point,” Brown says. “We wanted to use a sense of descent into a world where there seemed to be no escape; where imagination creates its own escape. We also wanted a set that physically wasn't going to come beyond the proscenium line but that felt like it was bursting out and seemed to go on forever.”

Research led rather quickly to Piranesi, the 18th-century printer best known for his detailed etchings of Rome's prisons. But Brown points out that Kent wasn't interested in necessarily making La Mancha historically accurate. “We didn't want it to be historical, or historicist,” he says. “We didn't want it to be controlled by a period world. It happens in the time past, but we didn't want it to be any more specific than that. The idea with the metal was to unsettle the time period. The set is in no way accurate; it's a theatrical device.”

To that end, Brown says he also referenced modern images: “the insides of silos, for the feeling of entrapment, and the red earth of Spain. All of those very obvious but very potent images of Spain: blood, death, and sex, all wrapped up in one. They're good at that there.”

Heavy Metal

It was also decided that the prison walls needed to be metal and not a reasonable facsimile, as much to address choreographic needs as to satisfy aesthetic desires. “The important thing very early on was that the set should respond in a percussive way to the dancers, that they should be able to hit it and it should not only look but sound like metal. The cast kicks it and hits it quite a bit.”

The opening up of the prison seemed an obvious way for Brown to underscore the freedom sought in Quixote's reveries. “The idea was that we were slicing through in a very obvious way,” he explains. “The set mirrors what happens: that there is an escape, a slashing; that you could pierce this prison and beyond it is light and whimsy and beautiful images. Which is what, I think, the piece deals with.”

Brown would have liked to have rusted the metal to give it the muted red sheen he was looking for — “it's something that's aggressive but also has the capacity to be beautiful as well, the way metal can be when it rusts.” But time limits forced the designer and Hudson Scenic, the set builder, to opt for a paint treatment.

Indeed, time was the biggest challenge for this project; Brown was asked to design La Mancha late last January, and started designing it in late March for an out-of-town opening in Washington in the fall. “The shortness of time in many ways dictated what materials we were to use and what we could afford,” the designer says. “There were limitations. There wasn't the opportunity to play, to go to the workshop and see it. We saw it all together for the first time in Washington. My experience at the Met in the States is that they'll put the whole set on the stage and then you get the opportunity to light it and whatever. You get that period of adjustment. I'm used to working on the hoof, but not on such a large show.”

Transatlantic Crossing

The construction process for Man of La Mancha was as fast as the design process, if not faster. Gene O'Donovan, whose company O'Donovan and Bradford provided production management for La Mancha, got involved in the production about halfway through the design process. “I flew over to London to meet with Paul and Jonathan to go over the set model and to prepare a rough budget,” says O'Donovan. “Paul had not previously done a for-profit show outside opera in the US, and the bidding process is very different between the UK and the US. In the UK the shops bid off a model and some rough sketches; in the States, the shops like a lot more detail.” O'Donovan sent Brian Webb over to London to work as an associate with Brown and “CAD up” the set design. As the plates were finished, they were sent to O'Donovan to write a detailed technical specification for the scene shops to bid on.

The tech spec is something that O'Donovan has done for years. It includes general standards that the shops will adhere to: dates of the show, load-in, and so on, and is designed to make sure that all of the shops know exactly what they are bidding on. “I start working as the drawings come in,” says O'Donovan. “It usually takes me a week to go through sheet by sheet on every piece of scenery. It is how I see it done and it contains all of the construction details.” These tech specs usually run 20-30 pages. “I go through the design page by page, piece by piece,” he says. “It forces me to get into the show. I have to think about how it goes together, how it moves.”

With La Mancha, the first round of bids came back overbudget, so Donovan had to work with Brown on making cuts and alterations to bring it in on budget. “The cutting was very problematic, and it took a lot of time,” he says. “It was tough to cut, and Paul was a real gentleman about it all.”

The set may seem simple enough on paper, but looks, O'Donovan notes, can be deceiving. “There is a curved wall that goes up and down. Add in the diagonal slice and you add a new twist. Then you have a curved staircase that weighs over 20,000lb and moves. You have a deck with lots of different surface treatments, varying planes, and dirt; add in the elevator. Every area of the set has its quirks. At the end of the show, there is 3,000lb added to the wall. It was a very, very challenging process. I was lucky Hudson got the contract, since there was an enormously short amount of time to build the set.”

Quick Time

From a technical standpoint, the set for La Mancha is a huge undertaking for any scene shop, but it was even more so given that Hudson Scenic had roughly half the normal amount of time for a design of the magnitude of La Mancha to build the entire set. The cuts and restructuring done during the bid process deducted about one month from the fabrication time. Add in the fact that Hudson was finishing a large set for La Bohème and you begin to see what they were up against. “There were too many challenges on this show to sum it up into one,” notes David Howe, project manager at Hudson Scenic.

“The bid session in July was our first contact,” says Howe. “With the redesign process and adjustments due to budget constraints, Hudson booked the project at the beginning of August and we still had Bohème in the shop, so we began the third week in August.” They would have roughly four weeks, until September 14, when the show was booked into the National in Washington, DC, for the out-of-town tryout. Hudson did some pre-hang of the automation in Washington and had three shop crew on-site finishing up the set as well as working with the local crew on the installation.

Weighty Issues

The upper portion of the wall has a vertical travel of 9" and weighs in at 8,000lb. At the end of the show, the wall splits lower for the first time and a larger section is raised for the finale. “Up in the fly gallery there is a stagehand connecting the separate arbors together so you can counterbalance the load when it changes from the one section to the larger section,” says Howe. The larger section at the end adds over 3,000lb more to the load. “Our engineering said we were lifting 12,000lb and we had to counterbalance that weight.” To deal with the weight addition for the finale, Howe created a saddle arbor that would be dropped on top of the first arbor. “It clamped onto it so the machine was always just connected to the main arbor; that would allow us to pick up the second half.”

“In New York we had to add a considerable amount of bracing to the grid system to handle the load,” O'Donovan adds, “because the grid is so old and there were some suspect changes made to the hanging members of the grid. We added I-beams over- and under-hung to the grid. With the curved walls the pick points did not line up exactly with the wells in the grid, so the added steel dealt with that issue as well.”

The material chosen for the set was another challenge. “It's sheet metal, all sheet metal,” says Howe. “We subcontracted all the panels to a sheet metal house and they built several different modules to our design. That's something we worked out with the designer and the technical director; he wanted metal for the sound and the look and then the talent had to climb the wall and not cut their hands. There was a lot of detail to figure out for everyone.” Due to the time constraints, Hudson subcontracted North Park Metal Working to fabricate the sheet metal modules. “They deserve credit on this one, as well as Northeast Water Jet, which did a lot of water jet cutting,” says Howe. “They really respond to a theatre schedule. We used a lot of subcontractors because of the schedule to really move this project along.”

The demands of the set necessitated quite a lot of custom work. “Every automation effect was a custom design,” says Howe. “Then you had a wall and stairs that at 31" closed was taller than our shop, which has a 28" ceiling. We built the flying wall first to prove out the effect. We had to leave the bottom portion of the wall off to clear.” This required a custom machine to handle the wall lift.

The cistern wall would prove to be the largest technical challenge for Hudson. “Actually,” says Howe, “the cistern wall itself had so many tricks in it and that was more the scenic challenge in itself. It is probably the heaviest thing we have lifted in awhile.” For most of the show the wall raises 8" along a diagonal opening. For the finale, the cistern wall with a new, lower opening raises a total of 18".

Stairway to Heaven

The staircase, which is curved, steep, and tall, comes in two major sections. The upper portion tracks along the curved cistern wall and has a large gangplank that hinges off it, and the lower portion is attached to the curved wall. “The piece overall was in the neighborhood of 20,000lb moving on a curved track, so just dealing with that much inertia and momentum in a standard deck track [was a challenge], plus we didn't have a lot of space offstage to drive it,” says Howe. “It was also carrying other effects with it. There are lighting units and fiber optics as well in the stairs so that all had to be dealt with [Paul Gallo was the lighting designer]. Ultimately, it wasn't too horrible, but we had to float part of the wall stage right so we could have a cable chain system tracking underneath and through part of the structure. It made the structure of the wall more challenging.

“The other thing that was easier to do than we thought,” continues Howe, “because we had to find the right thing to do it, was the gangplank that comes down from the moving staircase. It comes down to be a table and all of it has to ride on the big stair. We found some industrial hydraulic pivoting machines that we adapted, that just fit into the profile and had enough load rating. It was just about doing hydraulic control after that point to do what they wanted to do. But that was a pretty large effect traveling on this already giant staircase was another challenge. The drawbridge itself was probably less than 1,000lb to move.”

There were a number of rehearsals with talent to get it all coordinated, especially the stairs. “The stairs were a big deal in Washington, as well as the stairs behind the cistern wall,” says Howe. “There is a set of stairs the actors go up and down, and ultimately was the biggest safety issue. The original design did not have a rail and it was really one big ramp, but we worked with the designer to create sloped stairs. They are on a sloped angle and the actor could get into a rhythm as they came down the stairs now. For New York we added an automated railing system that tracked into place upstage of the stairs when someone was up there to prevent them going over the side.”

“Hats off to them,” says O'Donovan. “Ed Fisher and the engineering department were great. Hudson had a really, really short amount of time. I am proud of having started Hudson and that they still have the spirit.” O'Donovan found the challenge to be a reward in its own right. “I do it for the challenge. Why do this if you are not going to stretch your brain? In production you are setting yourself up for a hard life.” “Hudson were grand,” Brown agrees. “They worked in a very tight time frame and produced some pretty strong work.”

It was a whole team effort for Hudson, which had eight engineers, 40 carpenters, and 15 different artists working on the set. “For the last two weeks everyone here worked on the show,” notes Howe. We have 120 people in the shop and at one point they were all on it. Certainly it was interesting to work with a British-based team. That brought a new twist. He was very sure about what he wanted. From the shop point of view it was the largest project we have done in such a short amount of time in quite some time and it leaves people here with a feeling of, ‘Oh my gosh, what have we done?’”

Sound on a Curve

Here's a first: a sound designer adding effects to make a set louder. Paul Brown's metal prison set for the Broadway revival of Man of La Mancha is pretty quiet when it moves onstage at the Martin Beck Theatre (thank you, Hudson Scenic). So in order to provide the appropriately ominous squeaks and groans associated with a dank prison cell, director Jonathan Kent called on sound designer Tony Meola to build a series of cues for the set changes.

“When you hear the set move, it's not the set, it's sound effects,” Meola explains. “We actually added noise to make a set sound louder, which I'm not sure I've ever done before. I'm usually doing things to cover it up.”

To build the effects, Meola turned to effects maven John Kilgore at Masque Sound. “I made him play for me almost every sound effect he could get his hands on — metal scraping, metal doors — and then just built it from there,” the designer explains.

For extra rumbling, Meola also turned to a loudspeaker. “The resident frequency of a Meyer USW or 650 is something like 37Hz,” he explains. “So you take a tone generator and take the speaker to 37Hz and things start rumbling a bit, so you record it and put it with all the other stuff. I love building cues like that.”

One of Meola's traditions on each show is to add a sound cue from a previous production. From a recent Goodspeed Opera production of La Mancha on which he had consulted, he brought over the sound of a drawbridge, with a chain and bridge creating a clink-clink sound, and used it on several cues meant to denote windmills of Quixote's imagination. “I love to have continuity,” he explains. “It's like a sourdough starter: You pull a little bit off before you bake the bread and put it in the next loaf.”

Associate sound designer Kai Harada then took ProTools with him and engineered all the effects down in Washington for the tryout; Denon DN-M991R mini disk recorders and the Cadac J-Type took care of the rest. “You can get creative if you've got a lot of stuff to do by using multiple inputs,” says Meola. “You have several places that things can crossfade to; you can jump out of one input and into another. But on this I didn't need to; we just used two stereo inputs for the two machines.”

Contrary to what one might think, the curved metal set provided Meola with no real acoustical challenges. “Actually, the curved sets are a help,” he explains, “because if people face upstage, it bounces right back.” The only tricky part of Brown's set was the height; because many cast members are on the ascending staircase for parts of the show, there was concern about monitor placement. A door approximately 15" off the floor upstage center provided Meola and his crew with a spot for UPM carrying the orchestra.

Meyer, as usual, is a big part of Meola's rig, including the new MM-4s. “I love them,” he says. “My next show [the new Broadway musical Wicked] is going to have a lot of them.” Other gear includes Sennheiser SK-5012 transmitters with MKE-2 wireless mics, Countryman B-6 wireless mics, Anchor AN-1000x powered speakers, Yamaha H-5000 and H-7000 amps, a Clear-Com intercom system, and Shure 565s, 545s, SM-58s, and SM57s mics. Equipment was provided by Masque Sound.

Meola wanted to make sure we mentioned his crew this time around, which included not only Harada but also Jordan Pankin, Ryan Powers, and Bonnie Runk. “It's a really nice gang,” he says.

Man of La Mancha Personnel

Director: Jonathan Kent
Scenic & Costume Design: Paul Brown
Lighting Design: Paul Gallo
Sound Design: Tony Meola
Projection Designer: Elaine J. McCarthy
Production Management: O'Donovan & Bradford
Assistant to Technical Supervisor: Melissa Mazdra
Production Stage Manager: Mahlon Kruse
Stage Managers: Michael John Egan, Bernita Robinson
Associate Set Designer: Brian Webb
Assistant Set Designer (UK): Louis Cavalho
Associate Costume Designer: Mary Nemecek Peterson
Costume Assistant: Rachel Attridge
Associate Lighting Designer: Philip Rosenberg
Assistant Lighting Designer: John Viesta
Automated Lighting Programmer: Timothy F. Rogers
Associate Sound Designer: Kai Harada
Assistant Sound Designer: Ryan Powers
Make-Up Designer: Christie Kelly
Production Carpenter: Richard Reynolds, Jr.
Assistant Carpenters: Peter R. Feuchtwanger, Eric Smith
Production Electrician: James Fedigan
Head Electrician: Jon Mark Davidson
Assistant Electricians: Adam Biscow, Ann Marie Roche Production Propertyman: Will Sweeney
Assistant Propertyman: Nicholas Rouse
Production Sound: Jordan Pankin
Assistant Sound: Bonnie Runk
Wardrobe Supervisor: Helen Toth
Hair Supervisor: W. Wesley Cagle
Scenery and Automation: Hudson Scenic Studio
Lighting Equipment: Fourth Phase, Vari-Lite
Sound Equipment: Masque Sound
Video Projection System: Scharff Weisberg
Flying Effects: Flying by Foy
Fire Effects: Jauchem & Meeh
Props: Rabbit's Choice, JCDP
Costumes: Barbara Matera Ltd, Grace Costumes, Industry Costumes, Donna Langman