“This is probably the biggest set I will ever design,” says George Tsypin, who designed the set for the Bregenz Festival production of West Side Story. “Not only is the stage enormous, but it floats on a lake and is built from under the water. The set is like a three-dimensional sculpture, or architecture in the middle of the lake, surrounded by the mountains.” Because the set is exposed all day long, it has attracted thousands of people to come and take a look.
For Tsypin, a Russian émigré and former architect who lives in New York City, this production is his first project for Bregenz as well as his first production of West Side Story. “New York is a very special place for me, and I did a lot of research when I designed Peter Sellars' Don Giovanni” he says. “I went to Harlem and the Lower East Side. Fifteen or 20 years ago the city was so much more colorful, and the old warehouses and piers on the West Side were almost organic as they collapsed into the water.” This kind of dilapidated industrial urban landscape served as the inspiration for Tsypin's West Side Story design.
“I did several versions of the set,” he says. “The first one had a lot of moving bridges and would have cost $15 million. It was too expensive acoustically as the set and acoustics are very entwined here. You can really tell where the songs are coming from.” But Tsypin's second version is just as spectacular. “I was searching for a metaphor, a powerful image that would work for the production and as sculpture,” he says. The result is a glass, steel, and concrete skyscraper that seems to be collapsing and rising at the same time, representing corporate America, as well as the ruin of a brick tenement that moves up and downstage, and offstage into the water, on rails. Interestingly, despite the eerie similarities, Tsypin submitted the design two months before the attacks on the World Trade Center.
“Nobody wanted to believe it was designed before 9/11,” explains Tsypin. “You really can't tell if it's going up or down. It's subliminal, not too obvious.” The set remains in place for the entire year (and must withstand harsh weather conditions on the lake) as the production returns again next summer. “The construction is completely real,” notes Tsypin, who enjoyed the experience of working in this open, non-proscenium setting that draws more than 7,000 people every night. “There is no frame, it's entirely 3-D,” he says. “This was fantastic for me. I constantly try to violate the proscenium when working in a theatre. Here there is no tension between the set and the theatre.”
Tsypin compliments Jim Ingalls, the lighting designer for this production (the two designers are frequent collaborators). “He did a fantastic job, using huge sources with 24kW lamps,” says Tsypin, pointing out that Ingalls had to work on the lighting after 11pm, when the long summer days finally got dark. Tsypin also built a lot of lighting into the structure representing the West Side Highway, with cubes 40 meters long covered with film from 3M, and a light source at each end. “This created a very graphic light sculpture and a metaphor for traffic patterns and lines of light,” says Tsypin, who also used a glass floor that lit up to represent the street grid of Manhattan. “The squares light up to indicate gang territory. It's a very dramatic effect.”
The top of the sculpture/skyscraper is made of glass; for Tsypin, this represents a dreamlike vision of Manhattan. “Jim lit it with powerful HMIs and it really looked ephemeral during the song “Somewhere,” as if the place atop the skyscraper is really unattainable to the characters in the show. It's a very visual image.”
During the day, the sun bathed the set in light, with its metal and glass gleaming out on the lake. “At night, it was like a light installation before and after the show,” says Tsypin. “You could see it from the mountains. It was almost like a cosmic object.”