While Stephen Schwartz's Wicked is proving to be the biggest hit of the current Broadway season, his Children of Eden is wowing audiences in Washington D.C. Like Wicked, this musical retelling of the Book of Genesis is also populated with familiar characters: Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and Noah and his seafaring brood.
Although this lesser-known show has yet to see the lights of Broadway, it has been very popular across the country. The D.C. production is housed at the infamous Ford's Theatre until June 6th and is directed and choreographed by David H. Bell with costumes by Mariann Verheyen, lighting by Diane Ferry Williams, and scenic design by James Leonard Joy that all come together to create the very beginning of humankind.
Despite its historical significance, Ford's Theatre was a challenge for Williams, who found herself at odds with the theatre's structural limitations. “Getting sidelight and backlight was almost impossible because there was just no space for the equipment,” she says. “There were only four electrics and once you loaded on four Vari*Lite® VL3000™s, there wasn't much room for anything else.”
Williams solved the sidelight problem by incorporating Altman 360Qs and ETC Source Fours onto 6-foot booms that were part of Joy's fins on the sides of the stage. “The sidelight is only head high but it was the best we could get,” she says. “I would've loved to have high sidelight to pick out the performers but it was not to be.” She added that the President's Box is on the forestage and cannot be touched, and since the entire theatre is a museum as well, designers are not able to fall back on tricks of the trade like painting the interior black. She credits Joy's scenery with keeping the audience's eye pulled to the stage rather than the auditorium's historical “distractions.”
She also used 30 Wybron Coloram II colorchangers to solve her backlight conundrum. “With only four electrics, the Colorams and the Vari-Lites became the workhorses of the plot because the tight space dictated what could and couldn't be done,” she says.
While having to design the creation of man could be daunting, Williams relished the task and found herself relying on Bell's choreography for her inspiration. “The whole show had a very Cirque du Soleil feel to it and that was largely due to the use of these magnificent silks that the actors had,” she explains. “As we staged the opening — ‘The Creation’ — we were basically staging the beginning of all life on the planet as we saw it, which involved the universe coming together with thousands of dots of light from the VL3000s.”
The fixtures also proved integral to the Act I finale. “This is the scene where Eve dies,” Williams explains. “And she is bathed in all white light — which is certainly not a new idea by any means — but the light grows and grows and you see the actors representing the next generation, and it is a very striking moment where we just make the VL3000's light bigger and bigger.”
The concept for the entire show was more abstract than literal, Williams says. “We didn't want to do a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic,” she says. “The design team drew a lot of its inspiration from African and Aboriginal art and clothes. We pulled a lot from African concepts because the show needed to feel like it was not set in a time period that could be easily recognized. The show is about people rather than a time and has a lot of primitive overtones.”
Despite the challenges of the venue, Williams calls it a lighting designer's dream. “This is one of those shows you could work on forever,” she says. “It was a terrific collaboration, not only with the director and other designers, but also with the crew at Ford's. Even though the show was huge and hard, the collaboration made it very exciting. The designs came right from my heart and onto the stage.”