Earlier this year, months before CalArts' experimental site-specific production of King Lear opened its brief engagement at the Brewery Arts Complex in downtown Los Angeles, ED editorial director David Barbour and I were given a tour of the facility by set designer Chris Barreca and sound designer Jon Gottlieb. Barreca brought along his set models and, after wiping the pigeon feathers off an old table, talked us through the production, scene by scene. The audience would be on a gliding platform for Act I, there would be oil rigs with real flames, live video, and a car crash. Even this early in the process, there already seemed to be an excitement in the air, as if something really extraordinary was going to happen here — the “here” being a former Thomas Edison electric plant that makes up part of a vibrant live/work artists' community tucked under the US 5 freeway in downtown LA.
When I went back in June to see the finished work (the production ran June 11-23), the excitement was real. A new floor had been put in to facilitate the gliding “theatre” that held 140 guests, and the audience later moved quietly from room to room, following the all-female cast through its deconstructed version of the text. Director Travis Preston, and the entire design team — Barreca, Gottlieb, lighting designer Chris Akerlind, costume designer Ellen McCartney, and co-sound designer Leon Rothenberg — all shared their experiences with us, explaining in their own words how this remarkable production came together in spite of the unusual technical challenges they faced (video director Chris Kondek was unfortunately unable to participate). It was quite an auspicious debut for CalArts' Center for New Theatre, and I think even the Bard himself would have enjoyed this very contemporary take on a 400-year-old classic.
The Bard's technical director probably would have enjoyed this King Lear as well; the technical challenges on this production were so formidable — erecting moveable audience risers, pouring a new floor, setting up a complex video system, “building”a car crash — that they require their own story. To that end, technical director Bill Ballou, car wreck designer/associate technical director Michael Casselli, and video coordinator Lap-Chi Chu will offer up their behind-the-scenes notes on this production in Theatre Crafts, the special November supplement to Entertainment Design. Until then, read on for a fascinating glimpse at the process of creating the proper site-specific design for CalArts' King Lear.
Note: This part of "The King Has Left the Building" includes discussion by Preston, Barereca, and Akerlind; Part II features costume designer Ellen McCarthy and sound designers Jon Gottlieb and Leon Rothenberg. Click here to go to Part II.
TRAVIS PRESTON, DIRECTOR
The creation of the design for King Lear was singular in every way. The specific circumstances of the production as well as the sheer scale of the work to be executed necessitated an entirely different process from the one that is conventional in the American theatre. I believe this process was a testament to the possibilities of a collaboration that blurs the boundaries between technology and design. Each technical specialist needed to grasp the full artistic objective of the entire production in order to address the various design challenges and decisions that she/he would make throughout the process. This created a vast team of designers that were all influencing and evolving the work together with the principal design team and me.
The design evolved over three years and several stages. From the beginning, Lear's journey was seen as a downward spiral of modernity — emerging from the fateful gesture of quantifying love. We sought to literalize this journey by having the audience move through five adjacent spaces, each embodying a stage in Lear's progression. The production was always site-specific. We believed that a truly exciting production of King Lear — one that would rise to the scale of imagination and genius of this singular masterpiece — would require a space outside the boundaries of a conventional theatre. Originally conceived for the massive construction site of the CalArts REDCAT space in Frank Gehry's unfinished Disney Hall, construction delays and complexities demanded we consider an alternative location. Due to the inspired intervention of Susan Solt, producer of the Center for New Theatre at CalArts, we were able to transfer the production to a space that I thought was even more exciting for our work: the Edison Electric Building in the Brewery Arts Complex.
The Edison Electric Building is located on the edge of consciousness. Built in 1903 with construction overseen by Thomas Edison, it was once the engine of American industry. It is now an icon of forgetfulness. As the audience moves through its many interiors, this former electric plant becomes the battleground of the eternal and the transitory. Its evocation of turn-of-the-century industrialization was perfect for this Lear that was so deeply associated with the emergence of the modern world.
I will briefly describe the five spaces and the ideas surrounding each design impulse.
Space One: Earth: The audience enters the space and encounters a figure lying supine in a Plexiglas box. This is Edmund, whom one encounters alternatively like an object in a display case or a premature baby in an artificial environment. Video monitors hang on the periphery with the entire cast standing with their backs to the audience — all facing the screens in rapt attention. A roving actor with a live-feed video camera transmits images of the audience as well as Edmund in the box. The first words are spoken announcing the King's entrance and the audience is ushered into the main space: a vast landscape of steel oil derricks. This space is based on the element of earth in the Elizabethan cosmology and relates to the taking of wealth from the ground. The audience is seated on a large audience riser that is diagonal to the space.
Space Two: Water: This long and narrow space is entered by a narrow passage from the first scene. In it is a long Plexiglas table that cuts the middle of the entire space. On the walls on either side of the table is a huge video projection of a horizontal ocean landscape — gently rolling in monumental rhythm. Seated on either side of the table is a chorus of Lear's army — each with an oar. They row in synchronized rhythm. Audience is seated on two sides of the table. This scene is based on the element of water and relates to Lear's journey to the underworld. The design of this set is based heavily on the work of Eadweard Muybridge, the great early English-American photographer whose motion studies have been seen as a precursor to the development of cinema.
Space Three: Camera: The audience enters a riser that has been completely enclosed on all sides and ceiling with heavy black velour. A front curtain opens to reveal a small rectangular aperture. The entire action of this movement is viewed through this frame. It is as though one is in a huge camera. At a critical moment in the text, the audience unit gently rises and begins to move forward on air casters — dollying forward and rotating like a film camera. The audience sees what we want them to see; this control of perspective is associated with the emergence of cinema.
Space Four: Fire: This movement begins with the “heath” scene. (Our “movements” are not the same as Shakespeare's acts.) The audience enters a space that has simultaneous video projections from a multiplicity of video projectors. Images of destruction — primarily from World War II and its aftermath — are the principal projections. A row of 10 “Lear” duplicates wearing masks are moving back and forth from the wall to the audience in this long horizontal space. At a critical moment in the action the “hovel” is revealed: huge loading dock doors open to show two large automobiles in the moment of their crashing together with the view of downtown Los Angeles in the background. This movement was designed around the breakdown of perspective that is so rigorously controlled in the previous scene.
Space Five: Air: The huge main space is returned to but it is now completely open and the audience is dispersed in two rows on two sides of the vast rectangle. At one end is the Plexiglas box in which we saw Edmund in the very first scene. At the other is the large industrial step unit, also from the first scene. The actors sit at microphones against the upstage wall. In this movement we sought to strip the stage and emphasize the open expanse. Each of the audience members is given a headset and receiver. They experience all sound through individual headsets. This final movement, more than any other, puts supreme emphasis on what is heard rather than on what is seen.
Needless to say, I was grateful for the extraordinary design team, some of whom I had worked with for years. With them, I had just the right group of collaborators to approach this monumental work. What emerged in the process of creating the piece was how important the contribution of our technical directors and staff was to the evolution of the design. Because of the site-specific nature of the production, its monumental scale, and its technical complexity, our technical directors (Bill Ballou, Michael Casselli, and Lorrie Snyder) made daily decisions in the process of their work that were elemental design decisions. I consider the overwhelming success of the process to be a testament to their artistry, technical skill, mastery of our overall aesthetic goals, and problem-solving capacity.
CHRIS BARRECA, SET DESIGNER
Travis and I were interested in the way in which Lear's vision mirrors the way a camera conscripts how we understand a subject. The older movie studios have a great deal of character of the golden age of film. They were, however, impossibly expensive to rent. At the time I was working with Frank Gehry's office on the new REDCAT theatre in Disney Hall, and it occurred to me that there was a period of almost a year when construction on our space would stop to allow the symphony to catch up. We liked the way in which the themes of empire-building, post-modern architectural theory, and the demolition of one structure to create a new structure (as was still obvious at the construction site) resonated in the text.
We designed the show as a journey through five spaces, which related to five movements in the play. We made models of each movement by taking flat-on photos and combining them on the computer to create elevations. Unfortunately, the construction got behind, which eliminated the possibility of using the site and delayed us for a year while we looked for another space. All of the scenery went into tractor-trailer containers.
Susan Solt, our dean and producer, found and negotiated the use of the Brewery, a stunning and monumental series of spaces that were built as Edison's first West Coast Laboratory and power station at the turn of the century. None of the other spaces we looked at would have worked with the aesthetics of the scenery — which was all built — or the ideas we had about the text. We were able to use two spaces, one 200' × 68' and the other 150' × 50'. Both were over 50' high.
Changing spaces presented many challenges. At REDCAT each movement happened in its own space. At the Brewery we only had two for six, so we decided to move back and forth between the spaces. In doing so we needed to pare away to the essential of each movement and trust the space to resonate with those objects instead of dividing each space up. Some things that had been built were cut, but remarkably we did not add any new elements. The Brewery made the ideas stronger. The audience entered spaces that had been transformed.
One of the major challenges of the Brewery that we did not catch when we first discussed the transfer was the uneven floor. The third movement was conceived around the idea of the audience of 140 being moved by air casters on a 30' × 30' riser unit while looking out at the action through a small cameralike aperture. In the same way that Lear's vision of events is only one point of view, the audience would feel like a character and only see fragments of the new space. At REDCAT that movement was in the new theatre, which had a polished flat cement floor. In the end this was the most powerful idea we had, but it took the creative thinking of Bill Ballou, our technical director, to find a solution that was cost-effective to level such a huge floor. As a designer I like to work closely with all of the technical areas in a creative way. Many of the best ideas came from Bill and the rest of the technical team. Bill came up with the idea of leveling the floor with sand and covering the sand with 8' × 20' steel plates welded together. It was both practical and beautifully within the original aesthetic of untreated steel constructivism.
Another challenge was dealing with all of the city fire and building and safety department permits. Because of my involvement in the architectural design of theatres (and many projects in found spaces), I knew this one would be especially difficult. The Certificate of Occupancy was industrial; none of the exits met code, the distances to exiting were way beyond what would be allowed in a standard theatre space, and there was no sprinkler system or emergency-exit signs or lighting. I drew up standard architectural fire plans for each of the five movements and with our production coordinator, Leslie Tamaribuchi, who had years of experience with site-specific work with the Cornerstone Theatre, visited the city departments many times. Fire marshals and building inspectors visited the site repeatedly. Each time we revised the plans to the departments needs. They would not sign off on it until they had seen the set in action two days before the first audience. I have always been very open with city departments exposing my concerns and getting their input. Fortunately, in this case, we were able to address all of their concerns without changing the design significantly.
The process of getting the show into the space was only possible because of a committed group of my students, both design and technical. They functioned as shop, stage and running crew. This was an idea Bill had: to use the knowledge the crew developed during construction and load-in during rehearsal. In a site-specific work it is more efficient to not actually tech the show but slowly accumulate tech in rehearsals in the space. Having the crew and myself always a few feet away allowed our relationship to both space and performance to be organic.
CHRIS AKERLIND, LIGHTING DESIGNER
Lighting the Center for New Theatre's Lear project was an exercise in patience and the excitement derived from making large-scale, site-specific work. Though I had not participated actively in the various workshops of the project over three years, I approached the lighting of the event with a confidence built on knowledge of the shared aesthetic of our group of collaborators.
Primary to my work was the idea that we should discover and then rediscover the two spaces as stripped of extraneous mechanical/technological elements as possible. The spaces were beautiful to me when full of actors, action, and little else. Because I wanted to preserve the idea that these found spaces were transforming as a result of the sequence of action, I was loath to hang too much equipment in the air that might have predicted action we had not seen or even imagined early in the piece. Consequently, Travis Preston and I decided to light much of the event from the floor, allowing the equipment to be gripped in and out specifically for each movement of the piece while spectators were in the other space or outside at the interval. This led us to the use of handheld sources, such as the roving 5K fresnel that articulated Lear on his moving tower in the first act, as well as the use of fluorescents to light the action of the fifth and final movement. It also enabled us to make double and triple use of the two 5K fresnels that CalArts has in its inventory — one mounted on a floor base and the other on a rolling 6' stand. We relied heavily on a row of MR-16 strips buried within the base of the audience platform unit. Masked by the structure of the unit and the first row of spectators, these footlights allowed us to fill the larger space with a soft, frontal light that co-existed effortlessly with the action.
All of the light was colored with L201 (with added frost where needed) and run very low on dimmer. This articulated the entire event in cool gray tones against the warm brick, white distressed walls, and cold steel floors of the industrial space.
Critical to the imagery of the Gloucester/Edmund/Edgar story was the use of two 8' fluorescent tubes mounted at the back corners of what we called the “Edmund box,” an incubator-like Plexiglas coffin wired for sound and interior light. Travis, set designer Chris Barreca, and I went through many ideas for interior sources until, after I'd finally seen some of the action in rehearsal, I decided that the low profile and cool temperature of fluorescents was the only choice we had. Because the box was choreographed to move while lit and then remain lit for an extended period of time while sitting in one place, the electricians wired the box to switch from battery control to hard-wire control without flicker.
Because much of the action in the smaller room was to be lit either against a complex background of projected video or lit by the video itself, we decided to reduce the lighting ideas in that space to a bare minimum. In fact the fourth movement, the “heath” scene, lit by video alone had only the battery-operated headlights, taillights, and the interior dome and dashboard lights of the car wreck sculpture for the electricians to engineer. The second movement was lit primarily by 500W floodlights, purchased at the last minute at Home Depot, underneath the Plexiglas-topped table on which the action unfolded.
The work would not have happened without the hard work and dedication of Fred Geffken, our staff master electrician at CalArts, and his able team of electricians, board ops, and handheld followspot operators (Andrea Bell, Matt Carpenter, Jon Gothard, Tracy Otwell, Mat Shima, and Jon Winans), as well as my assistants, Tony Mulanix and Justin Townsend, all students at the school.
Click here to go to Part II of "The King Has Left the Building."