“Water always wins; you need to let the water do what it wants,” says Daniel Ostling, scenic designer for Metamorphoses, the play writer/director Mary Zimmerman has constructed from the myths of Ovid. He should know: This is a play in which the stage is dominated by a huge pool, and in all of its various productions around the country in the last several years, the water has had nearly as much influence on the look of the show as the creative team.

Photo: © Joan Marcus

The title says it all: this is a play about change and the transforming power of love, themes especially timely given the state of the nation. It is also a play where all of the collaborators were in the same room at the same time; the design team was able to integrate the scenic, lighting, costume, and sound elements into a seamless environment. The scenic elements have undergone a number of changes (you might say metamorphoses) as the show traveled across the country — from Chicago to San Francisco to Seattle to LA to New York — culminating in March with a remounting on Broadway at Circle in the Square.

Ostling's scenic design is reminiscent of paintings by Magritte and the dream states they evoke. The main acting area is a pool that, depending on the stage space, goes almost wing-to-wing and upstage to downstage. The pool is surrounded by a wooden walkway on all four sides. Add a formal, double-door upstage left, a sky-blue panel with painted clouds behind the upper right area of the pool, and a raised platform behind the sky panel, and you have the playing area for this production. The action takes place around — more often in — the pool, which is used not only to evoke a very ethereal location for the myths but also to represent interior and exterior elements, the sea, food, a conjugal bed, and, with a yellow pool raft serving as a couch, a therapist's office.

The production started out at Northwestern University in 1996 as Six Myths, centering around a variety of Greek myths. “Mary had an idea about 12 years ago to produce the Odyssey with water as the major scenic element,” says Ostling. “At the time she did not have the resources to pull it off, but the idea stayed with her. She wanted to try again when Six Myths started and she was at a school with the resources to produce the show with water. She was also auditioning a set to see if the pool idea would work.

“The thrust of the idea is that water is omnipresent and prevalent throughout the myths,” Ostling continues. “Water is life: it provides their livelihood, it provides a means of travel, and it is the source of tragedy.” Zimmerman wanted to integrate the water into the stories as metaphor. She was looking for the changing ability of water, the instantaneous nature of it, how it could go from still to violent and back to calm. “It felt right,” the designer says. “Mary felt that the show got a life of its own. The original Six Myths morphed into Metamorphoses, with the focus on just Ovid's myths.”

In 1998, Zimmerman produced Metamorphoses with the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago. The water and the deck were very similar to the Northwestern production, but there were a number of scenic changes. “We added the doorway, which was not a part of the original production, and we lengthened and reconfigured the cloud panel,” says Ostling. “The show was done on a thrust stage just as it had been at Northwestern. It is important to be able to look down on the pool; you have to be able to see the water.”

Photo courtesy Lookingglass Theatre

After the Lookingglass production, the company restaged the play at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. “It has been a learning experience at every new stage,” says Ostling. “We refined and improved the pool and the offstage support as we restaged the production.”

The biggest changes came when the production moved to New York's Second Stage. Up until then, all previous incarnations were done on a thrust stage with a square pool. The Second Stage production proved so successful that a move to Broadway seemed the next logical step, and the design team began been looking at theatres to transfer the show. “It was tough trying to find a stage where the majority of the audience is looking down on the pool,” says Ostling. At the time Carol Rothman, artistic director of Second Stage, speculated that the transfer would cost about one million dollars. She was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Water is cheap. You just need chlorine.” The producers eventually settled on the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway. With its thrust layout and seating rake, Metamorphoses will be in an appropriate venue.

Set model for Second Stage by Daniel Ostling

In its early incarnations at various regional theatres, it was produced on thrust stages and the pool was 24' square. The bottom of the pool had a flat area at the rear for more of a reflective quality. At Second Stage in New York, it is on a proscenium and the pool is 28' wide and 16' front to back. Due to the reduced front-to-back dimensions, the flat portion was reduced and most of the pool raked. The bottom of the pool is raked from 1" at the back to 1', 6" deep at the front of the pool. “It is important to have the back be shallow for the reflection,” says Ostling. At Circle in the Square, the pool will be 15', 5" wide and 26' from front to back. The pool's new dimensions are similar to the Second Stage pool, just turned 90∞. The flat area at the rear of the pool will extend 9' and there will be a 1' flat area at the front of the pool. The overall depth on Broadway will increase to 1', 9" deep. “The Broadway set will have the deepest thrust of all of the productions,” says Ostling. “In New York, we have gone from one extreme to another, with the proscenium at Second Stage to this deep thrust at Circle in the Square.

“It is also important that the pool liner be black to maintain the reflection qualities and not be able to see the bottom,” Ostling continues. “We had to look long and hard, because almost all pool liners are light blue.” He settled on a synthetic honeycombed rubber liner, which provided a good grip for the actors' feet. “In LA, they tried a different material at first and it leaked everywhere,” Ostling says. “We ended up using a black gym mat material with about 1” of foam bead underneath the surface to aid in grip and to help prevent punctures. The force of the water holds the sides up by pushing out against the support structure.” Ostling says they never had any leaks after they perfected the liner issues. Atlantic Studios, located in Newark, NJ, built the set for the Second Stage production. The Broadway production is being built by Great Lakes Scenic Studios in Burlington, Ontario.

A drunken god (right) about to grant Midas' wish in the Second Stage production of

Metamorphoses. Photo: © Joan Marcus

The pool is surrounded on all four sides by a wooden deck with slats to allow water drainage. “We have the troughs drain off backstage into catch basins and not back into the pool,” says Peter J. Davis, the production manager for Second Stage. “The director and designers did not want the sound of the water draining back into the pool, and did want the pool to return to still as quickly as possible.” The wood deck has grit mixed into the paint for traction and is re-applied every six weeks. There is also black matting on the exit ramps that allows the water to drain away into the catch basin and provides a safe, non-slip walkway for the actors. On the new set, the deck will increase in size by 6" to 3', 3" on all sides.

One aspect of the production that has been perfected with each staging is the offstage support area. “At the Lookingglass theatre, we did not have a big budget, and water maintenance was low on the totem pole,” says Ostling. “We did not have a very large backstage crew then. We have added more crew and expanded and changed the areas to deal with wet actors and their equally wet costumes.” When the production was produced at Berkeley Rep, more effort was spent backstage with the addition of more towels, heater booths, and drainage mats. “Los Angeles was an even bigger step forward, because they wanted to spend a lot more money to make it higher tech,” says Ostling.

At Second Stage, Davis learned from the other productions. “We bought and rented parts of the scenery from the Center Theatre Group, the producers of the Mark Taper Forum production, to make sure that the scenery was the same or better than before,” he says. The doorway and cloud panel from the Los Angeles production were re-used. “We added chlorination units, filters, a pool heater, and a cover to keep accumulated crud out of the water as well as heater units and changing rooms for the actors. We added a second washer and dryer set and would have added a third if the space was there. You cannot imagine how it adds up, but we go through at least 50 towels in a performance,” laughs Davis. The pool is heated to 104° and the cover is removed approximately 45 minutes before the curtain. “It cools quickly, but we need to hit the right temperature for the actors,” says Davis. “I've had very little trouble with the water in this production — I've had worse problems in supposed non-water shows.”

The Second Stage incarnation was unique to all other productions on one respect: its location. “We are a theatre on the second floor, in midtown Manhattan, over stores, so we needed to make sure the building structure could support the weight load of the pool,” Davis explains. “At approximately 2,300 gallons of water, I brought in a structural engineer to make sure the floor could support the load.”

Robert Mahon, the technical director for Second Stage, drained and refilled the pool every two weeks. “We have the changeover down to about six hours with draining and refilling the pool,” he says. “I used a half-horsepower sump pump and 100' of 2" fire hose to get the water up to the front of the theatre, where there is a 3" drain in the men's restroom.” Mahon was pleasantly surprised to find that the drain handled the water flow easily. “The only problem was that the pump would pull the hose out of the drain,” he says. “A couple of stage weights took care of that problem.” Filling the pool was another matter entirely. Mahon pulled four ⅝" hoses from various water supplies to fill the pool in about two hours. “I ran one hose from a 100-gallon water heater on the third floor, one each from the men's and women's restrooms and one from the slop sink in the shop,” says Mahon. For the Broadway production, the TD has added a drain plug to aid in draining the pool. “The current plan is to drain the pool every Sunday night and refill it on Tuesday morning,” he says.

One of the scenes requires a tight shower to rain down on a character. Mahon used the third-floor run from the water heater to provide hot water for the shower on the actor. “It also has to start and stop on cue, with no dripping,” says Davis. “You cannot just turn off the tap, because you still have 100-plus feet of water left in the hose.” The Mark Taper production took a very high-tech approach to this problem, using solenoids and electronics to control the flow. “We took a low-tech approach,” says Mahon. “We used some hardware store fittings, a pulley, and some black trick line that a stagehand pulled the nozzle up with to stop the flow of water and let the back flow work to our advantage.”

The other element Second Stage had to deal with was humidity. “We have a brand-new space with a large curtain over the side windows which the architect Rem Koolhaas designed and which cost a lot of money,” says Davis. (The staff affectionately dubbed the theatre “The Koolhaas pool house.”) “We installed an industrial dehumidifier to protect the drape as well as the seats and the masking. After the production, it is for sale,” adds Davis.

The move into Circle in the Square has allowed the production more room for the offstage support areas. “We have a huge upstage area at this theatre, which allows for much better traffic patterns for the actors and crew,” says Ostling. “The crossover isn't under the platform and we have now have two real warming booths for the actors.” At Second Stage there was a small booth in the upstage-left crossover that everyone walked through and a small one by the fire door. Neither could really be sealed, and they never got that warm. Adds Ostling, “The actors are very happy to have real warming booths.” Mahon, who in addition to his full-time position as technical director at Second Stage is coming along with the production as production supervisor, has been traveling to Toronto to coordinate with Great Lakes Scenic.

“It really has been a Cinderella story,” says Ostling of this show's long, strange trip. “When we started out at Northwestern, the scenic budget was $2,500 without labor. One of the bids for the Broadway production was $150,000,” adds Ostling. “Mary and I plus three actors have been involved with this show since Six Myths back at Northwestern.” Ostling, Zimmerman, and company just got back from Italy, where they traveled on a research grant for their next production, which will be Galileo for Chicago's Goodman Theatre in July. That is, unless Metamorphoses continues to metamorphose.

“Every time we remount this show, we say, ‘This has to be the last show,” says Ostling. “This probably will be our last production of this show.”