PROBLEM: Riccardo Hernandez's design for The Miser, a co-production of the American Repertory Theatre, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, is a playground for actors. A 5'×30' apron, raked down from stage right to stage left, and a 12'×40' deck, raked in the opposite direction, ain't nothin' compared to an upstage alcove, 20'×9'. Stationary during Act One, ART technical director Steve Setterlun says, “it tips like card stock on a pencil in all directions” in Act Two, eventually locking into a sharp rake, with an actor stranded above. Water drips through a large hole in the alcove roof, also used for overhead entrances and exits.

The tipping reminds Setterlun of a Claymation short, Balance, in which clay figures move on a square disk “suspended in space magically, with an invisible pivot point.” But this set holds real people and had real problems: How can the tilt be extreme enough to arrest attention yet controlled to keep actors safe? And how can the tipping mechanism and the operators who control it stay out of sight to surprise spectators, when an apparently stationary floor goes berserk?

SOLUTION: Setterlun answered these questions by raising others: “How do we allow that center point to smoothly move and lock into place?”

A counterweight system off the corners of the alcove at almost zero gravity might allow operators to use a hydraulic lock with a check valve that could be released as actors move, but tipping would be uncontrollably fast that way. So, Setterlun finally opted for two drum locks to provide more resistance. Cables connect the downstage corners of the alcove to each brake drum, so the alcove won't move on its own. “By adjusting the air pressure in the brakes, we can control the movement,” he explains.

Where can operators hide in a set that has no masking? With side views out, Setterlun arranged to have a monitor upstage on floor level, so that the operator could watch the stage while maintaining immediate access to brakes and system cables, essential should a safety issue arise.

“How do we counterweight each corner?” The two upstage cables could go outside the wall discreetly, but the apron size made it difficult to hide anything in the downstage corners until Hernandez added three more inches on each side.

Originally the alcove was to begin at six inches from the ground, floating up to three feet with actors on it, but a materials budget of $20,000 brought it down a foot. Lowering the alcove made it safer and reduced the chance that the corner point might rotate into a wall. But it also raised questions about how effective the tilt would be. “We needed to have a mechanism at the pivot point and a scissors lift and hydraulic ram to lift the pivot point up,” he says, but he had too little clearance below the deck.

Setterlun responded by shortening the framing underneath, inadvertently introducing new movement to a platform he had intended to keep rigid when not tipping. Now, the alcove bends and flexes when corner locks are removed, “something like a diving board. This gives us an added element in the grab bag of visuals Dominique [Serrand, director] can reveal,” he says. “Then we unlock the pivot and it becomes an outright tip.”

Although Setterlun moved into a prototype quickly to address these varied issues, that prototype changed as budget and safety issues arose. Because the shop stayed flexible, solutions provided new aesthetic opportunities.

If you've met a design or technical challenge and would like to share your solution, please write to this column at davi@comcast.net.