Located two blocks south of Canal Street in the Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca, Walker Street retains a decidedly old-time New York feel. A bit on the dark side, with anonymous-looking storefronts, you could easily walk right on by walkerspace, one of New York's hippest Off Off Broadway houses.
For its zippy production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, complete with rock band sitting above the stage, the Rude Mechanicals Theatre Company created a Zen-like atmosphere by placing a slightly raised gravel pit, suggestive of a Japanese rock garden, in the theatre. The actors would then step on--and in--to the pit to act out the Bard's tale of jealousy and forgiveness. Finished with their scene, the actors would then leave the pit to sit on side benches and watch the action. In addition to instruments hanging from the grid, the lighting design included 10 MR-16 birdie lamps, along the perimeter of the rectangular pit, with footlights at the downstage edge of the pit. Props became a part of the set design; they were hung on the fabricated upstage wall and brought onstage, or on-pit, as needed. If a character bought it--in this play one of the players is famously devoured offstage by a big bear (possibly the best known stage directions of all time: "Exit, pursued by a bear.")--a sign reading "deceased" would be placed under the character's props.
Lighting designer Scott Clyve describes director Ryan Rilette's concept: "As characters stepped onto the gravel pit, they were playing in the space. When they left, they became actors again. It was the Rude Mechanicals coming in to tell a tale--The Winter's Tale."
Rilette, one of two American Conservatory Theatre graduates who started the company in 1998, worked with Clyve, who received his BFA in theatre design/technology from Purchase College, and set designer David Korins, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst's undergraduate program in theatre, to create two worlds: Sicilia, home to the jealous Leontes, and Bohemia, home to the misjudged Polixines and Leontes' abandoned daughter. Both lights and set expressed this shift, with the lighting changing from scenes of shadows and dark reds in Act One to a softer, brighter glow in Act Two. Reflecting this shift, the actors raked the gravel in hard straight lines for Sicilia and in round, swirling sweeps for Bohemia.
Clyve created a number of lighting looks, from an intense red for a trial scene to a cool blue and a jagged gobo effect for a storm scene along the rocky coastline to a softer, naturalistic look with pink backlight for a party scene. Clyve combined the walkerspace equipment with a package from Big Apple Lights that consisted of one Altman 6 x 12, eight Altman 6 x 9s, one ETC Source Four (which was manipulated by one of the actors to act as a followspot), 10 MR-16 Birdies (for side light) and two 6' MR-16 Zip Strips (placed downstage of the gravel bed as footlights). He used mainly Roscolux filters: R74 (Night Blue), R03 for the majority of the Birdies (Dark Bastard Amber), R54 (Special Lavender), R62 (Booster Blue), R80 (Primary Blue), and, in the footlights, R23 (Orange), R26 (Light Red), and R79 (Bright Blue). Clyve also hung three color scrollers with a gel string of R59 (Indigo), R44 (Middle Rose), R26 (Light Red), R77 (Green Blue), R99 (Chocolate), R18 (Flame), R76 (Light Green Blue), R55 (Lilac), and R23 (Orange).
For the set, Korins' aim was to create a "theatrical and neutral space. We wanted a feeling of earth and yet a modern feel as well. Ryan initially talked about wanting this to be kids telling a story at a campfire--people at a beach scraping something into the sand. And I ran with that. What a great way to tell a story--to etch something into the sand." The gravel pit was 16' wide by 221/2' long by 6" deep and filled with a beige-yellow pea gravel that he discovered while doing research at botanical gardens. It was lined with upside-down carpet to prevent slippage and noise.
"It was like we were stopping a flood or something," laughs Korins as he recalls the two hundred 40lb bags he bought for the show; it took him and his crew three-quarters of a day just to unload the gravel from the truck. The structure was made of wood, and the downstage border had a slit in it so that the keel of a model boat could journey from side to side by actors pulling on a fishing line to indicate when the characters were traveling between the two countries.
Beautifully conceived and designed, the scenic and lighting design not only delineated the two worlds but, amid the blackness of walkerspace, guided the audience's focus, and accented the production's theatrical self-awareness.
The Winter's Tale ran February 7-27.