The impossibility of ever achieving perfection, social or otherwise, is the underlying theme of Blithedale: A Virtual Utopia, a dramatization (or, perhaps "cyberization" would be more apt) of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance. (Director Tim Maner conceived the piece, with Elizabeth Banks credited as writer/adapter.) Hawthorne's novel was inspired by his failed encounter with Brook Farm, a commune in Massachusetts that aspired to a transcendental utopian ideal by combining the physical (the manual labor of farm work) and the intellectual/artistic. In this version, Maner explores the communal aspects of the Internet, the lack of success of technical/ cyber "progress" in bringing people together, and the ultimate breakdown of a utopian vision.
Entering the theatre at New York City's downtown multi-arts center HERE, there are no idyllic pastures to be seen; the audience is instead confronted with a stark playing area consisting of an opaque white Plexiglas raised platform and drop ceiling. The floor grid, which, when one of the characters steps up on it, signifies he or she has entered the virtual world, consists of 100 squares, while the ceiling (the framework is from Home Depot) suspended above consists of twenty-five 48"x48" squares.
As both set and light designer, Kyle Chepulis was responsible for creating the environment of a new cyber community (pictured). In the play, a group of people enter a virtual reality world in which each person is matched up with a "sim" (or simulated character) from the Hawthorne novel. The pairs of characters generally move and act in unison, though one member of the pair speaks more loudly and clearly, presumably for the sake of audibility.
Chepulis decided to work on the show in part because he has been involved with HERE since its inception in 1993, but mainly because of the "experimentation" a "technically challenging" project such as this one calls for. As he says, "What I do in my productions is try to figure out different ways to use light. For instance, in one play I used a 5,000W instrument to light practically the whole show. I could move it around the stage in an orbital arc." For this show, Chepulis focused on creating a bright and vividly colored ceiling. Since HERE's inventory included only "about 12 scrollers, and they're old analog ones that are too noisy," he needed other instruments and chose Wybron Coloram IIs. Chepulis also rented fresnels, which were used to light the grid. He rented the scrollers from BASH Lighting Services, the scrolls directly from Wybron, and 25 Altman 8" 2kW fresnels from Production Arts. Additional equipment was rented from Big Apple Lights.
Faced with the usual challenges of an Off Off Broadway budget and a small theatre, Chepulis came through with flying colors. He created a dynamic-looking grid set, all or part of which could be turned different colors and patterns from the lighting instruments placed above the ceiling. As the top and bottom grids change color, it becomes a cyber stage, underscoring both the advanced technology of the characters' world and the fact that even in the computer age, human concerns and passions never change.
Though Colorams can take up to 32 colors per scroll, the production's budget allowed for 13. Chepulis chose Tokyo Blue (Lee 071), Azure Blue (GAM 730), full color-correction blue (Lee 201), Pale Lavender (Lee 136), Mauve (Lee 126), Medium Red (Lee 027), Deep Golden Amber (Lee 135), Bastard Amber (GAM 325), Pale Green (GAM 540), Primary Green (Lee 139), Deep Straw (Lee 015), No Color Straw (GAM 510), and no color. The color selection process took longer than expected because mixing the gels with the opaque white Plexiglas affected the final outcome, and Chepulis wishes the final colors could have been even more deeply saturated. Nonetheless, he says he "had a lot of fun. The ceiling was like a checkerboard, and creating different patterns and mixing the lights, and seeing how they looked on the actors was really interesting." Chepulis found that "sharp delineations" between colors worked best, and he used Duvetyne as masking between the squares so color wouldn't "bleed from cell to cell."
Between each point of the floor squares was drilled a round hole, which was wired with a 75W PAR-30 halogen lamp, and covered with a Plexi dish lined with blue gel, giving Chepulis yet another way to create texture and light for the set. Utopia, virtual or otherwise, was never so well-designed.
The show was controlled by an ETC Microvision FX. Other Blithedale staff members were Andrew Hill, assistant set/lighting designer, and Jay Worthington, head electrician. Sound design was by Tim Schellenbaum and costumes by Nancy Brous. Blithedale: A Virtual Utopia ran at HERE in March and April.