Some time ago, just after Alvin Epstein appeared in a Robert Wilson production at the American Repertory Theatre, a reporter asked the actor how Wilson had explained some of the images to the cast. Epstein, a highly articulate actor/director, took a beat and said, “Does the painter tell the paint why he does what he does?”

Wilson paints with people, giving them precise direction: an actor must move her arm at a certain pace in a certain direction while looking at the floor at a precise angle. Wilson also paints with light, props, and well, paint, and his approach to painting can be just a little problematic, as it was when Einstein on the Beach, the Philip Glass opera, prepared for three previews in January at the Power Center in Ann Arbor, MI, before starting its current tour.

The four-act opera that runs nearly five hours was first produced at the Avignon Festival in France in 1976, with a few subsequent performances in Europe and New York. Remounts in 1984 at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, with new dance sequences by Lucinda Childs, and in 1992 followed, though “remount” may be the wrong word here. Although the score, dances, and dated material in the slight book have remained constant, Wilson has re-envisioned his design with each production. He’s got new technology to work with, and “he’s a mercurial director whose eye has changed over the years,” says production manager Will Knapp. “What he sees now is different than what he saw before. We’ve given him a very good version of the ‘92 production, but he now wants the 2012 production, with warmer drops cut or redone. He wants it to be colder.”

Actors often appear mechanized, speaking and moving slowly in Wilson’s smoky landscape. The palette is largely black and white with grays and deep blues, with occasional small splashes of color in props or costumes, and some lighter blues. The exception is a building at the top of act four, done in brown with green shutters, with the blue sky behind a little lighter. “We use so many colors of blue gel,” says electrician Craig Kidwell, a lighting designer by training. Images and text, often groups of numbers, repeat, and when a gunshot breaks the relentless repetition, the violence is jarring. “If you emphasize the smallest gesture, it gains immense power,” Kidwell reflects. “Wilson limited the color palette and doesn’t use much texture. As a young designer, you tend to use much more. Watching someone brilliantly limit himself is quite remarkable.”

A backdrop for trial scenes had some pinks in it initially. “Two drops were determined to be the wrong color,” says Janine Woods Thoma, part of the local crew. “They needed to have new paint mixed, and our local scene shop didn’t have the volume of paint they needed.” After hours of accumulating the paint, the auteur director decided he wanted a very different shade. Painting the 60' wide by 34' tall drop wasn’t possible in the Power Center scene shop. So once the color was right, crew members headed across the street to work in a small unoccupied proscenium house. “We fit a third of the drop on the stage and stretched the remainder over the seats in the house,” Thoma says.

“One of the big problems of the production is that there are a lot of individual pieces,” adds Knapp. “There are so many to build, and many fly constantly. You have to find places to traffic these things around and make them fly in or roll on.” Crews found a low-tech solution to flying multiple pieces: organization and constant reorganization. “The stage manager and technicians put together a flexible plan that can change when something doesn’t work,” says Knapp.

Set pieces include two trains, 2D and 3D. The former, made of traditional flats hooked on the face of a metal cart, breaks into three sections. By the time the first section is out, it is possible to get the second cart lined up and hooked onto it—essential when wings are too small. “The Power Center doesn’t do productions of that scale often, and the complexity of trying to squeeze that kind of opera into the space was a challenge,” says Kidwell. The wings weren’t deep enough for it, so the train had to come apart and slide into the shop, which has doors that lead to the stage just upstage of the stage left wings.

LED technology is new to the 2012 touring production. “LEDs allow for a beautiful wash inside confining scenery,” says Thoma, adding that the show also relies on fluorescents. “A ground row of them lights the cyc from below. The theatre here used almost every available stage weight to support all the instruments.”

A large bed that appears in court scenes stands up slowly and transforms into a horizontal beam of white light, then levitates, angles, and becomes vertical. “In the ‘90s, it was four feet deep and a foot and a half tall,” Knapp recalls. “It was hard for operators to find space in the air for it when it was standing up. The design was that the center would stay straight on the center line and maintain the center line feel when it would rise up.” Using a hand winch, four stage hands, two on each side, pulled it up while the stage manager directed them to move it a little more to the left or right as it wobbled. “This time, the shop was able to engineer a guide behind it. A pivot point behind rises very slowly with the bar.” The bed stands up and flies into the grid.

Also, in the last production, the bed was lit with fluorescent tubes; this time, with LEDs, making the effect easier to accomplish. “Then, we were always chasing down fluorescents that weren’t working,” says Knapp. “LEDs are much cheaper, easier to install, lighter, and more reliable. They’re very even and beautiful. The bed took a step forward with them.” The depth changed, too; now it is 15" deep, though the audience can’t perceive it. “It was supposed to mirror the bed in the trial scene earlier. Apparently, in the earliest production, all the geometric shapes on the backdrop in the trial scene were created with haze in the air,” adds Knapp. “The illusion with trickily focused light would be that the bar would stand up, and other features would go away. This has been simplified.”

Getting electrics far enough back for the cyc proved difficult. “The big line of light had to hang far upstage,” says Kidwell. “We had to pull it back with ropes and pulleys and fly it out. The riggers drilled brackets into the concrete wall and put pulleys around the lines, and then pulled the vertical lines up there to get it done.” A concrete drill was used to make points in the concrete.

Lighting specials are done with Martin Professional MAC III Performance units. “You can program the focus and sharpness, and run gobos into these,” says Knapp. “The HMIs are incredibly cold by comparison. Every other light was not very bright and very warm. We were able to use house ETC Source Four stock for dance boom washers.”

To light a woman who sits in a tall chair, 26 moving lights focus on the chair. “Then we threw up a Source Four with L172 or 201, one of the cool temperature corrections, and by comparison, it looked rosy,” says Knapp. “There was no way to use a conventional light next to these MACs.” Assistant lighting designer Josh Johnson made use of two database systems for creating and maintaining cue sheets. Rob Halliday’s SpotTrack is used by four followspot operators and for Johnson’s call sheets. “It isn’t rocket science and does make the creation of said paperwork easier,” says Johnson. He also became acquainted with Halliday’s FocusTrack lighting documentation system.

Presenters rented equipment in Ann Arbor, as they will throughout the tour for a show requiring 657 instruments. This time, Einstein competed with the high-tech auto show, running at the same time, and the presenter had to get some of the lights in from Delaware. “It’s a real challenge and an expense to rent that many little lights,” says Knapp. “You also need a repair technician. Moving lights are getting into the theatre business more and more, and we’ll have to deal with this phenomenon more and more, design-wise and technically.” Dimmers set in particular places ended up being a great boon to the show and will make it easier to adjust to other venues.

Up to the first preview, everything remained in flux. “Wilson wanted to hang a practical in the train car,” says Kidwell. “Normally, they’d put it in the notes and install it the next day, but he wanted to see it immediately. So I stood inside the night train holding up a clip light as a practical.” For the final scene, in which a bus drives in, LEDs were placed under the steering wheel to light the driver’s face. “He didn’t like the light coming up and wanted it moved above the driver’s head. It had already been built, but they added a cluster of LED tape above. We couldn’t rewire as quickly as he liked, and it had to be meticulously assembled to look a particular way.”

Electricians hung lighting fixtures at precise locations, with tolerances of ¼", working silently to avoid distracting Wilson with sounds that aren’t in the show. “I had keys hanging, and someone told me to tuck them so they wouldn’t jingle,” says Thoma. The crew worked from 8am to 11pm, sometimes working, sometimes waiting quietly. “Sometimes we had no light at all. When he was looking at subtle colors on the cyc and needed complete dark, you couldn’t use a flashlight.” Knapp found the local union, IA38, “amazingly professional and game in a very challenging situation.” (But if you’re feeling sorry for these crews, it helps to imagine what techs were like for Wilson’s The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, which took 12-hours to unfold.)

Power usage reached record levels in Ann Arbor. The dimmer room heated so much that air conditioning had to be used for the January previews, but the facility saw some permanent improvements. “We had to replace the lift in the Power Center,” says Kidwell. “The electric trims were higher than our Genie lift could lift. The old Genie lift was 30' to the basket. The new one is 36' 3".”

Although he had three weeks to tech—the show rehearsed for a month in New York, then went to Michigan for three weeks—Wilson, who was also reimagining the piece, was pressed; there was too little time for notes, and, says Knapp, Wilson sank into “a vortex of desperation. He changes things on the fly and works through things. He always feels he has more time than he does, but he’s got a practical side, too, and he knows when to settle on something.”

The previews were mounted under the auspices of the University Musical Society of the University of Michigan (UMS). “Although they are one of the best presenters in the country, UMS doesn’t commonly produce new work. It was a challenge for them on almost every front that they met with the utmost enthusiasm and professionalism,” says Knapp, adding that Wilson was satisfied with the progress, “but I have 3½ single-spaced pages of notes.” Wilson wants to work on the scene change between the train and the trial, and simplify the disappearance of a tower.

Einstein On The Beach is a co-production of UMS; the Barbican in London; the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Cal Performances in Berkeley; Luminato, Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity; De Nederlandse Opera/The Amsterdam Music Theatre; Opéra et Orchestre National de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon; and produced by Pomegranate Arts. It opens officially this month in Montpellier, France.

Davi Napoleon is a theatre historian and journalist who writes widely about the arts for national and regional publications. Her features on design have been running in
Live Design and its antecedents since 1977. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.