How do you create scenery for an actor-driven production of a musical that swiftly moves through many locales? Latest to confront the perennial Candide challenge is Matthew Russell, who designed the show at Carnegie Mellon University before completing his BFA in design there this spring.
Russell says director Gregory Lehane wanted a creative rehearsal process and a design that actors could adapt as they worked. The design was to be a neutral object from which an entire cast could be instantly produced and, says Russell, through which “Candide's worlds could be effortlessly created and destroyed.” Russell attended rehearsals, constantly tweaking his design.
An early idea, a large hole in the stage floor housing a series of lifts for different terrains, would have allowed actors to walk into or emerge from a void — the best of all possible designs had it not put Russell roughly three times over his $7,500 basic scenery budget. A second idea also went by the too-expensive boards. How could Russell create his vision, while staying in budget?
A two-story spinning box with a stationary spiral staircase, with a 3' radius and rising 22' from the trap room to the roof through the middle, allowed actors to appear out of the box as they might from a clown car.
Surrounded by a staircase on two sides and roofed by a walkable ceiling, the 12'×12'×12' box offered a different configuration of doors on each side. The relationship of doors to a stairway or balcony allowed for eight different looks. Surrounding trunks held props, costumes and puppets, and the trunks themselves served as ships and other scenic objects.
Russell wanted to control both the speed and stopping point of the box and didn't pre-program the automation system. “A live operator could respond in a delicate way,” he notes. In one scene, for instance, Candide and Cunnegonde ride horses (trunks) to a galloping sound effect as the box spins slowly behind them. They stop and realize they're being chased, then go full speed and the operator ensures the box madly swirls on cue. An earthquake in Lisbon also required the box to turn fast, while actors ran up and down staircases, opening and slamming doors.
With basic design issues resolved, technical problems kicked in. TD Shannon Lee Nickerson, an MFA student in production and technology, had to find a way to move actors from the trap room to the floor to the roof while the box rotated on a circular track built around it, moving up and downstage while it rotated, too.
The outer staircase made two adjacent sides extend 4' more than the other two, turning what began as a cube into something that would spin off center. “There was no way to attach the spiral staircase to anything on the top because there was nothing that didn't move,” Russell says.
How could they “make the box pivot around something that has no pivot point?” Nickerson wondered. And how could they make sure it was safe for actors to climb the staircase while the cube swirled around it?
“We raised the first floor of the cube to eight inches,” says Nickerson, adding that she worked with Russell to find a level that worked visually as well as technically. “We got a piece of channel rolled to a 9'6" diameter and bolted it to the bottom of the lower deck, centered around the hole for the stairwell. We then built a steel square with four horizontally mounted guide wheels, which was bolted to the deck. Besides the channel, we also mounted rigid castors to the bottom of the lower deck. The horizontal castors rode up against the flat wall of the channel. On the other side of the channel, the ‘C’ side, we glued rubber to it to give friction for the aircraft cable to grab against. The cable was then run to the trap room and driven by a 15hp motor.”
Also, Nickerson says the spiral staircase acted like a flagpole. “I was able to mount it to the deck of the trap room (concrete) and at the stage level (10') but the upper 12' went unsupported. Beginning at stage level, we ran vertical 1" box tube all the way up creating a ‘caged in’ staircase. On the upper deck of the cube, we made a ring that rested on castors. The upper ring sandwiched itself from top and inside so that if the staircase tried to bounce or move it had nowhere to go and the castors made sure that it didn't cause any uncalled for friction. The inner ring also had a handrail on it that matched the rest of the set. Unfortunately, this did not spin as it was connected to this idle ring. But you really couldn't tell from the audience.”
The staircase also had to hold up 12 lighting units. Nickerson says LD Kathleen Dobbins, a BFA senior, “wanted light to come from inside the box to create silhouettes and other fun things. We didn't want to mount them to the deck of the cube since it was set up for continuous rotation in either direction,” says Nickerson, who extended another ring from the center post of the spiral staircase onto which Dobbins could mount lights.
Davi Napoleon tells the backstage and onstage story of the Chelsea/Hal Prince Candide, with Eugene Lee's remarkable environmental design, in her book Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater.
If you've met a design or technical challenge, share your solution by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.