It's amazing--no pun intended--how the most basic stagecraft is often employed on the most complex projects. Take The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, the new attraction at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure; this high-tech ride began life as your basic scale model, albeit one that took up 20' x 26' in a warehouse and had huge strips cut out of the bottom so the designers could move on stools as though they were on a mini version of the ride.
Housed in a 1.5-acre set, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man takes stereoscopic 3D-CGI and projects it onto 13 giant screens, then combines that with the latest in motion-based car technology [For a complete story on the project, see the ED November 99 Supplement on Universal Studios Islands of Adventure]. The end result is all quite impressive and dizzying, believe it. But it's the seamless blend of all the various design elements that has earned it an EDDY Award: the 3D elements with the sets, the audio with the ride vehicle and the space itself, and the lighting with both the film and the sets.
The core creative team on this project--producer/director Scott Trowbridge, Universal Creative vice president of design and creative development Mark Woodbury, production designer Thierry Coup, set designers Phil Bloom and Eric Parr, lighting designer Anne Militello, sound designer Carl Hartzler, and computer design firm Kleiser-Walczak--all knew they were working on what Trowbridge called "a science project from the word go--on purpose." While all had varying degrees of experience in the theme park business, nothing could have prepared them for this project, which began life back in 1996. How often are projects like this started when one of the most vital pieces of the puzzle--the stereoscopic 3D technology--hasn't been perfected yet? How often do theatre-trained designers like Militello have to concern themselves with matching their light angles with those on a movie screen? How often do CGI artisans like Kleiser-Walczak worry about getting characters onscreen to look like they're landing on real-life scenery that isn't even in existence when the film is being made? And yet somehow, they were able to put it all together. "Everyone was working toward the same thing," says Militello. "Everyone was there in the interest of doing the best job possible."
"It's meant to be fun," says Trowbridge of the finished product. "It's not going to save any babies, it's not going to save any starving children, but the reports from the people who ride it are that it works."
If there is one dominant image to take away from this project, it's not Spidey flying past you in 3D or archvillains doing dastardly deeds before your eyes. It's the sight of dozens of half-visible artisans sitting on office chairs, their heads buried in a model placed on stilts, their feet sticking out below, rolling up and down the floor, all striving to create something that's never been seen or done before. That's entertainment.
Kyle Chepulis is one of the most unique talents to be covered in the pages of this magazine in recent years. His work Off Off Broadway as a scenic and lighting designer has earned him Bessie and Obie Awards. Audiences at Laurie Carlos' Vanquished by Voodoo, produced by the site-specific theatre group En Garde Arts, were bused into Harlem where, seated on risers in the middle of a street, they viewed an abandoned warehouse with large household appliances hanging from each window. (For other En Garde productions, Chepulis made scenic use of such locations as a ruined Manhattan nursing home, a Masonic Lodge hall, and buildings in New York's Meat-packing district.) As the designer of choice for the playwright Mac Wellman, Chepulis provided any number of one-of-a-kind designs. For Wellman's play A Murder of Crows, Chepulis painted the theatre walls blue, lined the raked stage with black pool liner, and installed pumps so that streams of recirculated water would cascade over the stage. For Recriminal Minds, by Jennifer McDowall, he designed a set that consisted of four 12' marble columns onstage, in addition to a crypt and a stone wall with a door in the middle. During the play, the scene shifted to a courtroom. The columns were knocked down and broken to become seats in a jury box. The crypt was broken open to become the judge's bench. The stones of the wall became file drawers. "If you gave me something that takes place in a living room in a house," Chepulis has said, "I probably wouldn't know what to do with it."
But Chepulis' work extends far beyond designs for the theatre. His firm, Technical Artistry, takes on all kinds of projects, providing ingenious scenic and lighting solutions. In recent years, under the aegis of Technical Artistry, Chepulis has designed exhibitions for the auction house Sotheby's (including lighting the show devoted to the personal effects of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor) and provided the lighting for the Rain Forest Reconstruction and the Spectrum Wall features of the Hall of Life's Diversity, located at at New York's Museum of Natural History.
One of Chepulis' long-term collaborators has been the director Jim Simpson (who staged many of the Mac Wellman plays). Together, Chepulis, Simpson, Wellman, composer Mike Nolen, actress Jan Leslie Harding, and playwright Eduardo Machado founded The Bat Theatre Company, which is housed at The Flea Theatre on White Street in lower Manhattan. In many ways, The Flea may be Chepulis' greatest achievement. Built to house The Bat and its productions, it is available throughout the year to other theatre artists. But while many other Off Off Broadway theatres are grungy spaces with minimal amenities, Chepulis has overseen a building renovation that sets a new standard for downtown theatres. From the flexible auditorium equipped with moving lights and a sound system to inviting dressing rooms, plenty of office space, and a lobby that is suitable for parties, The Flea is a first-rate theatre space.
Chepulis' many achievements are all the more remarkable given the fact that last year, after a motorcycle accident, he lost the use of his right arm. Nevertheless, he has continued turning out provocative work. Among his recent designs are the Japanese drama Benten Kozo for The Bat, an evening of Samuel Beckett one-acts for the Axis Theatre in Sheridan Square, and the upcoming production of The Starry Messenger for the Children's Theatre of Minneapolis. Few people working in this industry today can match Chepulis for the originality of his design sense, his innovative approach to technology, and the diversity of his project list.
When director/designer Julie Taymor described her work for Disney's Broadway blockbuster musical The Lion King, she immediately mentioned the co-designer of the magnificent masks and puppets in the show. "The first person I knew I would hire on the project was Michael Curry," she wrote in the Hyperion book about the show. "Michael has been the genius behind the technical design for puppetry in my opera productions of Oedipus Rex and The Magic Flute."
Quite an endorsement for this astonishingly talented artist, whose company, Michael Curry Design and Sculptural Engineering, was established in New York in 1986. Originally a figurative sculptor who showed his work in galleries, Curry began adding motors to give his pieces subtle eye movement and other animation. His entry into the world of show business came in 1986 when he entered the Greenwich Village Halloween parade wearing a homemade pterodactyl costume.
"John Napier's assistant saw my giant wings, and while I didn't know it at the time, they were working on something like that for Siegfried and Roy. We exchanged cards and the next day I got a call from them," Curry recalls. He went to Napier's studio and immediately saw the solutions for what they wanted to build. "I walked out with a six-figure contract and called my sculptor friends in Brooklyn, and said 'We're in the special effects business.' "
This led to contacts in the costume business, including Barbara Matera, Sally Ann Parsons, William Ivey Long, and Florence Klotz, as well as work building custom costume pieces, flying harnesses, assorted millinery, orthopedic devices, and corsets made from full-body casts for such Broadway musicals as Crazy for You and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
By 1994, Curry had moved back to his home state of Oregon both to start a family and to focus on his own specialized work. "The level of craftsmanship is very high out here," he says. Even so, his projects bring him back to New York on a regular basis.
For The Lion King, Curry worked closely with Taymor to create the puppets and masks that turn actors into animals. He also devised a special battery-operated automation system which allows certain masks to move up and down or extend forward.
Last October, Curry created an ensemble of 120 puppets for Tapestry of Nations, a 35-minute processional that is part of Disney World's special millennium celebration in Orlando, FL. Standing up to 18' tall, these puppets are attached to their human operators using an adapted backpack as a harness, with poles attached to ankles and wrists for additional control. [For a complete story on the project, see the November 99 issue of ED].
Curry also created a cast of towering puppets as part of New York City's Millennium festivities in Times Square. "These use more traditional techniques," he says of the 380 handheld puppets that are part of a 24-hour New Year's parade, with Macy's famed balloon handlers helping to move them along. Four billion television viewers are expected to watch the event. "It's this communication with the world that is inspiring me," says Curry, who considers his holiday puppets the "visual equivalent of noisemakers."
Before Abe Jacob, there was no theatre sound designer as we know it today. Before Abe, there was no sound credit on the title page of a program. And before Abe--as Abe himself readily admits--there were no critics complaining about the sound in the theatre.
Indeed, Abe Jacob has seen it all. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Fosse, and Beverly Sills--who else could possibly have worked with all three of these vastly different artists? A native of Tucson, the veteran got his start in San Francisco mixing sound for rock-and-roll stars of the 60s, working not only with Hendrix but also The Mamas and the Papas and Peter, Paul, and Mary; he also designed the sound system for the Monterey Pop Festival.
His first foray into Broadway came while visiting New York and attending a preview performance of Jesus Christ Superstar; the performance was cancelled due to technical problems, and director Tom O'Horgan, who had worked with Jacob on a production of Hair on the West Coast, asked him to help out. He decided to stay in New York, and the work never stopped. "The first musical I did from scratch, where I was hired before they went into rehearsal, was Pippin by Bob Fosse," he recalls. "It just seemed to go on from there. I was fortunate enough to work with directors who shaped the American musical theatre in the 70s and 80s--Michael Bennett on Seesaw and A Chorus Line; Bob Fosse on Pippin, Chicago, and Big Deal; Gower Champion on Mack and Mabel and Rockabye Hamlet."
Those directors were among the first supporters of sound design as a legitimate art form, a concept not always embraced by others in the theatrical community, particularly the critics. "The directors helped push it, absolutely," Jacob says. "They wanted to make the form of the show itself more viable to the audience."
In the last 15 years, Jacob has championed the cause of acquiring union representation for sound designers. He helped secure a charter for sound designers within IATSE (Local 922), becoming one of the first 22 members. In 1993, he helped the local achieve its first collective bargaining agreement with the League of American Theatres and Producers. And in August of last year, he helped merge the sound designers with Local One; Local One is currently in the process of negotiating its collective bargaining agreement with the League.
Jacob is still busy in the field he helped pioneer, serving as sound consultant at the New York City Opera on such productions as A Little Night Music, 110 in the Shade, and The Merry Widow. The opera world tends to be even less friendly to sound designers. "When I started in the theatre, it was almost immediate that the critics started making comments about the sound in the theatre, and how it was going to bring about the death of the American musical as we knew it, and they've been saying it ever since," he laughs. "And now they're saying it about opera, so I guess I have the distinction of being able to destroy both art forms."
Barbara Matera's credit list reads like a history of contemporary American theatre, with a few ballets and films thrown in for good measure. She is the guiding light at one of New York City's most venerable costume shops, Barbara Matera Ltd., founded in 1967 by Barbara and Arthur Matera. It has been as busy as a beehive ever since.
Matera has worked on innumerable Broadway productions, including A Chorus Line, Master Class, the current revival of Chicago, and the new musical Marie Christine. She also built several versions of Sunset Boulevard, for which she created costumes for over two dozen different Norma Desmonds, tall ones and short ones, all of whom had to look good in the same designs.
English by birth, Matera learned her craft in London, first studying art, then working as a junior designer, draper, and cutter. She left her native land 40 years ago, stopping first in the costume shop at the Stratford Festival in Canada. By 1960, she was in New York City, where she started the next phase of her career in the studio of costume designer Ray Diffen.
Over the years, Matera has created costumes for a wide range of stars, such as Richard Burton, Chita Rivera, Whoopi Goldberg, Debbie Reynolds, Anne Miller, and Lilianne Montevecchi in such shows as Private Lives, Merlin, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Irene, Sugar Babies, and Grand Hotel, for such designers as Theoni V. Aldredge, Tony Walton, Irene Sharaff, Raoul Pene du Bois, and Santo Loquasto.
The seemingly endless list of costumes made by Matera's atelier also includes Belle's gown for Disney's Beauty and the Beast (designed by Ann Hould-Ward), an early 19th-century man's suit and overcoat for Arcadia (designed by Mark Thompson), Giulietta's gown worn by Joan Sutherland in the Metropolitan Opera production of Tales of Hoffmann (designed by Jose Verona), and Dustin Hoffman's Captain Hook costume for the film Hook (designed by Anthony Powell).
For the costumes in Martin Scorsese's The Age Of Innocence, the clothes were worn with period undergarments for authenticity. Matera also opts for "real" fabrics whenever possible, and shows a preference for silks and cottons when gathering swatches for designers to choose from.
In the fall of 1996, a special exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center honored Matera and her work. Inside and Out not only displayed some of Matera's most exquisite creations but also recreated a corner of her sun-drenched studio on lower Broadway in Manhattan, complete with original sketches, fabric swatches and various tools of the trade.
Matera also loves the ballet and has designed costumes for New York City Ballet and other dance productions. She recalls a Sleeping Beauty she once did with her friend, costume designer Patricia Zipprodt, who passed away last fall. "The costumes were old-fashioned, with lots of trimming. It was huge and we stayed up all night," Matera remembers. "We used to stay up all night working on lots of things, but I can't imagine anybody really working like that today."