Problem: Creating three kinds of rain for the Steppenwolf production of Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain.
Solution: What happens when rain falls for three days? In 1995, two siblings and a friend return to their late father's first apartment and try to decipher a cryptic entry in the diary they find. The second act of Three Days of Rain occurs in the same apartment, circa 1960.
Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal found inspiration for the Steppenwolf production in a photograph of a New York apartment with an enormous skylight. He had planned to renovate the kitchen and redecorate the apartment when the story moves from present to past between acts, but he abandoned this, relying on light to change the room.
A large Plexiglas skylight, which reflects the characters on the stage below, dominates the space, and rain falls on it. In front of the apartment, where an apron sharply raked from stage left to stage right covers the pit, rain floods the road, first falling in the upstage left corner, later across the front. The rain curtain evoked a large gasp the night I saw the show. Two people in the first row switched seats when hit by a few drops; during early previews, the curtain had been further downstage and front-row spectators required plastic lap covers.
While characters struggle to understand the past--Why did their father buy and restore the apartment he rented in the 60s? Was he the architect responsible for a renowned home that featured a different kind of light in each room?--the design team and technicians struggled to physicalize it, producing not three days but three kinds of rain.
Crews plumbed the theatre in Chicago for water that would all begin overhead, using a 100-gallon tank on the gallery, 35' above the stage. A garden hose from a backstage sink connected to the tank to fill it. A float switch in the tank, similar to one in a toilet tank, tripped a switch and closed the valve when water reached the top of it.
Hoses ran through a manifold, a series of specifically placed valves, to places onstage where rain would fall. Instead of a drip system, the hose went from the tank to a PVC plastic pipe system, with tiny holes drilled every 3" in the top. That way, the water could spray out the top and deflect back onto the stage. Steppenwolf productions and operations manager Claude Binder compares this to the kind of sprayer used in groceries to mist vegetables. At first, the down-left rain fell in streams. "We went through a process of replacing heads, especially in that area, until we got the right feel for the rain," says Binder.
For the raked road, Rosenthal opted for waterproofed, rubberized resin material that resembled cobblestone. After raising the stage a little, crews put two layers of Visqueen on top of everything, and it became more difficult to get paint to stick to the surface than to dry it. Fiberglass sealed the floor.
How do you get rid of over 300 gallons of water a night? Skylight rain ran into a gutter, down a downspout and into a hole. The rake of the road allowed the water that hit the stage to drain down the street, through plastic piping through the orchestra pit, and into a drain in the floor.
The technicians feared that the stage action wouldn't be visible through the heavy rain; they turned to lighting designer Christine Solger-Binder, who solved the problem by lighting only the rain, not any other part of the stage.
Rosenthal notes that the first rain that pounds on the skylight while a man and his future wife become involved "is about creative energy. He comes up with this terrific design because he had sex, and the building he creates is about light. This room should be about light...we wanted there to be something magical and kind of unreal." "I knew from the beginning it would be filled with all sorts of texture," Solger-Binder says, noting that she began with a shooting star. In the first act, drab striated clouds peeked in and out, clouds that became dramatic in lightning sequences.
Solger-Binder watched the rain run in the shop, then experimented, putting lights everywhere to test their effects. Instead of using available hanging positions in the theatre, she set units up on the grid and colored them. For the rain curtain, she used a medium saturated blue that merged with the sound of the rain and the moisture to suggest a sexual energy. She went for an ethereal quality by lighting the curtain all the way up to the top, generating light from below with side accents.
"The realistic light hit the skylight in front of the streetlight and was intended to look like rain...Ultimately, we wound up downlighting the rain and accenting a little to the front and side of it," she says, noting that the rain begins in a blackout. The audience, in the dark, hears the rain start.
Coordinated with light-created clouds on a cyc, a radio blasted presidential comments, from Clinton through Reagan and Nixon to Kennedy to take us back in time at the top of Act Two. All scenic elements become warmer and brighter as the play moves back, from a dark shadowed environment to a passionate second act full of color. The edgy composition/sound design co-created by Michael Bodeen and Rob Milburn for Act One becomes unashamedly romantic later. Recorded rain proved unnecessary; the sound of actual water was often too loud, requiring another deflector system that thinned out the sound as it moved down the diagonal, instead of allowing water to fall into one big basin.
Costume designer Allison Reeds Scotchguarded raincoats and waterproofed shoes. Most clothing could go right into the dryer, excepting shoes and wool trousers. For one actor who stands in the rain until soaked, she substituted a washable polyester wool blend, which holds up better. Shopping the show made doubling feasible for most garments. Reeds says flatfooted and narrow-legged trousers are appropriate to both periods, and she hemmed contemporary clothing to invoke the 60s.
Kudos to director Anna D. Shapiro and a first-rate cast (Ian Barford, Tracy Letts, Amy Morton) who transformed from children into their parents. A hot-water tank would have created further complications, so the rain fell at room temperature, about 70 degrees (bathwater is about 125 degrees). The actors never let on they were cold--or that the bathroom door was shorter than they were on the sideways-raked stage. When the very steep skylight leaked at the seams during techs, actors pitched in by picking up old paint cans that might have been found in the corner of such an apartment; in character, they moved cans under leaks. Roofing tar solved the problem before previews.