It's a Slippery Slope Texts for Nothing, as produced this past October at Off Broadway's Classic Stage Company, featured three indelible elements: the words of Samuel Beckett, the clowning of Bill Irwin, and the scenery of Douglas Stein. All three artists were well-matched. Irwin had a personal triumph for the skill with which he navigated Beckett's word maze, while Stein's mountainous setting created a stunning visual environment. The sight of Irwin struggling to climb, and inevitably slipping down, Stein's impassable setting provided a deft visual metaphor for Beckett's vision of man as a lost traveler in an unknowable universe.
Not originally written for performance, Texts for Nothing was adapted for the stage by the director Joseph Chaikin in 1981; 10 years later, he directed a production at New York Shakespeare Festival starring Bill Irwin. At CSC this fall, Irwin directed himself, a daunting double assignment. Stein collaborated with Irwin on The Regard of Flight, Largely New York, Fool Moon, and Scapin; he is also familiar with Classic Stage's space, having designed for that company a sinister, surreal production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, starring John Turturro.
This shared history was all to the good, since, Stein notes, in this production, the process was paramount. "To do this kind of work, one has to love working with actors," he says, adding that his conversations with Irwin led to the "very simple idea of a guy on a hillside and all the ideas flowed from there."
How do you build a hillside in a black box space with a high ceiling and audience seating on three sides? Stein's answer: "I discovered that [the CSC space] has multiple centerlines. The back wall has a pilaster, which appears to be a centerline. The back of the main audience area has a centerline that's different from the pilaster. The side soffits have a third." By placing the mountain set in the rear stage right corner, the designer exploited the tensions between the multiple centerlines, making a strong visual statement that "went with the sculptural flow of the space."
Of course, you can't build a mountain in a day. "We modeled it with [the software program] VectorWorks," as a first step, Stein says, adding that he was assisted by designer Peter Ksander. Next, Stein went to Billy Taylor, the retired foreman of Hudson Scenic Studios. "He suggested the practical recipe for the set, which was," says the designer, "half-inch rebar steel, 1 1/44" Bessemer rod, hardware cloth, carpet padding, flex glue, peat moss, rocks, and water." Many others were involved, he adds: "Roger Bardwell, also of Hudson, gave us good advice. [Assistant set designer] Chris Cargill was the lead welder;e got us people from New York Theatre Workshop, all of whom had welding skills."
Stein recounts the process: "We laid out the spine of the mound, based on the half-inch set model, using the rebar and a welder." The designer's main concern was to "develop the line of the structure, from the floor to the top of the loft. We had a superstructure in a couple of days. Then Bill came in and walked across sections of it, going from rebar cross to rebar cross," acclimating himself to the playing areas built into the structure. Then, "if we needed to make changes, they could take place then." After that, "it was built a little bit more every day, then checked in terms of Bill's needs. He worked during the day and the builders worked at night."
The next step was to complete covering the structure with hardware cloth and then with carpet padding that had been saturated with flex glue [a Rose Brand product called Flex Bond], which gave the mountain a leathery quality. While the flex glue was wet, dry peat was applied - which was the only color treatment. There was no scene painting per se. Stein then added rocks, and a couple of pools of water. Additional peat, which covered over the central chute of the mountain, down which Irwin slid several times, was useful, says the designer, because, when moistened, "it didn't become mud." In addition, he notes, it's a very Beckettian substance and redolent of bogs and the Irish countryside.
Others involved in the project were technical director Brian Coleman, technical consultant Peter Barbieri, scenic charge Katherine Rondeau and scenic painters Sebastian Grouard and David Korins. The set construction crew included Nick Bixby, Eli Fishman, Mark Hankla, Aaron Slavick, Mark Vanderhoek, and Daniel Walker. The rest of the creative team included lighting designer Nancy Schertler (whose work added several extra dimensions to set's appearance), and costume designer Anita Yavich. Sound design was by Aural Fixation.
Having received generally favorable reviews, Texts for Nothing ran at Classic Stage Company through November 5. There were other surprises in store for audiences attending Texts for Nothing. CSC spent $850,000 on a renovation of its venerable 13th Street space, including a remodeled lobby, modernized bathrooms, a raised ceiling in the auditorium, and central air and heat. Now, one of New York's most adventurous theatres is an infinitely more comfortable place to see a play.