“Let me tell you a story about this production,” says Jasper Gilbert, technical manager for the Royal Shakespeare Company's Merchant of Venice, which played 11 performances at Davidson College in North Carolina during a two-week residency earlier this spring.
Gilbert's story is one of those happily-ever-after tales about how to tour Shakespeare. The plot involves lots of planning, plenty of staff, and a nice subsidy. Its theme is “take along everything you need.”
The technical manager had just arrived in America for a two-day load-in (or “get-in” in Britspeak) to Davidson's new $12-million Duke Family Performance Hall (DFPH). The RSC residency was Davidson president Robert Vagt's showpiece to inaugurate the facility.
“The production has a long and varied life, which has given us various things to think about along the way,” says Gilbert. “We started design work last June and began rehearsing in September. It opened in our small theatre, the Pit, at the Barbican in London in October and transferred to the Swan in Stratford, which is our little Elizabethan theatre.”
Merchant designers Colin Falconer (sets), Hartley T. A. Kemp (lights), and John Leonard and John Owen (sound) knew at the outset that the production would play two very different RSC spaces and then embark on a UK and international tour.
Merchant of Venice in performance in North Carolina
The difference with Davidson was it was not just another tour stop. The college was the principal patron for the production, at a cost of $1.5 million, and was involved in planning for the production from the beginning.
“I've been out here twice before,” says Gilbert. “The first time I came out the theatre was a steel structure and very much unfinished. Then we came out before Christmas, and they were 90% there with the building and just putting the systems in. We very much knew what the building was going to offer us. I hope we've done the forward planning that means we haven't got any sort of problems.”
For the UK tour, the RSC travels with an entire mobile theatre designed to fit in sports centers, village halls, and gymnasiums. It sets up in eight hours with 11 company technicians and 14 “able-bodied strong people, who are local kids or people interested in theatre. They come and help put the structure together. We give them the hardest day of their lives,” Gilbert laughs.
“All we ask from a venue is a large hall and a number of changing rooms. We bring in up to 520 seats, we bring in a freestanding lighting rig like you'd use at a rock concert, we put touring dimmers in. We even bring washing machines and tumble dryers. The whole thing travels on four very large lorries.”
The set — a gold deck and a back wall with five pivoting doors, also gold — was designed for an open stage, with audience on three sides. The Davidson hall is a proscenium, the first the production would play. To mask the sides, the company built and shipped hard black legs, which will then be used in other proscenium venues in the UK and Asia.
The production's director, Loveday Ingram, the associate director of the Chichester Festival, making her RSC debut, flew to North Carolina for two days to adjust the blocking and see the show through its opening. Lighting designer Kemp also came over to assist relight designer Caroline Burrell, who tours with the production and runs the board.
The schedule was tight. “We'll have just one day's rehearsal on the stage. We'll do the get-in on Wednesday, focus on Wednesday night, light the show on Thursday, they'll do a little bit of rehearsing on Thursday night, they'll rehearse Friday morning, Friday afternoon, and perform in the evening.”
the set model for Merchant
Anne Taylor, the technical director for the DFPH, received a preliminary ground plan and lighting plot in September. She is supplying the hall's 220 instruments, plus renting an additional 43. The company brought color scrollers, a rig of fairy lights, and two lighting desks. “We also bring our own cue light system from the UK, because our actors are very used to going on red and green lights,” Gilbert says.
What about the difference in current? “We have a huge flight case of transformers,” Gilbert says gleefully. “We regularly come out to the states, and we regularly go out to Japan. This production will be performing in Tokyo and Nagano later in its life. It's also going out to Kuala Lumpur and doing a tour of China.”
The sound system in the DFPH is primarily for live music, Gilbert says, and very simple. “What we want is directional sound, so we've brought our own sound system from the UK that we can tailor as we want for the effects and the live music. We've brought a number of small speakers that we'll put around the house to create an atmospheric sound, which is what the designers have come up for the production.”
The DFPH is small — 625 when the orchestra pit is at audience level with added seats — and acoustics are good. “We rely heavily on the voice,” says Gilbert. “We do not mike our productions, so the tonal balance between live music and sound effects and the human voice is absolutely crucial. We use a Yamaha 02R mixing desk and Akai XS6000 samplers, which are triggered by a MIDI link to a laptop.”
The Davidson residency differs from last season's three-week stay at the University of Michigan in the fit between production and facility and the amount of company involvement in the community. At Michigan, the repertoire was four productions, Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III, played in sequence on one day, followed by Richard II the following day.
“We spent the first week destroying their theatre, cutting holes in the stage, putting seating on the stage. We turned the way we played the theatre around, with the bulk of the audience on the stage.”
Playing four complex productions did not allow the company to interact much with Michigan students. At Davidson, there is an extensive program of workshops and classes, both with Davidson students and in the greater Charlotte area. “This isn't just a straight two weeks of performances,” says Gilbert. “This is a whole relationship. We've had members of the Davidson teaching staff over to the UK in rehearsal with us, watching the production develop. And now we have a full education program out here. John Barton is with us. They have 60 teachers from around the US doing a two-day workshop.”
Both Davidson and the RSC hope the relationship will continue. “Here we're dealing with opening a new space. Michigan has a long history of putting on events like this, whereas Davidson is just starting. We thought we'd give them a break with a simple production. The next time will be something completely hideous for them.”