Playwright Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird tells the story of Maxine, a search-and-rescue pilot who desperately seeks a young girl, missing in the same snow-covered Adirondack mountains where Maxine herself spent her unhappy childhood. Haunted by ethereal visions of both her dead mother and of the lost girl, Maxine struggles to come to terms with her forgotten past.
One year after Tongue of a Bird premiered at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, a completely new production was designed for the 1998-99 season at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles (the production moves to New York's Public Theatre this spring).
"At the Intiman," explains set designer Rachael Hauck, "we had this large expanse of space with Maxine sort of trapped in the middle. It was just too big. Rather than leaving her character alone in such a really big space, our challenge in redesigning for the Taper was to keep the same sense of isolation in a vast landscape within a smaller performance space." Marked by a rich use of language and lyrical imagery, the production design had to be unobtrusive so as not to overpower the narrative.
The illusion of open landscape was created on the 3/4 thrust stage using a back wall of geometric, layered flats painted with stark white clouds suggestive of mountains and snow. When Maxine appears in her Cessna airplane, two additional sky panels that flank the back wall are softly illuminated to heighten the sensation of space and solitude.
To emphasize Maxine's entrapment, director Lisa Peterson held the actress onstage throughout the course of the play, with props and set pieces brought to her by the other characters in each of the 26 individual scenes. The back wall includes eight doors, each of which opens in multiple directions, serving both to create different locales for the action of the play and to provide the flexibility to manage nearly 120 scene changes. As Hauck explains, "The set itself was like a character. We couldn't leave all the scenery onstage, so it had to have many moving parts. We didn't want to call attention to the scenery, but it had to do such a dance...we wanted it to breathe."
The process of infusing these scene changes with a natural rhythm was an enormous challenge to Hauck. With all the onstage areas trapped within this "expanse of sky," large set pieces had to be manually pushed through the doors, creating a constant flow of activity in the 10'-deep staging area. Extensive choreography and lots of practice by both the actors and a stage crew of five eventually led to an elegant, virtually noiseless progression of scene changes.
The greatest technical challenge for the production was the creation of a highly specialized flying rig for the frequent appearances of Maxine's mother, who descends from above and haunts Maxine throughout the play. "Since the Taper has no fly space, the flying device had to operate in full view of the audience, so it had to be very unobtrusive. The action of the play required a machine that would operate with absolute silence, allow flight at variable speeds, and include a two-point harness allowing the actress full vertical-tilt movement," explains Taper production manager Jonathon Lee. Branam Enterprises customized two such devices for the production, one that could travel up- and downstage while in operation during a scene, and another that was fixed during operation but could be moved between scenes as necessary.
Each rigging mechanism consisted of a motor and spindles of cable contained in a box, which in turn was suspended from a track mounted on the ceiling. Soft limits on the motor at the top and bottom allowed gentle speed reduction. The traveling unit, when not in use, was hidden behind a sliding door. During preview performances, a number of adjustments were made to fine-tune the motor so that the coiling cables caused more noise than the motor itself. Branam rectified this as well, eventually creating absolutely silent operation.
A single operator backstage controlled the flight system, viewing the action on three monitors, which even included one infrared camera to handle several transitions in darkness. "The control was manual, not computerized. He had to constantly play with it," says Lee, adding with a laugh, "and to hit our spikes, we used wax pencil marks on the television screens!"
The rig's harness, which resembled a corset with extra padding for comfort, was built by Amspec from Branam's specifications. Customized quick-release clips gave the actress smooth and hassle-free use.
The production team experimented with the automation of several other elements of the set, such as a bed with a quick exit trap. After repeated attempts, however, simply having the actress dive under the bed created the smoothest outcome. Both Hauck and Lee agreed that oft times, particularly in live theatre, the simplest solution is the best one.