Sometimes a conversation between set designer and playwright is calm, smooth, perhaps even tranquil in tone, with the designer secure that he or she can, from the playwright's set description, make a show work. Sometimes it goes a little something like this:
Designer (after reading script that will require video footage, all forms of studio equipment, four playing areas, film equipment that must appear and sound legit, fresh fruit displays, a pink liquid drink with swirl on top): Rob, you're insane, how are we going to do this?
Playwright: I know, I know, I know, I know, I know. I don't know. We'll do it.
The above is, if not exactly a word-for-word transcription, is certainly accurate in tone laughs designer Dean Taucher about his phone call to playwright (and colleague and friend) Rob Ackerman about Tabletop, an Off Broadway play set in the world of TV commercial production. The play takes place in the studio of Marcus Gordon, a hellishly overbearing director not exactly at the top of his game for whom two tabletop shots (of a thick fruit drink's beautiful streaming liquid and the all-important "beauty shot" of the seemingly unattainable top swirl) seem to elude him.
As a matter of fact, Taucher's and Ackerman's conversation plays a lot like the text's rapid, shorthand dialogue, and indeed, the two worked together for a year and a half for a commercial production company similar to that of Marcus Gordon's. Taucher now serves as the production designer on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
And Ackerman was fortunate, says Taucher, that a number of friends "jumped onboard to help," supplying actual advertising reels and shooting the pink liquid scenes for onstage playback.
During the course of the play, Gordon impatiently waits in his office taking the calls of the nervous client and waiting as the technical staff frantically sets up the shots and feuds with each other. A young upstart thinks it's OK to break the rules, going against the official commercial code that does not allow for fake ingredients in order to manufacture a look. (The swirl must be authentic and not include non-foodstuff items such as food coloring, cornstarch, and shaving cream - which is what the play's prop swirl was composed of.
Pitted against the long-established property master, who plays it by the rules, the showoff assistant annoys, irks, and manipulates his way to what may be a permanent staff position.
For Taucher, the play, which first ran in July and August Off Off Broadway at Dance Theatre Workshop before transferring to the Off Broadway American Place in October, demanded as realistic a recreation of a TV commercial production company as possible. He therefore created the four main areas of a commercial studio (office, workshop, shooting area, and kitchen). American Place is a much larger space than DTW, and Taucher needed to direct the audience member's gaze. He hung a false grid to "make the space feel as though there were two different heights." He also hung practical lights from the grid and created diagonals to "keep stepping the space down." He also placed colored trussing onstage to draw the eye to the lower levels.
Says Taucher, "Each of the four areas has its own dynamic," adding that the set is fairly authentic, albeit somewhat "compressed." For the more polished-looking office, which was a level above the rest of the playing area, he used painted wood and placed a sofa in front of and below it for a client area. While certainly a slick space, the office was not meant to be completely hip. Says Taucher, "His office is not the coolest thing. It was maybe 10 or 15 years ago, but it's not quite there anymore."
But the standout element of the design was all the stuff thrown in for good measure, particularly in the workshop area, where every possible tool and gadget is in place. Says Taucher, "There was the paint area, the metalworking area, the electrics repair area. Whatever tools we could find, we put in as though someone was actually working in there." The industrious "we" was Taucher and the person in charge of production properties, Susana Gilboe.
Plus there was lighting and grip equipment: "Whatever," says Taucher, "seemed necessary, as though we were setting up shop." Most of the camera and lighting equipment came from CECO International Corporation, with supplemental equipment from Cinevision Inc., Peter Wallach Enterprises, and Gizmo Special Effects.
Peter Wallach supplied what is possibly the main set piece, the camera that Gordon uses to shoot the liquid. According to Taucher, Wallach "had some extra older equipment in a barn in Pennsylvania." Among the equipment was a Photosonics camera - a camera that shoots at a high speed to make the replay appear as though it is moving in slow motion - that was mocked up to make its trademark whirring noise. The stage-version camera only made the noise - there was, notes Taucher, "nothing inside it at all."
Gizmo supplied a rig, supposedly developed by the play's ambitious whiz kid, that lifts and rotates the cup of pink liquid on a double axis for the final key shot.
The kitchen area was covered with squares of ash plywood, and throughout the office, there are hints of aluminum or brushed chrome on railings and handles. "We created everything," notes Taucher, citing the contribution of scenic consultants Greg Criscuolo and Bob Paquette. Taucher and the scenic consulting team, which also included Nick Rossman, worked out of BECTEC.
In his bio in the show program, Taucher notes that Tabletop is "eerily reminiscent" of some of his and Ackerman's old times together. But, as Taucher points out, the play's theme is a universal one. As he observes (with only a hint of a moan), "Anyone who's had a similarly abusive boss can understand the dynamics of the show."