Problem

When David Cromer and his gang knocked out seats for A Streetcar Named Desire, it wasn’t because that’s the sort of thing Stanley Kowalski might have done in a rage. Rather, when they recast and remounted a production at Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) that they had first done at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, IL, repositioning seats helped them recreate a design that would allow spectators a look into the Kowalski home from different vantage points.

“After a lot of research, we went with a shotgun-style New Orleans home, where all the doors are aligned,” scenic designer Collette Pollard says. “What it means for Blanche is that there is only one way out.” What it meant for the audience was that each spectator would have a slightly different experience, as if peering through an open window or door to catch a look at what’s transpiring in a neighbor’s home. Although the hyper-realistic production never shied from naturalism—real water came out of the kitchen sink—it was done in the round in Glencoe and alley-style in Williamstown. While there was not much by way of walls, no one could see every inch of the space. “There were sight line problems purposely, so spectators would feel they were looking into these people’s house, with the views obstructed. They were seeing different shows in a way,” says lighting designer Heather Gilbert, noting that a sex scene is played right next to some audience members.

At Writers’, the team began with a three-quarter thrust and added a fourth section. “When we got to Williamstown, we wanted to preserve the intimacy and put the house in the middle of the theatre,” says Pollard. But there was a little hitch: the WTF venue is a proscenium with a thrust. How would they put the audience around the home? And would a radical change in seating violate fire codes? The small stage at Writers’ Theatre, about 1,600sq-ft., also created challenges. The theatre’s ceiling is just 15', so creating a two-story home was out. Pollard would create a one-story space with a staircase leading to an imaginary second floor. The first floor was topped by a ceiling, 9' above the floor. Since actors entered from the crawl space above the first floor, the masked “second floor” had to be sturdy. Actors could duck under the grid and get out of sight lines, but with so little by way of walls below, would the structure support actors waiting above for entrances? The cramped space meant Gilbert had to light with a ceiling just 3' above the actors. Even though there was more space at WTF, at Writers’, a gridded ceiling allowed more flexibility; she could get under it at all sides. At WTF, she faced permanent lighting positions. “I didn’t have the flexibility to get lights at the same angle at either side,” she says. The stage side proved steeper and most difficult. “We hung everything really far out, but we still couldn’t get face light across the entire stage,” Gilbert continues. Figuring out how to get light underneath the ceiling to light actors without blinding spectators was a challenge in the round. “Everything is either an actor or audience entrance,” Gilbert adds.

Sound designer/composer Josh Schmidt had to match the intense emotional logic of each scene while retaining the sense of period New Orleans jazz that emanates from two distinct bars. And costumes had to tell Blanche’s story, too—who she was, who she had become. “David [Cromer] felt the immediacy of the post-war setting was important, so we set it in 1947 rather than in the ‘50s, when it’s frequently set. These men recently came back from fighting, and society, as we know it, is changing for all the characters. The play is about how they’re able to recreate themselves and how Blanche wasn’t able to,” says costume designer Janice Pytel, who wanted to make Blanche sympathetic at the start. “The problem of designing an iconic piece is that people have expectations.” A different cast at WTF meant some new clothes had to be built. Pytel didn’t know local sources of vintage clothing as she had in the Chicago area, and since this was the first show of the season, no one was on contract to work in advance. “People don’t see Streetcar as large, but it has 11 scenes, and people change clothes a lot,” she says of the show with 50+ costumes.

Solution

To turn WTF’s proscenium house into an alley configuration, the crew took out two rows of seats, decked out the apron, and put the Kowalski house on it. Part of the audience sat on the stage at the height of the set, some in regular seats a few feet up from the apron, some on either side about 2' lower, and some in boxes above. “We needed to gain six more inches due to fire codes for aisle widths. We took it out of the kitchen,” says Pollard. With only 1,000' of stage space, the bathroom had to go, too. Gilbert, who found the hall to the bathroom hard to get light into at Writers’, wasn’t unhappy. To support the second floor, the ceiling was rigged to the grid over the kitchen at Writers’, with a less supported area railed off so actors wouldn’t step there. “When we were in Williamstown, we had a full truss rigging and support,” says Pollard. The higher space also allowed for a 6' second floor for entrances. “It was snug but walkable, and we improved the masking; we learned a lot from the first show.”

Water that came into the theatre served the kitchen sink and provided a solution to MA fire codes. The team had considered a tiled ceiling, but that would have suggested the 1980s instead of the 1940s, and a melt-away fabric, but that wouldn’t look solid enough for Stanley to hit. Instead, Williamstown invested in a sprinkler system, and Pollard was able to use the bead board ceiling she had designed for Writers’. “If we were going to have a ceiling, we wanted to go all the way to make it feel oppressive,” says Gilbert, who used a real candle in some scenes and real light bulbs in others. “If you blind your audience, they can’t see the play,” she knew. So the audience wouldn’t have to look directly at the light source, she buried light behind a seat that was empty and dropped light from the grid. In Glencoe, they also used half hats on selected lights to shield them, but that meant she couldn’t get light entirely across the stage. “Natural light doesn’t get all across the room either. It looked like light was pouring in these windows,” says Gilbert, who viewed the problem as a positive. To deal with the steeper position at WTF, Gilbert relied on a crew that she found “awesome,” she says. “They tailed it down.”

Schmidt says the team scoured New Directions Publishing’s edition of Streetcar for clues, beginning with Williams’ precise stage directions. “Naturalistic, less expressionistic productions of his plays have been more common historically, but…the scope and scale of what he indicates in the soundscape alone is astonishingly contemporary,” says Schmidt. “Only in the last decade or two has the technology in audio playback alone been easily and affordably available to render these works in the theatre in a way approaching that kind of continuity and special detail. In Streetcar, Williams clearly and consistently indicates not just the household environment, but the exterior seen and unseen landscape that swirls around it.” Schmidt created a variety of scores to give Cromer options. “When I was building the actual material, I got the band together, and we literally improvised off Williams’ stage directions,” Schmidt says. Improvisations began out of music suggesting the location and period and then deliberately leaped past it, illustrating Blanche’s “conflicted and deteriorating psychological state” rather than simply creating a ‘40s sound. “When she lapses, Williams indicates ‘trumpets and drums erupt’ or ‘and the piano goes into a hectic breakdown,’” says Schmidt. “Everything starts in an authentic place and then, over time, gravitates into a more expressionistic world where the musical and aural vocabulary intentionally pushes well past New Orleans jazz, becoming more and more distorted, more angular, and more contemporary.”

At Williamstown, where the set was installed hanging over the lip of the proscenium and seats were upstage of the set, Schmidt installed a mono center cluster, with sidefills diffusely focused into walks, and rear surrounds. “Outside of this system, encompassing the entire space, not just the two seating sections, we had locations at the far corners of the space, all of these diffusely focused into walls,” he says. In addition, a central subwoofer system, a DPA 4088 wireless mic for the flower lady, another mic installed into the Kowalski’s phone “to replicate Blanche’s fragile yet desperate cry for help,” and external processing gave Schmidt a lot to play with and plenty of power for the size of the space. He preferred to take advantage of what the room could do to diffuse the sound rather than to try to replicate the effect with processing. “We had 16 channels of [">Figure 53] QLab 1 playback available to us in Williamstown—this show was done with eight at Writers’. At Williamstown, we had more infrastructural resources available than we did for the original. Writers’ Tudor court venue is more intimate in scale. The second go-around called for an expansion of the system,” says Schmidt, who credits assistant Ben Truppin-Brown and sound supervisor Charles Coe for putting it together.

Pytel made all of Blanche’s costumes and some of Stella’s, purchasing or renting the men’s outfits. “Blanche is, in some ways, more up-to-date and fashionable,” says Pytel of costumes with a graceful silhouette that suggests an Old South emerging from the ruins of a gracious society. Clothes were feminine, featuring full skirts and a soft palette of pale blues, greens, purples, and pinks. “Stanley and Stella wear much more saturated colors,” Pytel adds. “Stella appeared in vivid busy prints that were popular in that era. The look heading into the ‘50s was more modern. Because so many men had been in uniform, there was a desire to individualize with loud ties and bright shorts, and more vibrancy in suits, not the grayish tones we see today.” Pytel and Pollard worked closely on Blanche’s trunk, which, says Pytel, “is almost another character in the play.”

In 1977, theatre historian/arts journalist Davi Napoleon began writing for Theatre Crafts, the forerunner of Live Design. She is author of Chelsea on the Edge: the Adventures of an American Theatre. >

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