The short, violent life of rap artist Tupac Shakur was the subject of Up Against the Wind, by Michael Develle Winn, which was recently produced at New York Theatre Workshop. In a swift series of scenes, Winn charted Shakur’s rise to fame, his indictment for rape, his feud with fellow rapper Notorious B. I. G., and, finally, his still-unsolved death in a Las Vegas shooting. Along the way, the playwright offered a tough, unsentimental look at the harshness of rap culture and racism in the entertainment industry, but at no time did he lose sight of his hero’s tragic arc. Fortunately scenic designer Narelle Sissons and lighting designer Peter West created an onstage environment for Winn’s sprawling narrative.

At first glance, the set for Up Against the Wind appeared to be an enigmatic collection of theatrical/industrial items, including box trussing, Plexiglas® panels, a ladder, a microphone dangling at stage center, with lots of exposed lighting everywhere, including ground rows at the front and back of the stage. But as the play unfolded, the design’s intent rapidly became clear; the action moves quickly through various locations, including a police interrogation room, Shakur’s apartment, a nightclub, a stage, and various recording studios. For that reasons, says Sisson, "We didn’t want large amounts of scenery in the space. We decided to make a set out of the things you would find in a recording studio–sound baffle, electric cables, truss–and revealed lights, this was to make the stage feel like an electrified space, reminiscent of his life."

Of course, Sissons adds, this design concept dictated a close collaboration between the set and lighting designers: "We had to figure out, moment by moment, how the space would respond to light and how to place the units, because they `were’ the set. We had many conversations about light. As a result, everything in the space was very specific, and worked with each light cue." (The designers developed their concept over a year’s time, having worked on an earlier version of the play at Juilliard).

For his part, West created with a varied lighting design that easily matched the play’s shifting moods. When Shakur performed one of his numbers, the designer flooded the stage with hyperactive beams in saturated color, created by High End Systems Studio Spots. Yet in other moments, stark simplicity defined his method, with highly theatrical results. For a scene in which Shakur is interrogated by a skeptical cop, the designer used one single overhead source, a scoop light, to create a tense, tightly focused atmosphere. "I’ve never used scoops before," he says. "But there’s something magical about them. I worked to get some scenes down to that one light you need." Similarly, for a scene set in a television studio, he used two 650W units on stands to focus the area and create a simple yet evocative effect.

Both designers agree that one of their major tasks was to facilitate the play’s many transitions. However, Sissons says, "It was complicated, because we often went from a realistic moment to something more poetic." These transitions were eased, she says, by using a minimal number of scenic pieces in a fluid manner. "We re-used chairs and tables from scene to scene," she says. "The table had wheels, so it could move around the stage easily and energetically. But we didn’t clear things away, we didn’t want to make radical transitions with physical elements. We wanted to leave behind a memory of what had just happened." For scenes in Shakur’s apartment, "We cut the sofa from the second act, because it started to seem too real." When Shakur buys an opulent new house for his mother, "we rolled out a carpet and hung a chandelier. We could do that because we established that style early on."

"It was all about the low sidelights, placed on the booms," says West. "They made the whole piece flow forward. You could pick up a character in sidelight, go into a monologue, then follow it with the next scene. One of the challenges of the play was to light scenes in such a way that it didn’t feel like a realistic drama. In lighting a scene, I tried to include the rest of the space, in subtle ways–lighting up the mirror on stage with a red light, or using scrollers to change the color of the Plexiglas panels up stage."

On one point, both designers are adamant: "As the play goes on, Tupac becomes more isolated," says Sissons. "By the end, he’s lost in his space, and everything else is gone. The stage started off bright, then got darker and darker as we understood more about the power of his celebrity." Thus the stage’s already spare look was further stripped as the play goes on. West adds, "At the end, he was in a big room with a phone, a chair, and single scoop light." (Aside from the disco scenes, the design was spare with color too, with West using Lee 201 (Full CT Blue) and R42 (Deep Salmon) for crosslight and some R339 (Broadway Pink) in shin positions. But, he adds, "Everything else was white, in the downlight, the par cans, and the scoops."

West says that he worked with the theatre’s house inventory of ETC Source Fours, plus some Altman units and R40 strips. Other items, including the Studio Spots, and Gamproducts TwinSpins for the disco scenes, an MDG Atmosphere Hazer, Wybron ColoRam scrollers, plus some Par 64 strips were rented from Fourth Phase Lighting. The designer adds that his assistant, Mark Simpson, provided invaluable help with the Studio Spots, having recently worked with them while assisting Howell Binkley on the Broadway musical The Full Monty. Lighting was controlled by an Expression 3X board from ETC.

Other personnel included assistant scenic designer Julie Sass, props master Kwi-Hae Kim, props crew Marisa Lowenstein, scenic charge Kathy Rondeau, scenic painters Tom Gleeson and Sebastien Grouard, master electrician John Anselmo, and electrics crew John Allaire, Adam Bair, Gwen Beetle, Jesse Chan-Norris, Nicole Germain, Dan Hansel, Susanna Harris, Rebecca Mercier, Katherine Schlist, and Barbara Wohlsen. The production also featured costumes by Olu-Orondava Mumford and sound by Jerry M. Yager. The director was Rosemary K. Andress. Having earned mixed-to-good reviews, Up Against the Wind completed its limited run on April 14.

Photo credit: ©2001, Joan Marcus.