This spring saw the revival of the well-loved musical Pippin, which opened on Broadway after an acclaimed run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. The production, which has received 10 Tony Award nominations, was directed by Diane Paulus, who brought a fresh take on the story by setting it in the world of the circus. She led a creative team that included scenic designer Scott Pask, lighting designer Kenneth Posner, sound designers Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm, costume designer Dominique Lemieux, choreographer Chet Walker, and circus creations by Gypsy Snider.
While the show over the years has been done by nearly ever high school in America, it has not been produced on Broadway since it’s original run in the early 70s. Pippin, with its well-known score, tells the story of a young prince who takes a journey to find meaning and significance in his life. Paulus’ circus concept and collaboration with Snider and Walker, who pays homage to Fosse’s original signature choreography for the show, himself a dancer in that original production, gave creative inspiration to the entire design team. We caught up with Pask about the environment he created for this beloved revival.
Live Design: Talk about the development of the set and how it supports Paulus’ concept for this ambitious production.
Scott Pask: The important thing was that we never set out to actually even create a big top; it was more of developing the circus concept and how it sort of liberates the musical for us. I just began to design environments. It is natural, in thinking about it, that it would want to be something that was portable--something that could be put up and taken down. So it would have it roots historically, whether it’s in America as traveling medicine shows, in medieval passion plays, pageantry, troubadours, and the traveling circuses of the early 20th century; they all are there.
We wanted to hold onto some of those ideas. I think the idea of having some fabric, like an old tent, and then embellishing it with this kind of odd galaxy of stars that looks like it was conceived in the early 20th century, hand-painted. There is a sort of handcrafted nature to it. It all spoke to the idea of this having a life before it, and it has been traveling around--that this tent had been patched, that panels had been replaced. It has this patina or age to it, so when it’s pitched up wherever we are, firstly in Cambridge and then here, that it looks like it’s been moving around awhile. It supports Diane’s concept of the show as this circus. It’s a noir circus--a much more surreal application of that word--and then infuse that with Chet Walkers’ choreography and Gypsy Snider’s incredible circus techniques and displays, and you have this incredible, "What’s next?" That’s ultimately what is so important—what’s next?
Incorporating The Circus And Performance Troupe
LD: Talk about how your scenic design incorporates the circus and the performance troupe.
Pask: An important part of the set is based on the traditional entrance chutes of the circus. It’s a pavilion of sorts, where, at the top of the circus, parades would originate, acts would originate. The circus band could potentially be up there. That’s how the ringmaster enters the ring for the first time. We transformed it into a magic box that’s constantly erupting with something else. Now with people: here it’s a trick that’s coming out of it; next it’s furniture coming out. All of a sudden, it becomes contextual where it’s the home for Pippin in Act II, where he finds a respite and retreat from the kind of chaos that he had been going through in Act I or the center throne emerges from it; it’s a magic box.
All these scenic pieces work together to support that idea of us seducing you into the ‘join us’ part of that song; and that means everything to us as a team. The idea of running off to join the circus is such an important part of this production. I think that even in the end how our young actor is drawn back onstage, kind of looking around the stage in his wonderment; it really pushes that point to a place where it’s almost visceral. He really didn’t want to leave and he wants to be a part of it while it’s supporting the story at the same time. So Theo is hanging in the air with a smile spinning around in this mischievousness with the company all around him. From start to finish, that circus convention is so amazing.
LD: Talk about your work with the circus company on development of your ideas as well as dealing with their practical needs.
Pask: It was such a close collaboration, and it was a very supportive one. When we talked about certain numbers—Gypsy is very creative—she and Diane working together are kind of brilliant, and they really supported what the shows’ needs were, brainstorming ideas with us. Then we put those ideas to the riggers, asking, "Can we do this? What can we not do? And how can I make that finish look like this?" It was a lot of back and forth with everyone and was very collaborative.
Much of the circus content on the show is ground-based. We worked a lot with them making sure that they have what they need for safety and then how it fits into the context of the show. "If this number is a ring number, what is the world he is walking into? This sort of lush place that we are escaping to after war and glory, what is that in the circus world?" It became a world of hoops and pageant banners. The hoop number becomes another part of that and then the ball number in “No Time at All.” The acrobatic troupe is there to sort of bring us the whimsy and playfulness of the countryside.
Taking Pippin To The Music Box
LD: Tell us about bringing the show to the Music Box Theatre?
Pask: The Music Box is a much smaller space than we were dealing with at ART, but the benefit of it was that the audience would be that much closer; the tent would be that much more encompassing. Here we had the opportunity to kind of wrap our vocabulary around the audience and use the front of the stage and the balcony boxes and even the mezzanine to bring our vocabulary of the time-worn circus, the patinas into the house.
I always knew that I was going to be very excited about how, in the end, it worked here. In Boston, the reveal was sort of landscape, but in New York, the audience relationship to the stage is different. At ART, where you are looking down on the stage, here you’re really looking up. So, for that to be really impressive, the tent had to rise up at the end as far as it possibly could. We did reconceive the rigging system for New York so that the tent could fully reach the potential of nearly being out of sight when it’s struck at the end of the show. In doing that, it revealed all of the props, and the scenery held in stasis, and you saw the backstage world, which became another point of intrigue. It was a melding of the theatre and the temporariness of this play being put on inside of it. I just love how that relationship is balanced here.
I think the idea of scenery and the temporariness of it is something that we deal with all the time. As designers, we are creating these images that are sometimes fleeting, but we are seeking to create moments that are memorable. We are doing that in a number of ways through the facility of our tricks of the trade but also just the materials themselves. The thing that was inspiring to me about this was really using materials that, by their very nature, are compact and meant to be packed away--the idea that the whole tent could really fold up and be packed into a box, but yet it provided a kind of vast environment for the players. Working with some of those things and those ideas was exciting for me to play with and explore while thinking about always supporting the concept. I do love those moments when you kind of half create an environment, and some of the answers start to come quickly, in a way revealing themselves because, in this world we are creating, it could only be this or work this way. I enjoy that, sort of setting the rules, find the rules for this arena.
LD: What were some elements for this show that you are particularly pleased with?
Pask: I love the strength of the conceptual base for the show. Scenically, I love the vocabulary when we get to the hearth, all the graphic qualities of the three dimensional objects—the bed and the fireplace. That was a fun thing for me to explore and discover—Theo’s world and their home. It finds itself peppered throughout: the banners of Charlemagne’s throne room and the idea of this old engraved etchings that can speak to another era and are infused with this vocabulary. That in some situations might be in Catherine’s home; then in the circus, you can bring out these real elements—that let you relate to them as an audience member. In the circus, you can make outrageous and amplify the use of them. I think that was a lot of fun to explore.
More than anything, I am pleased with the environment itself and really playing with the overall impact of the shape of that space. The thing that people don’t really notice is that the perspective is incredibly severe. It swoops way up in order to create the impression of that shape and just the idea of looking up into the top of that tent. It has a much more embracing form than it would be if you had just done it kind of straight all the way across. That is one of those tricks that I think it is hard for people to even recognize. For me, achieving that subtly of that impression, creating something visceral, is always a thrill for me. It is the height and even the perspective of all the panels and the curve.
Making The Tent
LD: Did you refabricate the tent for New York?
Pask: For Cambridge, Rachel Keebler from Cobalt Studios painted the canopy of the tent and it was beautiful, but here in New York I wanted to add some additional detail, and PRG did all of that. They painted the lower tent with the harlequin pattern, so that there was a lot more movement, and it ties into the intermission curtain, which is also new here. That was all developed working with PRG, who built the scenery, and they did all the scenic fabrications. The painters there are amazing; it was Joe Forbes and his team working on it all and bringing that world all together. They were another important part of the overall collaboration; I have worked with both PRG and Joe Forbes’ Scenic Arts Studios a lot.
LD: Any final thoughts?
Pask: The thing that is always exciting to me is when you really create a world and when the collaboration all really comes together. It is amazing to be working with someone as brilliant as Ken Posner, whose work is beyond spectacular; as brilliant as Diane Paulus—we just marked our 15th year of collaboration. I just find that her rigor, conceptual clarity, and brilliance are always inspiring to me, and I think she inspires that in her team. I think that Gypsy Snider is also an incredible collaborator as is Chet Walker; Dominique Lemieux’s clothes--one costume is more amazing then the next. All of these people who work so hard in their departments and then it all comes together. Even up to the end, when we were sitting together watching and saying, "Let’s tweak that or this," and we are all nodding. When you are all in concert like that, it is thrilling to work in theatre. The amazing creativity of everybody is really, really inspiring to me as an artist. To me, it is so exciting when you create something that is now sort of seared into the minds of the people that are seeing it, and there are so many of those moments in this show, things that are so unforgettable.
Pippin Scenic Personnel and Vendors
Diane Paulus, Director
Chet Walker, Choreography in the style of Bob Fosse
Gypsy Snider, Circus Creation
Scott Pask, Scenic Design
Jeff Hinchee, Scenic Associate
Edward Pierce, Design Supervisor
Jake Bell, Production Supervisor
Paul Kieve, Illusions
Chic Silber, Fire Effects
PRG, LLC, Scenic Fabrications and Scene Painting
ZFX, Inc., Flying Effects