In taming the huge stage at Radio City Music Hall, French-Canadian scenic designer Stéphane Roy (whose previous designs for Cirque du Soleil include Dralion, Varekai, and Zumanity) reduced the size of the stage to something more manageable yet still majestic. “It’s like a temple when you first go into Radio City,” Roy says. “The best approach in dealing with this large space was to blend and continue the perspective in the theatre to make it smaller.” To do so, Roy used a series of three portals, noting: “Within the third portal, the stage is almost the same size as a Broadway theatre.”

With Radio City as the framework for the production, everything was large-scale: “Like an opera,” says Roy, who used various curtains, from Austrian, French, Kabuki, and Venetian, to punctuate the performance and set the various scenes. “The idea was that the theatre had been abandoned for 75 years,” he explains. “We wanted to express the idea of timelessness, we have been there before, we are there now, and will be there again. Everything is mystical, full of memories.” With that idea in mind, there are not a lot of set changes, but rather one set that evolves throughout the entire show. “That language allows us to have slow changes,” adds Roy.

One of the major scenic elements in Zarkana is the 90’x40’ Panasonic LED wall that is permanently installed upstage at Radio City. “We actually thought about not using the LED wall, and not using any electronic media,” Roy explains. Instead he had designed a set based on Gustav Klimt golden tiles to tie into the gold of the theatre. “The room and its art nouveau texture were the priority, but then we thought we could use the LED wall as a breathing element, so we finally added the video,” the designer notes: Then we went wild. “We had the tools, we might as well us them.” Not to mention that Zarkana’s director, François Girard, comes from the film world and was comfortable with the large, cinematic tableaux create for the show.

“Girard directed us in terms of the video projection for each tableaux,” notes Roy. “He indicated what kind of images he wanted, and asked how do we fill that space, in terms of content and aesthetics.” From there, it was a three-way collaboration, starting with the director’s vision, then sets and video, working from hand drawings that Roy did, then working on computers, and tweaking colors in the theatre.

“The result is a blend of classic scenic painting and state-of-the-art LED,” says Roy. “This blend is important. With only LED the look is too cold, the space seems empty. This works for rock and roll, but in this case we needed a real context. The mix of media makes it more interesting, more emotional.”

Once video was determined to be a big part of the production, the creative team decided to also add LED tiles to one of the stage portals. The first portal is opaque, or paint on canvas fabric, while the second one is a transparent light-box with 9” LED tiles behind it, and the third portal is a transparent scrim that can fly it out. “This allows us to have more space for some of the big acrobatic numbers or large set pieces, or even to have a larger image on the back wall,” says Roy.

“The color palette set for every number a year in advance,” he adds. “Once we were in the theatre, I collaborated closely with the video and lighting, often staying behind the table as Alain Lortie, the lighting designer, tweaked each scene.”

As the concept was always remaining in the same space, the designers didn’t want to change the feeling for each scene, just the look. As a result, Roy designed spaces within a space: “The first space is the cathedral where everything happens,” he says. “The second space, interior of that cathedral for each of the numbers.”

One of the big challenges was the historic aspect of Radio City Music Hall: “Zarkana is like a huge Vegas show on tour, yet we couldn’t touch the walls. No screws. We brought a grid and all the mechanics, then had to integrate the set into all that…and it has to fit into a truck,” says Roy, noting that the show is acrobatically very high-end and all the scenic elements are flown in or ground supported.

Stage One, in York (UK) built the skeleton for the set, the acrobatic trusses, and the stage floor, while the skin and painted fabrics were al created in Montreal by Dominique Gaucher. “The shop was working on it for a year, painting and sculpting,” Roy points out. “This was easier as the creation was also done in Montreal, and I could visit the
Shop. He us an amazing scenic painter, and I have worked with him on many Cirque du Soleil shows, as well as operas.”