Problem:

When Klara Zieglerova began designing Jersey Boys for Des McAnuff at the La Jolla Playhouse, the script about pop band the Four Seasons wasn't finished. But she knew the area and the era — New Jersey in the 1960s — and the biographies of the characters. The production would juxtapose their perky songs against their dark story.

She designed a basic set dominated by a rusty, bridge-like metal structure that runs across the center of the stage, ending with a spiral staircase stage left and a straight one stage right; behind, a catwalk and chain link fence suggest an industrial cityscape when backlit by Howell Binkley.

Zieglerova put real objects against these abstractions. TV cameras roll in to show segments from American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. Many props, including a street lamp, a recording studio window, car seats, and fronts of real period Cadillacs fly in from air space already crowded with moving lights.

Roadside billboards and pop art informed the initial design, too. “Des liked the idea and took it further,” Zieglerova says. “He thought it would be amazing for us to actually do a kind of comic strip version of the songs.”

And so it was that Zieglerova came to design three RP screens, 9' high and 11' wide, that fly in separately or together in the center and on each side, suspended on 18' of heavy pipe; on these, projection designer Michael Clark projects comic book-inspired Roy Lichtenstein-like art by storyboard artist Don Hudson. (Costumes, Jess Goldstein; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy.)

And that's where the problem began. For a show with more than 50 scenes, changes had to be fast and fluid. And when those changes involved moving screens in and out of crowded fly space, the changes had to be carefully executed, too.

“You basically have an eight inch window to move them without wrecking the bridge, and the lighting instruments, teasers, and scenery above,” production manager Robert Mahon says. Tech director Chad Woerner explains that screens had to come in parallel to the plaster line of the theatre, then pivot about 50°. “When you pivot something that large, the unit that's supposed to be stationary starts to swing.”

How many moves would it take for the screens to come in? Would they distract audiences? Would they break lights or scenery on or above the stage on the way in? And would they stay in place once in position? On first try “these things were just fishtailing in space like nobody's business,” Mahon says.

Solution:

After building, hanging, and playing with the unit, the tech team decided they would have to build rigs for the pivots and create a guide system to keep the pivoting mechanism within the trusses. Each screen would have its own set of trusses and its own motor, so one could move with or without the others.

Using AWU (analog working unit) technology to move analog drive motors into two positions — parallel to the audience and then into place — they suspended two 38' I beams from the steel grid in the theater for each truss, anchoring these into points on the theater wall; they tied them together at the top of the field grid, connected them at the bottom to the proscenium wall off stage, and cross braced them. “We wanted something that would guide just the truss and the top, the pivot pole,” says Woerner. “We guided the truss through the fly space like a counterweight arbor.”

The truss that held the motor for each screen rode in a guide shoe that was connected to the truss along the I beam and could travel on the guide track. “Essentially, that keeps the panel from pivoting out of place and running into anything else,” Mahon says, adding that after they put the shoes on, the screens arched less than an inch instead of 2' on arrival. In addition to bringing screens in safely, the rig made it possible to project images on them immediately, instead of waiting as much as two minutes for screens to settle.

They also attached lights that would indicate when a piece was in a correct position to rotate, then automated the system. Woerner says he didn't know any of this would work and says it was a pleasant surprise. “We were able to put limits on the I-beams that would automatically pivot panels once they got into their positions.”

If you've met a design or technical challenge and would like to share your solution, please write to this column at davi@comcast.net.