Problem

This may be the season of the scenario. In the space of two months, audiences in Ann Arbor, MI, experienced two productions that were designed before they were written. Both involved tricky entranceways.

You've already read about Sven Ortel's projection design for Complicite's A Disappearing Number (LD, September 2008), a work based loosely on two books by mathematicians. At the onset, director Simon McBurney didn't know how many actors he would use, where the play would be set, or what the story would be. By bringing actors, designers, and crewmembers together through three years of workshops and 12 intense weeks of rehearsal, the company developed the show as a physical idea (see sidebar, p. 54).

When the University Musical Society brought Complicite to town, director/actor/writer Malcolm Tulip was rehearsing his scenario with a three-person cast at the Performance Network, a not-for-profit Equity theatre that does some risky work in its 139-seat venue. In The Day Everything Went Wrong, a clown farce with Brechtian songs, three family members wake to find themselves in a house that has been reduced to rubble. “The premise is that this is the single family that survives the end of the world after a total cosmic strike,” says lighting designer Rob Murphy.

“When we started, there was no script,” adds scenic designer Vincent Mountain. Action transpired mainly in and around the kitchen and surrounding rubble, with scenes set away from home — an office, a school — suggested with just a few props. At the start, the design team wasn't quite sure if the initiating catastrophe was a hurricane, a war, or something else. Mountain knew an actor would enter through the collapsing ceiling, since stairs led nowhere now, and the actor would put his head through a wall later on. “Malcom said, ‘I have this idea. I want to do a joke with a door, and it would be great if we could have some water,’” Mountain recalls. “He had ideas for business with a kitchen table.” Properties designer Michelle Bisbee knew just as little. “Props were cut and added daily,” she says.

The surround was a challenge. “I was looking for a way to create the sense that they were isolated and that the space went on forever,” says Mountain. An apparently working refrigerator was located outside in the rubble, lying door up; it converted to a desk by opening the door. The rubble may have been part of what was the house of a neighbor who sat at a piano in it, playing instruments. The sink, with running water, was off to the other side. For TD Janine Woods, setting up a working kitchen that had been devastated proved problematic, and safety-proofing the rubble was even more so. The chaos could not include sharp corners, nails sticking out, or anything slippery.

Costume designer Christianne Myers knew the characters would start off in nightclothes, but she didn't know what they would end up wearing. “One of our jobs was to provide as many obstacles as possible,” she says. If an actor became tangled in suspenders, she had to make sure they wouldn't rip. If another woke with her head full of curlers and a face mask, the mask couldn't melt under the lighting.

“From any traditional standard, the design was completely impossible to light,” says Murphy. Almost all of the action occurred in a 10'×10' area, which made it difficult to provide focus in normal ways. “The design allowed zero access to the stage with regard to light….There were major and total obstructions from every possible throw angle,” he continues. “All toplight positions were blocked by the ceiling in the set design so those positions were useless to me. Additionally, the set featured a wraparound thick sculpture of exploded debris that arced floor-to-ceiling from downstage right to upstage center to downstage left floor-to-ceiling, so any kind of sidelight was impossible as well…[and] the entire stage floor was covered with no less than 3' of debris or junk, so uplight was also not a possibility.”

Since Murphy couldn't use top-, side-, or uplight, he could turn to frontlight, right? “Well, no,” he says. “The scenic design featured a large window frame downstage center that completely blocked any potential for frontlight. This would later get destroyed, so at last, I had some way to get light on the performers. The first time I saw the scenic model, I blurted out, ‘Wow, this is a really cool scenic design! It can't be lit.’”

Solution

Mountain reviewed photos of towns damaged by hurricanes and tornadoes and studied 1950s décor to create what had become the play's period. Since “everything was broken anyhow,” he says, he had some leeway. “We didn't have a defined set. Malcolm and I did a ground plan…I made a white model first, and we agreed on where stuff was and proportion. Then I made a color model.” As the cast invented business in rehearsal, he tweaked scenery to assist them. He gave Tulip a table with leaves that would inspire business. “If you have the real thing, you can see what it does, and you can change it, rather than having some idea in your head and then forcing the rehearsal to [accommodate it],” says Mountain.

The stage platform was 18" above the floor at the front and raked upstage to be 24" high. “Later, Malcolm's character falls out the kitchen door upstage, and the door becomes a ramp to the rubble,” says Mountain. “We reinforced a 2×4 frame that was hinged at the bottom and fell on to a tire,” adds Woods. The refrigerator came from the studio of the character of composer/musician Frank Pahl, the neighbor. Tulip added a drum pedal and a strobe light inside to create sound and light to help mimic typing. He also added electrical conduit to hold a magnifying glass and a large umbrella.

Woods prepared for the ceiling fall with a ceiling joist made of 2×10s. “It was nice and bulky but not supported by stud walls,” she says. “It was more decorative. We had to secure the ceiling through the grid. Brendan McMahon is a clown-trained actor who knows how to crash down. We gave him 1¼" black pipe to hang on as he fell.”

Woods searched lumberyards for scrap for the surround, an array of pallets, molding, 2×4s, 1×6s — anything cheap or free. Mountain cut and nailed the pieces together randomly to create the sculptural surround. “No one worried when stuff got broken or spilled [during rehearsals],” Mountain says. “Running water, boxes of pasta, flour, water, salt — everything got thrown and dumped on the floor. That was part of the fun.” Mountain adds that, after each performance, stage managers would pick up pieces, sweep, and repair the hole in the wall with matching wallpaper made of painted craft paper. “You could kind of tell it didn't hang right,” says Woods. “But it's supposed to look bad.” To safety-proof for actors, Woods says she “used pipe strap to keep some things in place. The floor was supposed to be a shiny linoleum, but we painted it with a clear coat with sand mixed in.”

Myers took suspenders to a cobbler who reinforced them with saddle stitching and attached them to a belt. The mask continued to melt under stage lights “and everything smelled like avocado and cucumber, so we cut it. There was a lot of flexibility on everybody's part, which is what made it fun.” One character always wore vests; Myers created his pajama top, also a vest, from an actual top.

Murphy's inspiration came from something he once heard Des McAnuff say at the La Jolla Playhouse: “If you can't fix it, feature it.” Murphy placed ten strobe lights within the debris, all on the floor and apparently aimed in random directions, along with eight Fresnels focused up onto the various vistas of the wraparound cyc debris sculpture. “We placed five PAR64s on floor plates and just shot them through the cyc sculpture,” he adds. “Collectively, these simple systems allowed us to create a wide range of textures, colors, and moods on the sculpture that I was able to use to reinforce the scenarios detailed in the production.”

Even though the area was only 10'×10', Murphy says he “plotted a strategy of nine tiny areas of frontlight,” allowing him to focus precisely. “The cyc was made up of a web of 1×3s, like noodles thrown against the wall. It was a difficult assignment to light. In the end, I was able to wash the entire sculpture using a single R40 three-circuit striplight from each side of the stage. The key turned out to be to mount it not in the traditionally horizontal manner over the stage, but we hung it vertically, one downstage right and one downstage left at each proscenium. A single fixture on each side of the stage allowed me to cover the entire sculpture in a way that featured the texture of the sculpture in a wide range of colors. This became kind of a giant mood ring for the production.”

DISAPPEARING IN A DISAPPEARING NUMBER

A Disappearing Number fascinates with its fluidity as scenic elements, lights, sounds, projections, and actors intertwine, flowing through space almost as a piece. Motion is constant, with images that bleed into music and props that spin as actors move with or under them. The piece itself remains in motion — company members say they continue to explode and expand the text while on tour.

On occasion, that motion means solving problems to insure safety. Scenic designer Michael Levine provides two white boards and a black chalkboard that can be used as writing boards, projection surfaces, and doors. Exits and entrances through a spinning “door” require precise synchronization as an actor dodges the board while slipping under it as it flips.

Levine made the period spinning chalkboard as a rehearsal prop. “I find that, if I can insert one or two fruitful objects into the rehearsal room at the beginning, they will somehow be used,” he says. “This was the case with the spinning blackboards. As soon as they were in the room, they were being used as entrances into scenes, sat upon, drawn upon. As I was designing the set during the rehearsal period, I was able to elaborate on this entrance in the design with the larger spinning black board. An interesting aspect of…the way that Complicite works is that anything lying around the rehearsal room will most likely make its way into the production.

“The size of the boards was dictated by the size of clear twin-wall polycarbonate panels that you can get in the UK,” continues Levine. “The twin-wall is then covered with a layer of white rear-projection screen that is stretched over the polycarbonate surface, and then, on top of the RP material, we attached a layer of something called OptiRite, a material that can be laid on top of any surface and written on like a white board. In this way, we were able to make a transparent white board without a seam that could be projected on from the downstage side and also from upstage…The blackboard is made from dark gray RP stretched inside a frame. Originally, we made this to have a twin-wall backing, but it was too heavy to spin, so we resorted to using just the RP screen stretched.”

The three boards are controlled by their own fly system. “As the production tours, we thought it was necessary to find a motor system to control the boards independent of a theatre's fly system. The fly cues for the boards are too intricate to be left to various fly systems when touring,” Levine explains.

How does Complicite insure safety? Collaboratively, of course. The actor, cued by text and music, leads the movement. Instead of trusting safety to a computer, two crewmembers stand on either side of the board, vigilantly watching and making eye contact with the actor, even though they work at top speed and in the dark.
Davi Napoleon