Set partly in Missouri, Big River is a perfect play for a St. Louis-based theatre. Of course, the musical retelling of Huckleberry Finn is also set in Kentucky, Alabama, and Illinois, on land and in the water, indoors and out, at night and during the day. Would it be too large an undertaking for Stages St. Louis, a professional not-for-profit theatre that, since 1987, has been producing musicals in a 380-seat theatre? At its widest, the stage is 32', with a grid in the middle, a couple of arbors, and a fire exit.
“There’s a nice relationship between the audience and actors,” says scenic designer James Wolk, who frequently works there. “The stage is pleasant for the audience but dreadful backstage,” he adds. “Besides being tiny, the stage arbors are right in the middle of the space, so we’re constantly fighting for a ¼" here or there by twisting the arbor around or double hanging it to get an inch to clear the lighting.”
The many locations also concerned Wolk, who studied design with William Eckart. “He always talked about making things suggestive and not overwhelming the audience with choppy transitions. We [director Michael Hamilton and Wolk] didn’t want actors moving scenery in and out.” Rather, in the tradition of his mentor, Wolk says he “wanted the scenery to dance.” Some of it would have to float as well, since Big River calls for a moving raft.
A wood barn dominated the stage. Gaps between slats provided an ideal way to let “outside” light in to indicate shifts in time and weather, but Hamilton needed every inch of the stage for actors, and the barn walls were up against back and side walls. Was there any way that lighting designer Matthew McCarthy could use backlight?
With the story set in a time before electricity, and with many scenes set on the actual river, it was essential to evoke the outdoors. “We weren’t trying to create natural lighting but lighting that is heightened in the literary sense,” says McCarthy. “In the Mark Twain novel, everything is romanticized.” Although real candlelight and lanterns would help illuminate night scenes, designers would also have to create sun, moon, stars, and a low-lying fog. “We didn’t want to use dry ice because of the expense and the risk of leaving moisture on the floor,” adds McCarthy.
When you don’t have enough width, the only way to go is up, and Wolk decided to use every inch of vertical space available. He created platforms large enough for two-person scenes and put them in the air, sometimes 7' up. He built these out of 2" steel rather than 2"x6" wood; that way, they would be strong but with a narrow footprint. “We were able to deck up the stage floor with a fairly low-profile stage deck about 2¼"-high. We saved 3½" right there,” Wolk says. An up-center platform had to be relatively high. “We were just eeking out sightlines for the back of the auditorium,” adds Wolk, who half-seriously advised Hamilton to cast short actors and not put anything very important upstage. In the end, the multi-tiered set and lighting effects made the stage seem much larger than it is.
Hand winches for wagons that came in from up-center and diagonally from up-right and up-left helped keep scenes flowing cinematically, without blackouts. The raft, a 7'x10' platform winched straight upstage and downstage, was built like a Lazy Susan; when it came downstage, the actor could turn the raft with a pole by pushing it against the stage floor. The plan was to travel to stage-right to meet with another platform and land on the banks of a river, but that was problematic, so the team brought the side platforms out to meet the raft, after it rotated 90°. “The show would not have happened without the extra efforts of the production manager, Joe Novak, and the shop and paint crew who all added significant solutions,” says Wolk.
McCarthy says the designers always took a painterly approach, treating every scene as an individual painting. Research included a study of 1840s Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham, who drenched subjects in golden light, a little of American painter Grant Wood, and some of the Hudson River artists. “I always tried to be specific where the keylight was and consistent with that,” says McCarthy, who used dark shadows when he wanted to suggest impending danger, reducing them or filling them with color or warm sepia tones for interior scenes.
Wolk painted an impressionistic river on scrim that dropped in behind Jim and Huck as they floated on the raft. “It changed the space dramatically. After looking at all this barn wood, platforms, and clutter, the scrim gave you freedom not encumbered by buildings and angles and straight lines,” he says. Behind the scrim, a line of chained recaptured slaves walked over the upper platforms. “Seeing them behind the scrim kept Jim and Huck in focus.” Another scrim, up-center, painted like a river boat, hid Mark Twain before he entered and began to orchestrate the story. The floor, also painted impressionistically, could be water or clouds, depending on what McCarthy hit it with.
McCarthy handled effects in traditional and nontraditional ways. “We had to create a field of stars, which we did with spools of fiber optic that we installed in illuminators ourselves.” He used rotating gobos to create movement when Huck and Jim rode the raft and GAM Film/FX™ loops—continuous loops of metal with slits—for a rainstorm. “It’s an accessory that goes into an ETC Source Four [ellipsoidal],” says McCarthy. “GAM makes these for fire, snow, and rain. The rain is more elongated than the others. Slits of light cascade down. We front-projected that.”
For the fog effect, McCarthy looked online to see what people were doing for Halloween parties and discovered that a Rosco fogger, put through a trashcan with ice, would do the trick. “We piped the fogger through metal dryer hose, so you could conduct the temperature from the outside to the inside. You fill the can with ice cubes, which cools the hot smoke and makes it hang low like dry ice fog, and it looks like real fog after the rain.”
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Although the barn was built to look like a static wood building, doors hidden within it could open to allow platforms pre-dressed with a campfire for one scene, furniture for another, to come in stage-right. On stage-left, Jim could pull out a barn wall that became jail bars. Horseshoes, ropes, and other props textured the set and were occasionally used by actors. And how about a hand for the hog? A pig puppet lived behind one door embedded in a wall.
The barn structure was standard steel construction, with luan strips. “We looked at the way sunlight would stream into old barns through the cracks, but there was no space to get behind,” says McCarthy. To deal with this, they added texture behind the strips, lining every plank with ½"-diameter clear rope light and behind that, a light blue backing. “When I turned on the rope lights, it had the feel of light outside the barn,” says McCarthy. “When Huck sang ‘Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,’ as the chorus joined in, the light grew in intensity.” Again, the goal was a heightened naturalism. “This wasn’t real light coming though the planks but an exaggerated, romanticized version of real light. It changed the feel of the entire space,” he adds.
To ensure that the lights wouldn’t break or become obvious to spectators, they were centered on the planks, attached carefully with Liquid Nails® glue, so they didn’t sag or drift away from the wood. “We kept working on it until opening night,” McCarthy says.
While focused lights on walls and textured templates served for intimate scenes, when McCarthy lit from behind the planks, “the entire surround lit from edge to edge. It was like a camera zooming in and out,” he says, describing the contrast. “When Jim and Huck are talking about how they grew up and discovering how similar they are—that they both see the same stars—I wanted these moments to feel intimate and the audience to hear what they’re saying, so I kept light isolated. During production numbers, I wanted to make a large visual statement.”
Although there are LEDs available that would have allowed color changes, these were conventional lights. “We had to change the time of day and color with washes,” says Wolk. “The light coming through the gaps was whitish yellow. We could make it warmer by turning it down a little bit.”
Additional equipment was supplied by Concert Support Services, St. Louis.
Stages St. Louis envisions an even better solution for problems like these. Plans are underway to build a state-of-the-art performing arts center and academy in Chesterfield, MO. Now all the theatre has to do is finish raising the $31 million required to complete the project.Davi Napoleon is a theatre columnist for The Faster Times. An expert on not-for-profit theatre in America, she is author of Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre. About clashing ideals and personalities, artistic triumphs, and financial setbacks, Chelsea is a story set in the 1970s that foreshadows the struggles of the American theatre today.