Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theatre, calls their current production of the mega-musical Les Misérables the first “environmental staging” of the show. New York-based scenic designer Walt Spangler uses the term “enveloping” to describe this first-ever mounting of the show in a black box theatre, one that seats 280 rather than the triple-digit capacity of theaters that have previously hosted the legendary Trevor Nunn/John Napier original with its famous turntable turning, turning, turning from scene to scene.
Signature, with its new facility just across the Potomac River from the nation’s Capitol, has used Spangler to fill this space before. Spangler designed the wooden planking assemblage for the premiere of Kathy Lee Gifford’s Saving Aimee, the fanciful base for the flying effects in the US premiere of Dempsey and Rowe’s The Witches of Eastwick, and the aluminum wing structure for Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s Ace.
“This time Eric was specific from the get-go that he wanted a complete re-envisioning of Les Mis with the people sharing the same space as the actors and the musicians” says Spangler. “In the original design, which is one of my favorite designs of all time, the people sat in a theatre and looked at the show. Here we didn’t want them looking at the space, but being there in it.” That meant no proscenium, or even a thrust stage approach, but rather, what turned out to be a sinuous playing space with three segments of seating that would be all but surrounded by the action. Schaeffer says that they “never contemplated using a turntable…We wanted our production to be new, different, and focus on the characters and their story rather than the spectacle.” He points out, with a touch of pride, that “no seat is more than five rows from the deck.”
“We set out to create an environment more muscular, brutal and violent—the darker side of the world these people lived in,” explains Spangler. He came up with a concept for the space that was defined by windows, broken, dirty windows of a desultory factory emblematic of the worst of the industrial revolution beginning to overcome the France of the first half of the seventeenth century. “Actually, we started with solid windows and only began to break them out when it became clear that the image was even grimier that way. We had the orchestra behind the window wall and thought of breaking the window panes for acoustical reasons. But it turned out we actually ended up putting some unbroken panes back to shield the orchestra from sight,” he notes.
Spangler placed a large square metal deck in the center of the playing space that could be flown at key moments. “I made up a model, and we worked our way through the show, moment by moment, on the model. One moment that we worked on in many different ways,” he says, “was the suicide of Inspector Javert. Because the original was so memorable, we looked for a way to fly the deck after the death, not during or even before. We wanted the music to make the moment, not necessarily the set.”
The unique space at Signature, and Schaeffer’s insistence that they not repeat what was done in the original and not use a rotating turntable for the show, presented some challenges in blocking, most specifically the difficulty of showing young Gravoche’s dangerous excursion to the other side of the barricades to scavenge ammunition. Spangler points out, however, that “the script is pretty specific as to locations for individual scenes. The turntable in the original sometimes gave the impression of a return to old locales while the script really calls for new ones. This meant that Eric had to pay close attention to the consistency of entrances and exits so that the audience would follow the changes in location.”
The really exciting factor for Spangler was the massive metal construct for the barricades. “After all the work on the model, they built it pretty much as shown. The theatre scavenged building demolition sites in Washington DC in search of old, twisted metal which we then, over a three week period, welded together one piece at a time. It was the original concept, but it was also an organic thing that grew out of the junk we had.”
Now Spangler says it is his personal wish is to get his own private welder!
Les Misérables continues at Signature Theatre, Arlington VA through February 22.