Tennessee Williams’ award-winning 1944 play, The Glass Menagerie is back on Broadway this season at The Booth Theatre, with the creative team of scenic/costume designer Bob Crowley and lighting designer Natasha Katz. Natalie Robin chats with the designers.
Live Design: How did you get involved with the new Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie, directed by Once director John Tiffany?
Bob Crowley: It came about because we were all downtown at New York Theatre Workshop working together. I noticed that John Tiffany had a copy of The Glass Menagerie sitting on top of his bag in the auditorium. I got curious and said, “What are you doing with The Glass Menagerie in your bag?” And he said, “I am doing a reading of it. Have you ever designed it?” I hadn’t. I’d never been asked, and it’s one of my favorite plays, if not my favorite play.
John did a reading at NYTW, and I went. I met Cherry Jones beforehand for coffee, and now we are on Broadway. I swear to God I don’t know how this happened, but it did. And we’re all here together again. It’s just brilliant. I have been waiting all my life to design The Glass Menagerie.
LD: This is much of the same creative team as Once. How was this process different?
BC: The process is completely different because The Glass Menagerie comes with a whole lot of baggage attached to it. And it also comes with the whole preface and introduction by Tennessee about how he thinks the play should be staged, whereas Once didn’t have any of that. In both cases, it is about trying to find a visual language to put them onstage in our way, in our own approach to both pieces.
Of course with The Glass Menagerie, do you listen to Tennessee’s instructions? Do you try to include them? Or do you say, “This is a young playwright experimenting with form and with stagecraft a long time ago, and obviously excited about the idea of plastic theatre…” Do you follow his instructions, or do you follow your own instincts? We decided this time to follow our own instincts.
Natasha Katz: John, Bob, and I were all sort of working hand-in-hand on Once. We were all in an extremely symbiotic creative place, all thinking on the same level. When you are working with people, you aren’t only creating with them. You’re also talking to them about other things in their lives. We were in a very similar place, and that actually continued all the way through The Glass Menagerie.
LD: Talk a little about early production meetings and what your directives were.
BC: Our discussion started on a train. It was just after the Tonys. John and I were on a train to ART. We designed it on the train journey, and then we got off the train and went to Cambridge to describe the production to them. And that’s the production on Broadway right now. Nothing has changed. It’s had an eccentric life, this design process, but I highly recommend designing on trains.
We talked about isolation. We talked about how memory is very unreliable, how everyone has his or her own version of the same story. At its essence, stage design is a metaphor for something. It’s representing something that isn’t real. The situation is real, but it’s the character’s memory of it. We decided to strip it all away. How can you do the play with the least amount of stuff on stage? And John stuck to that. He stripped down the actual glass menagerie to just one piece—the unicorn—that represents the full menagerie.
NK: I wasn’t on the train, and that’s okay. They explained the fire escape and the idea of black watery tar around, and then Bob made a model of it. That is when I really understood. They described this artist who makes art with black tar.
LD: What were the challenges of this particular production?
BC: I’ve done water on stage before. I flooded the Beaumont stage for Twelfth Night, but I’ve never done this kind of black. We wanted a feeling of floating, almost in the cosmos, in time in some way. We had to do all sorts of trials with coloring water—putting glucose into it to thicken the water, so it’s not constantly rippling when they are walking on the platforms. You are conscious of it, but you’re not so conscious of it every time they walk. We had to do a lot of experimenting at ART, and it was a challenge for Natasha to light what are essentially three platforms suspended in space with no walls, keeping the light off the water and off the backdrop, so they look completely suspended in time, a challenge she has risen to magnificently.
It is beautiful from downstairs. The fire escape just goes up to heaven forever and ever and ever. If you sit upstairs, you don’t see the fire escape because it gets cut off by the proscenium arch, but you see the pool, and you see their reflections and that they are completely marooned. They can only get onto the set by going down through the floor. You can’t get onto the set from the wings, which made the tech process tricky for lighting especially.
NK: We had no idea what the black watery stuff was going to do. I had no idea as a lighting designer what would happen. When we first lit the show at ART, for the first two days, they didn’t pour the black stuff in because they were worried about dust and that they wouldn’t be able to get access to the stage. So the show was essentially lit without it.
The black “water” was much more forgiving than I expected it to be. It was so forgiving that we thought we would be able to project things onto it, but you couldn’t at all. The light just completely disappeared. It just sort of sucked the light right up. It was very, very helpful that it turned out that way.
And then the light plot is designed with much more area lighting than I might normally use because I felt like I really needed to be able to isolate it off of little parts of the platforms, so it wouldn’t go into the black water. In a place where I might have had two areas, there are six. That ended up working extremely well. I was able to really chip away at the sculpture. My tools became much more precision-like because I had so many different areas.
LD: What lighting equipment did you use?
NK: We have seven moving lights on the show. ART happened to have moving lights there from past productions so I used them. They ended up being very helpful to light the fire escape and little moments that I couldn’t get to with other lights. They were Martin MAC Viper Profiles. We also have four Martin TW1s on the show.
I feel, and felt at the time, that the play really deserved to be lit with incandescent lighting—nothing that feels like it is from today, especially because there are so many layers of memory and time. All of that is dealt with by different kinds of light—different color, different angles. It felt like it shouldn’t have any kind of modern lighting fixtures in it.
There is a strong color motif. Tom, whenever he is narrating, is in a cool blue. When he is talking about his family, they are always in an incandescent warm glow. We knew we had to separate the two worlds in terms of narration and when he is in his own memory. We knew it was going to be done in warm and cool, and then organically it happened that [the actors] were sitting next to each other.
The fire escape takes on its own character throughout the piece. It represents a lot of ideas. That’s what I find so incredible about Bob’s work; it’s never just one idea. It touches you so universally, layer upon layer. He leaves it ambiguous enough that people can project their feelings onto his scenery.
LD: Who built the set?
BC: It was all built at ART. Hudson [Scenic] did a bit of refurb on it here in New York.
LD: What’s next for each of you?
BC: Aladdin for Disney—we are off to Toronto in about three weeks. We will open that in Toronto just before Thanksgiving, and it will come to Broadway next spring.
NK: There’s a tour of Once starting in Providence and also Aladdin. Bob and I are also doing a ballet together at the Royal Opera House based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, with new music by Joby Talbot. It is a completely new commissioned piece.