How do you design a reading? That was the question when Kenny Leon, who was to lead the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' month-long celebration of the works of August Wilson, met with set designer David Gallo, costume designer Reggie Ray, lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes, and composer Dwight Andrews. They comprised his design team for an unprecedented mounting of all ten of Wilson's plays exploring the African-American experience of the 20th century, decade by decade.
Each play was to be presented just four times in March and early April. Technically speaking, they were planned as readings. However, the idea was to have fully staged readings that required design, so the creative team had to figure out just what a fully staged reading would look (and sound) like.
Leon, who had directed many of Wilson's plays late in the playwright's life, was to assemble a repertory cast of 25 to handle the some 77 characters in the ten plays. He would direct three of the plays himself while acting as artistic director for the full festival. To handle the other plays, he enlisted six other directors, each with his own connection to Wilson's body of work. It might only have a total of 40 performances, but it was a massive undertaking.
Since Michael M. Kaiser took over as president of The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC in 2001, he has programmed celebrations of the work of several specific authors. In 2002 came the now-famous Sondheim Celebration, with full productions of six major musicals in two repertory sets of three, running nearly two months each. Because the productions had to occupy the same space, one set designer (Derek McLane), one lighting designer (Howell Binkley), and one sound designer (Tom Morse) were used for the entire Sondheim project. One projection designer, Michael Clark, handled the three shows that used projections, and a total of five different costume designers covered the six shows. More recently, the Kennedy Center mounted new productions of three of Tennessee Williams' biggest hits in the Eisenhower Theatre but not in repertory.
So, while in talks with the technical staff at the Kennedy Center, Leon found that most of the “lessons learned” from these previous single-author festivals were of the logistical and scheduling type, not artistic. Leon may have had different directors for different plays, but it was clearly imperative that they all share a design team, since the performances would overlap as the festival worked its way through the ten plays in the chronological order of their storylines. Wilson hadn't written or had them published in this order, and they had never been performed together, let alone in the order of the stories.
This time, there would be three performances of Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, over the same five days as three performances of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, set in the 1910s. As the month of March progressed, there would be similar trios of performances of the 1920s Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and the 1930s The Piano Lesson, right on through to Radio Golf, set in 1997.
The production wouldn't even have the option of discarding set pieces or altering them after a given show had finished its three-reading stint because, after the month of doing each play three times in three or four days, the final event of the festival would have all ten delivered one after the other in one week.
As fully staged readings, Leon wanted something much more than a line of music stands for the cast to “stand and deliver” in static presentations. So, out with music stands, in with scripts in hand. In order to minimize the visual impact of the cast members carrying scripts, Leon designed a leather-bound book he describes as “about the size of a small bible” that he hoped the audience would get so used to seeing that they stop realizing the actors are “on book.” He had the covers embossed with a caricature of Wilson writing and his signature.
Leon explained to his design team that he wanted to “create a unified feel so that each play looks like part of the same universe.” Right from the start, he wanted something much more than a row of cast members reading lines. There would be incidental music by Andrews, who had previously handled the music for four of Wilson's plays on Broadway. This would provide a sense of continuity and connection to the sound of the cycle, but the next challenge was how to unify the look over so long a period.
Nine of the ten plays take place in Pittsburgh's Hill District, where Wilson grew up. The remaining play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, is set in a Chicago recording studio in the 1920s. Some of the plays have recurring characters and locations, although they span gaps in time so the age of the characters and the condition of the locations differ. Still, Leon wanted them to feel as if they were “cut from the same cloth.”
Gallo goes further than this, however. He points out that the plays pose what he feels are extraordinary requirements for the sense of place and time to unify the cycle. As usual, he began with analyzing the scripts. He points out that, since the ten had never before been performed together, there was a new vantage point to be experienced in analyzing these plays, even though he has worked on each at one time or anther, five times with Wilson himself, who became a friend. Indeed, Gallo says that Wilson would talk through locales at great length before finalizing a script. “Radio Golf was actually designed before a word was written,” he says, adding that Wilson “wrote quickly once he was ready, but then he'd edit forever.”
Gallo realized through his analysis that the various locations actually break down into a very few simple settings. “There is a distinct physicality to each for its time and purpose, but there are really just three locations: a kitchen/parlor interior, a backyard, and a store or office,” he says. Even the recording studio in Chicago turns out to have been a converted storefront.
Gallo came up with a structure that allowed each of the three locales to be a footprint, but each would be treated differently in the different times of the plays. “It's more abstract than representational,'' he says, noting he envisioned it as “something of the feel of a cast late in the rehearsal process, working on a blocked stage with a ground plot for each scene.”
To unify the visual design, Gallo framed that structure in a portal set inside the proscenium arch of the Kennedy Center's 513-seat Terrace Theatre. The portal was inscribed with glimpses of common sights in the Hill District: a barber pole, a sign advertising the price of ears of corn or pigs feet, touches of old brickwork. Behind it all was a backdrop that Gallo says was “the one piece of art that had me giving my emotional reflection on the cycle.”
A significant constraint for the cycle was the inability to have costume changes during a given play. The challenge for Ray, then, was to create a single garment for each performer for each play, even when the play shifts a character to different times or different activities normally signaled by a full costume change. Ray says the challenge was made easier by the strength of Wilson's writing. “August Wilson's words don't really need any support. He creates imagery for each character through his words,” he says. “So, in doing most of the costumes, we wanted to reflect the ambiance and help carry the audience through the century.”
Still, a few of Wilson's characters traditionally require an effect or change. Most particularly, the character of Ruby, the mother of King Hedley II, requires “a reveal.” Ray says she “goes from a bit mundane to beautiful, and I thought we should have a revealing effect for that.”
Then, too, there were opportunities to pay homage to other designers who have been so involved in Wilson's body of work. Wilson's wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, originally designed Aunt Ester's costume, for example, for actress Phylicia Rashad for Gem of the Ocean. Ray notes he reproduced that particular costume, “as close as possible in tribute.”
Leon notes that another aspect of this unique brand of “fully staged readings” involved the necessity for Hughes to make sure the lighting was functional enough to allow the cast members to read scripts wherever the blocking took them. He had plenty of equipment to draw upon, however. The cycle was staged in the Terrace Theatre because the larger Eisenhower Theatre was undergoing renovation. All of the lighting instruments from both houses were available for use, and the production made full use of the inventory.
So well equipped are the venues, in fact, that only 12 Vari-Lite VL500TD washes were added to supplement the production. House lighting included ETC Source Four 575W ellipsoidals (a variety of 19°, 26°, and 36°, three with irises), Fresnels, High End Systems DataFlash AF-1000s, a GAM TwinSpin™, GAM Stick-ups, and an ETC Sensor+ dimming system, all controlled on two ETC Obsession II consoles. Color filters were a mix of Lee and Roscolux. The cycle of ten plays worked from one lighting cue list, with the first, Gem of the Ocean, opening on cue 05. The second opened on cue 200, the third on cue 300, and so on, until the tenth opened on cue 900.
As far as sound went, the acoustics of the Terrace Theatre don't really require any microphones, so sound for the cycle was confined to music and effects, mostly using material from prior productions. The house system, which runs off a Soundcraft Series 5 console using JBL speakers and subs and a Brook Sirens Varicurve, was used with two Stage Research SFX Version 5.6 Systems in redundancy provided by Masque Sound.
The Kennedy Center's Joe Stanton worked with the team to get the most out of the system. Even so, doing music and effects for ten shows nearly simultaneously was, in the words of sound design consultant Tony Smolenski IV, “intense,” and each of the ten shows had specific challenges. Jitney, for example, had about 50 telephone rings. The solution, Smolenski notes, was to go with a practical phone “for both authenticity's sake and for our ability to tech quickly.” Indeed, the compressed schedule for tech was a challenge for the entire design team. Smolenski usually got the cue list the night before and then got to the theatre at 8:30am to load the show for the 10am tech. “There was no time to pre-build or even to mark a script or number cues,” says Smolenski. “The SM would walk the designers and the director through the show in the two-hour block before lunch, setting levels and giving cue numbers as we went. I'd make any edits over lunch, grab a sandwich and a strong coffee, and we'd do it all once with actors, followed by an audience arriving.”
Production stage manager Narda E. Alcorn and her crew, including the three stage managers who handled three or four productions each, “made the festival happen,” says Smolenski.
With tickets at $65 per show, attending the full cycle would have set a couple back over a $1,000, but that didn't seem to inhibit ticket sales. In addition to the quality of the plays and the performances, the cycle's full staging went a long way toward giving those ticket buyers the sense that this cycle is something very much out of the ordinary.