The musical version of Grey Gardens, which opened last month at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway, was originally produced at Playwright's Horizons last winter. The stage version is inspired by the cult documentary of the same name, directed and produced by filmmakers and brothers Albert Maysles and David Maysles. Their film, released in 1975, chronicles the story of Edith Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and her daughter, Edith Beale (Little Edie). They were discovered living in decrepitude in a dirty, run-down 28-room mansion called Grey Gardens in East Hampton on Long Island. The fact that these women were the aunt and first cousin to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Lee Bouvier Radziwill made the story all the more sensational.
Directed by Michael Grief, the show has sets designed by Allen Moyer, costumes by William Ivey Long, lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, sound by Brian Ronan, and projections by Wendall K. Harrington. The set was expanded to fit the stage of the Walter Kerr, making it seem less crowded and claustrophobic than the original version, yet the world of these two Edies, captured brilliantly by Christine Ebersole (who plays Big Edie in Act I and Little Edie in Act II in a tour-de-force performance) and the equally wonderful Mary Louise Wilson (as Big Edie in Act II), can only be described as eccentric, if not incredibly sad and isolated, no matter the size of the set.
“The first act shows a façade of luxury,” says Harrington. And in fact, in Act I, Grey Gardens is at the height of its luxury, with servants, a fabulous garden, and the tinkling of ice in the crystal glasses and the keys of the baby grand. “There was little data about this period in their lives. It was not as well documented,” Harrington adds. But Moyer's set of a grand living room in a seaside mansion circa 1941 simply drips with money. That changes by Act II, depicting 1973, when the women have all but been deserted in their crumbling manse, accompanied by hordes of cats and the occasional gardener or their only guest, a young man from neighborhood.
“That incredible contrast from the first act makes the impact of the second act all the more powerful,” says Harrington. “We see a very different version of the same house.” Much of the dialog in the second act comes from the film script, as does the look of the house: dirty rooms with cat food cans piled everywhere. To give the set a ghostly feeling, Moyer created walls of mirrored Plexiglas®, covered with layers and layers of paint to create a partially reflective surface. Both Harrington and Moyer were inspired by a book of photographs taken by Deborah Turbeville of mansions in Newport, RI. “I spoke to Wendall about it early on and realized we were both referring to the same photographer,” says Moyer. “Her photos have a lot of reflections that seemed somehow ghostly.'' The idea was to have images that come and go: portraits in the attic, cats on the staircase, vines choking the house. (Grey Gardens still exists: its new owners are former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn, who renovated the house and gardens.)
“The walls are a very live surface, somewhat unpredictable,” notes Harrington. “I tell my students that anything can accept projections, even smoke, yet a mirror will send the images back to you. But in the theatre, you play the cards you are dealt.” One result of the mirrored surfaces is that the audience on house-left sees different images than those on house-right, especially as the central set piece revolves and the reflections also move.
The projected images include a newspaper collage of the articles that first brought the plight of the Beales to public light. As Act I is a flashback to the giddy past, the exterior wall of the second-act house is seen first, with images of leaves that give the feeling that the garden is overgrown. Harrington and Kaczorowski worked together to blend light and projections, yet the leaves are moving in a different way than leafy gobos would do. “It's a subtle difference,” says Harrington, who added moving branches of a weeping willow in the first-act garden scenes.
In the second act, the projections add to the sense of despair and loneliness. Many of the images, including the projected cats, were taken from the actual 16mm footage of the Maysles' documentary. “In the film, the cats were quick cut-aways,” says Harrington, who found additional cat footage in the film's outtakes and used her own pair of feline pets as extras. The challenge was stabilizing the hand-held, sometimes jerky, footage and turning it into usable video imagery.
The video was extracted from the Grey Gardens DVD via a software program called Cinematize, according to associate projection designer and programmer Zachary Borovay.* “It was then edited in After Effects 7, Final Cut Pro 5, and QuickTime,” he notes. “We created new footage from existing images.” He used a network in the theatre to move the files to Dataton Watchout Version 3.1.1, with control via a Medialon Manager 2. Ultimately, the projections are run along with the lighting on the ETC Obsession 1500 console.
“When programming Watchout to run via Medialon, you must create your cueing nomenclature based on parallel lighting cues, meaning you name your cue the same number as the corresponding lighting cue for that moment of the show,” explains Borovay. Once this cue list is entered into the Medialon Manager software, Medialon listens to the Obsession console via MIDI and waits for it to fire a cue that corresponds to one of the cues on its list. “When the cue is triggered on the Obsession, Medialon tells Watchout to locate to that particular cue on the timeline and immediately begin playing,” Borovay continues. “While this may seem like a complicated system, it is actually much easier than having to program all kinds of macros into the lighting console to get it to drag the projections along. Randy Briggs of Scharff Weisberg was able to create a Medialon interface for us where all I had to do was enter the cue list into Medialon, and it did the rest,” Borovay points out. “The reason you need Medialon in the first place is that Watchout cannot understand DMX. Medialon acts as a translator, turning the DMX information that the Obsession puts out into a protocol that Watchout can understand.”
The images are projected primarily via three Barco R6 projectors spaced across the balcony rail and fitted with Wahlberg dowsers (with custom flags built by head electrician Drayton Allison to accommodate the larger lens size). The three images have an overlap of 20% to create a full stage picture, with Watchout feathering the edges. “We chose the 6,000-lumen DLP Barco projectors over the one 10,000-lumen LCD unit we used at Playwright's, as we were constantly taking our images down in intensity, so we were confident these would be bright enough,” Borovay points out.
On stage (to project those darn cats, among other things) are two Christie LX25 projectors with standard Wahlberg dowsers. Scharff Weisberg provided the video equipment, with Lars Pederson as technical consultant.
Harrington's images in Grey Gardens are subtle. “In Act II, when Little Edie is outside in a bathing suit, there is swaying tall yellow grass,” she notes. “This is really the first time you realize there is moving video in the show. We try to not call too much attention to the media.” She listened to the lyrics of the songs, watched the film, and created images that support the docu-musical nature of the production. “The moving trees add a sense of outdoors on an indoor set,” Harrington continues. “The images also help illustrate the madness and eccentricity, such as a collage of 1940s planes and flags as Little Edie drops back to 1945.”
In addition, Harrington added ephemeral images in the attic where the family ghosts are stored. “It was like trying to create a memory place, with projected photos on the wall and other objects taken from the movie,” she notes. “There is a level of ambiguity here; that's what makes the projections interesting.” Some of the images are also meaningfully subtle: one leaf clinging to a tree in winter, the tangle of woods implying the characters' internal confusion.
In the end, the images evoke the film as well as the emotional state of the two Edies, yet Harrington concludes with a note about the quality of the images themselves: “It was important to respect the original footage,” she says. “When the film was made in the 1970s, it was a film era, so digital video images would have been anachronistic. Even though the images from the film have been digitalized, they still have the 16mm resolution and the thickness and texture that go with it. The audience might not see the difference, but it has a resonance for me.”
*With this production, Borovay became a member of IATSE Local One, the New York stagehands union, which now requires that projection programmers be members.