When director Malcolm Tulip first talked about doing Trafford Tanzi, Claire Luckham’s play about the struggles of a working-class girl from infancy through adulthood, nobody thought he could pull it off. “Originally, the show was shelved because the set was considered impossible,” says lighting designer Craig Kidwell.
The play is a series of wrestling matches, a metaphor for conflicts Tanzi has with her mother, father, husband, and others. Performers at University of Michigan would have to wrestle in a functioning ring, with audience members around the four-sided space cheering Tanzi and booing her opponents. Guided by both a professional director and technical director, student actors and student scenic, lighting, and costume designers would do the show on a university budget.
That $2,000 scenic budget was a huge problem. Plans for wrestling rings were available online, from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, “but those drawings turned out to be for backyard rings,” says TD Richard Lindsay. “Many were based off trampolines and done by shade-tree mechanics, not experts. That led us to see if we could purchase a fabricated ring, and those cost from $7,500 to $15,000, depending on size and finish. We found places willing to rent, but the prices were set up for someone putting on a weekend event.”
“We needed the ring for as much of the rehearsal process as possible,” adds scenic designer Elizabeth Lynch. “The placement of ropes affects every move.” That meant renting the ring for eight weeks, with rental costs ranging from $500 to $1,500 a week.
The only option was to figure out a way to build a ring from scratch. To keep actors safe, the ring had to be constructed to withstand the rigorous physical needs of the show. “Everything—the spring floor, the padding underneath the canvas cover, the corner pads, and even the ropes—had to be constructed as you would an actual wrestling ring,” says Lynch.
How would they do it for under $2,000, with money left for posters and other smaller set items?
Meanwhile, Kidwell had to deal with a flying lighting grid. “Not only did I need to keep my shots off the ceiling piece and the audience, but I wanted to keep the beams sorted out evenly enough to make them attractive in the haze,” he says. “The place where lights could hang was limited to two positions on each side of the stage.” And costume designer Andrew Hill had to protect actors while making sure they could move freely, at the same time revealing Tanzi’s changing emotional state through her costumes.
“The best resources were friends and stagehands—anyone who had done anything in a wrestling venue,” Lindsay reports. “We did find a couple of small producers who were putting up wrestling shows. Many of those leads turned into dead ends and provided little information. We also found one or two videos online where a promoter was showing a time lapse of a production being put up in a high school gym.” Talking and watching gave him a place to begin.
Lindsay knew the structure could not be completely rigid. “We wanted something that could bend but wouldn’t break,” he says. The resulting ring substructure was based on several wooden frames that supported a number of steel box tube beams. The steel laid across these wooden frames gave the ring its bounce. On top of the steel box tube were 16' pieces of lumber creating the floor of the ring. “These lumber pieces clang against the metal and each other to make the sounds you hear when someone lands hard in the ring. Underneath the canvas cover, the four corner posts were cabled together in multiple directions to stabilize the posts,” Lynch says. “The ropes were steel cable through a garden hose wrapped in hockey tape.
“Corner posts and truss walls that created the outside box—16'x 16'—and beam layers ran perpendicular to each other,” Lindsay adds. The posts were fabricated in the school’s scene shop from 4" Schedule 40 steel pipe. “We ended up building our structure with 2'x4's and plywood side walls and a main support beam.” By loading sandbags and counterweights where humans would be and by jumping on the floor, Lindsay and the crew were able to measure how much the structure would give and make adjustments accordingly.
Cables underneath the ring helped distribute loads put on the corner posts when actors were climbing and bouncing along ropes on the side of the ring. “These ropes were checked before each rehearsal and performance just as a gymnast would check rigging on his or her equipment. If the ropes felt too loose, they would not be able to perform some stunts, and if they were too tight, they were uncomfortable when running into and bouncing off of. The performers adjusted these as they saw fit,” says Lindsay.
Most wrestling rings have a top platform. To construct the floor, the team used 2'x10' beams, laid perpendicular to steel tubing beams. “None of these layers was rigidly connected to another, so they would give when people were moving on them and not tear apart,” says Lindsay, adding that the looseness helped create sound effects when actors threw each other to the ground or stamped their feet. In fact, the sound sometimes became so loud that it upstaged dialogue, and Lindsay had to add felt to the top of the steel tubing to lower the volume.
Lindsay placed 1" tumbling gym mats, borrowed from acting studios, over the 2'x10' beams. “The next layer was a 12oz drop-cloth canvas, which we stretched over the mats,” he says. “We initially thought we would use bungee cords to hold it in place, but we couldn’t afford that, so we used tie line, the cheapest skinniest rope that everyone has laying around the theatre.” His son was at work with him that day, and the 11-year-old Boy Scout showed some freshmen how to tie a taut line hitch knot every foot. “There are two hitches tied to the base of the outside wall with screw eyes,” Lindsay adds.
“The ring is like a well tuned instrument, with the planks not actually fastened down, and all the aircraft cable stretched to an exacting tension,” Kidwell notes. Its cost? $1,750.
Lynch created posters from period advertisements; these surrounded the ring. “We got the idea from a piece of research of old wrestling venues in England in the 1970s,” she says. “In the background of the image, I made out some beer and cigarette ads. The show is so much about crowd involvement, so we wanted the audience to feel a part of the experience. The modern and pristine maple finish balcony rail in the Arthur Miller Theatre seemed to me like a giant barrier between an audience and the world of the ring. It was my hope that the signs would break this perception and welcome the audience into the tough and dingy world of Tanzi.”
Kidwell had to draft all shots in considerable detail, in section and front view, to ensure he could provide frontlight for the entire ring from all four sides. “This was by far the most challenging aspect of the show for me, because once I figured that out, everything else slid into place beautifully,” he says. “Per our normal schedule, the show went into rehearsal a week before my plot was due, so the actors were still focused on wrestling moves, and [composer] Carlos Valdes hadn’t even begun to arrange the songs. So I had no idea what the songs would sound like when I turned in the plot. I used eight moving lights—all [Philips] Vari-Lite VL1000TS units—to create the song looks once we had moved into the theatre.” Other lighting gear included a Diversitronics Strobe Cap cued from an ETC Eos console, ETC Source Four Zoom ellipsoidals of various sizes (15-30°, 25-50°, and 25-50° Source Four Jr Zoom), and Source Four 14° ellipsoidals—mounted on City Theatrical Follow Spot Yokes—as followspots.
Stag at Sharkey’s and other George Bellows paintings influenced Kidwell’s lighting design. “In his work, the physicality of the fighters is showcased in a very straightforward raw way that I wanted to try and capture onstage,” he says. “I wanted to bring each visceral moment of the fight to the audience and feature the amazing physical acts the actors managed to accomplish onstage. In order to do that, I gave the show a brightly lit playing space to heighten that intensity of the fighting and bring each kick and choke home to the audience. I also omitted the subtleties of color I often use.” Instead, he used saturated red and blue exclusively, except for a few effects in songs.
Hill found ways to dress actors comfortably, safely, and in character. “Fortunately, we had a tough cast of actors who weren’t afraid to throw themselves quite literally into their work,” he says. “The referee wore authentic referee pants, designed to take a lot of wear and tear, and a shirt built from stretch polyester that could be as flexible as he needed it to be. Tanzi was the only other character to have to wrestle in real clothing, ranging from an obnoxiously frilly pink frock to a pair of khaki shorts, a T-shirt, and a cut-off denim jacket. As far as everyone else was concerned, it was just spandex, spandex, spandex. Tanzi’s mom and dad wore authentic wrestling unitards, but with a few additions.”
Hill purchased wrestling boots for each character and painted them “to give a little extra flare,” and adds that he solved many problems in the fitting process. “We had to make sure there weren’t any buttons or straps or anything that could injure the actors if they fell on them.” He also managed to fit a bouquet of flowers into a tiny pair of wrestling trunks for an effective sight gag.
Henry Reynolds designed sound, Charles Fairbanks coached/choreographed wrestlers, Carlos Valdes composed/performed songs, and Ingrid Olson stage managed. Fight captain Torrey Wigfield was also a member of the nine-person cast, including Arielle Goldman as Tanzi. In a program note, Tulip said, “I am sorry that we are unable to serve pints of lager and bitter, as suggested in the script, to help you enjoy the full experience.” That, as it happens, was the only thing Tulip and his first-rate designers and performers couldn’t accomplish in this production.
Davi Napoleon, a longtime contributor to Live Design, writes “Theater Talk,” a column for The Faster Times. In her book, Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater, she describes some of the first environmental productions done in New York, Slaveship and Candide, and Eugene Lee’s remarkable sets for them.