In 1999, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre built a new complex on top of an underwater bridge structure on the city’s landmark Navy Pier. Some spaces offer stunning views of Lake Michigan, but the solid vertical building stands safely offshore (“Shakespeare Ahoy,” January 2000). There was no concern about flooding until CST decided to turn its thrust stage into a pool for a play set on the coast of imaginary Illyria, just after a shipwreck.

Josie Rourke’s production of Twelfth Night “begins with Viola falling in the water and landing in Illyria,” explains set and costume designer Lucy Osborne, who worked alongside lighting designer Robert Wierzel, sound designer James Savage, wigs/makeup designer Melissa Veal, and properties master Kate Glodoski for the production. “In water, things get lost, people get lost. It’s dangerous. There are storms. Viola gets pulled out of that danger and into a surreal land. We wanted to set the play on a pier—on this pier. So there’s the sense that this pier is slowly disintegrating into the sea, and then Viola climbs out of the water and into safety, rescued in this slightly strange and uncontrollable world.”

That meant production manager Chris Plevin’s first priority when building the set was to make sure he would not sink the theatre and allow an imaginary pier to destroy a real one. “The whole thrust was a 7,000-gallon pool,” says Plevin. “All the residents of Illyria are water-loving and prefer to be as wet as possible as often as possible. The only exception is Malvolio, who tries to stay dry,” and he even wore self-fashioned leather galoshes to protect his feet.

Plevin compares the stage to an upside-down tophat. The center was a 6' 8"-deep pool, with an 8"-deep pool surrounding it and a pier emerging from it. A wooden structure, the pier, resembled two sides of a heart. “Its curved sides became waves, and we started to think about water,” says Osborne.

“Just as the two halves of the heart made a whole, the twins followed their weaving paths towards finding each other and becoming complete again.”

At the top of the show, the shipwrecked heroine, thrust from the sea, flew in from the catwalk. The slow motion fall accelerated several feet above water, and she disappeared below the surface. There, she removed her harness, and her dress, which flew out of the pool without her. “We had to insure that Viola was out of her dress before it flew,” says Plevin, noting that the people operating the flying apparatus were running a motor from the catwalk. How did he find a way to let them know what was happening underwater and when to yank the dress? How did she get out of the harness while underwater and prepare the dress to fly?

Most scenes were set in the pool, with Malvolio staying on the pier, holding an umbrella in case it rained, and rain it did, sometimes only over him. In this world, the best way to torture Malvolio was to threaten him with water. He descended from the sky in ropes but did not hit the water. “Instead, he hung with his toes 3" above it, squirming while everyone around him reveled,” says Plevin. How did they create the system of rain that falls selectively?

Most of the theatre is clad in light ash, and humidity can permeate its wooden architecture. The set was built out of cedar, a dense wood. Would moisture affect the wood? Would shoeless performers be subject to splinters? “You don’t want pieces of architecture popping off and pieces of wood cutting actors’ toes,” says Plevin. And how would they build a sturdy pool frame that would hold once filled?

It was crucial to find a comfortable temperature to suit wet actors and dry spectators in a thrust that didn’t delineate the space between them. “In a proscenium space, you have more flexibility. You can heat upstage of the proscenium for actors and cool the house, as needed.” How would they heat a pool on a stage where spectators sat so close that actors could splash them accidentally?

Putting lighting inside the pool in accordance with electrical codes and safety needs presented another challenge. How would the crew illuminate below the surface so that performers could maneuver in the pool?

This production was set in the Elizabethan period when fabrics typically didn’t do well in water. “We had to find fabrics with the look the designer wanted but that could be dunked on a daily basis,” says Plevin. What fabrics would they use, and how would Osborne design costumes?

Equipped with swimming trunks, goggles, and scuba gear, Plevin and his crew went to work. The thrust theatre at CST has a 16'-deep trap room and a 4'x4' scaffolding system that can be adjusted for height. “We typically build our show decks on top of them,” says Plevin. “Each tower is 4'x4', and each corner doesn’t just support what is directly on top but also supports three surrounding lids, a tower, and a gap next to it, then another tower and a trap lid that bridges a 4' gap between towers.”

Because all the loads were concentrated on a small number of points, when they started looking at the amount of water—59,000lbs—they worried that the Navy Pier structure would not support it. “We took everything out of the trap room and built a custom system from the floor on up,” says Plevin. They created a lattice system of cribbing timbers across the floor of the trap room, several layers deep with each layer running at 90˚ opposition to the layer below it. That way, they could distribute the weight along the whole floor of the trap room.

The team had an engineering firm determine what the pier could support, using drawings from Navy Pier to design the load distribution system to keep the weight below the threshold. They could keep the 6' they wanted for the deep end, but this area could not be too big. The majority of the weight would be there, but the water would be spread out enough to protect the structure. To spread the timber system, they brought in industrial scaffolding and raised it from the bottom of the pool, then alternated timbers. Alternating 2'x10' beams across the floor in both directions allowed them to build a surround within the pool to isolate the deep end.

“It’s kind of like a point load on an I-beam; if you have an I-beam that is sitting on two points, and you push down on the center of it, you are spreading the weight between the two points,” says Plevin. “If you sit it on four points and push down in the same spot, you are distributing the weight over more points. Stacking layers of opposing beams with a point load on top of them effectively distributes the point load across the extent of the alternating beams. Alternating beams on the floor of the trap room were laid rigid, with beams running upstage to downstage and the next layer left to right. If you pushed down on any of them, you were pushing the weight left to right. All beams had some degree of flexibility, and the floor was not entirely flat, but the more layers you build with 90˚ alternations, the stronger it is.” For the 6' section, there were at least two layers on the floor, then a scaffold, and on top of that at least four and on top layers of plywood beams.

While building the set, Plevin thought about having crew with watering cans on the catwalk to follow Malvolio when needed. “We didn’t wind up having the rain follow him, but we did need to be able to alternate placement slightly to follow the actor in the event that he didn’t hit his spike,” says Plevin. “It actually wound up being a bucket with a rain shower head built into it as the watering can didn’t give us the rain pattern we wanted.”

In tech, they had fun playing with harness positions for Malvolio, keeping him too close to the water for comfort. Eventually, they decided to have him lie flat, arching his back to avoid the water. “The harness actually had hip swivels so that, through the scene, he could adjust his positioning from upright to prone over the water. In addition to giving the actor some fun options to play with, it allowed him to shift his weight to different points in the harness to maintain comfort through the scene,” says Plevin.

For the scene when Viola falls into the water and changes clothes, an air source was required in the event of a problem. A soda can-sized scuba system was mounted at the bottom of the pool, in case she took longer than normal to get out of the harness and needed to take a breath before she surfaced. “Usually she could hold her breath, but it was there as a security blanket,” Plevin explains.

Plevin used a filtration unit and mineralizer to clean the water. The system included a pump, a 5-micron filter, and two heating coils totaling 11,000W. “We turned it on at the end of each show, and it filtered and heated all the water,” says Plevin. “We shut it off before show time and hoped with the large surface area-to-volume ratio that we didn’t lose too much heat.

“We had flexibility because the heating unit had adjustability to 102˚,” continues Plevin, who settled for 90˚, a heat in-between the ideal for spectators and performers. “We had trouble keeping it higher than that, again, due to the surface area-to-volume ratio. A humidifier could put heat and moisture into the air. The pool actually served as a giant humidifier.” A thermal pool cover protected the water until the top of the show when it was removed.
When the show opened in April, it was too cold to use air conditioning, but they soon began to run an air conditioner at a low level 24/7 as a dehumidifier. The cedar in the set also had multiple coats of sealer to keep it intact and a layer of silica grit to keep the actors from slipping on its surface. Instead of sealing the wood under the water, they used a Trex® composite product, made of a combination of wood and plastic fibers, to convey the texture and grain of wood. “It’s impervious to water,” says Plevin. “Any wood submerged for two months will have some flex to it, and you can’t repair it because power tools won’t work under 6' of water. You have to make sure it stays solid.”

Ground fault circuit interrupters in all electrical instruments insured that circuits would shut off in the event of a short. All the underwater instruments were low voltage (12V) and sealed using 3M™ Scotchcast™ Electrical Insulating Resin 4, a two-part epoxy insulating and encapsulating waterproof resin. “It creates a shell around the connection for safety,” says Plevin.

To give Viola a way of letting people know she was undressed or of signaling distress in an emergency, an underwater infrared camera on the bottom of the pool was routed to a screen near the flying machinery. When she was out of the dress, she gave a visual hand signal. “The whole thing took place in low light, so people in the gallery couldn’t see it.”

CST couldn’t pull or rent any costumes, since everything would have had to be built from water-resistant synthetic fabrics that looked similar to Elizabethan natural fibers but more colorfast and quick-drying. Viola flew in wearing a big hooped skirt, the picture of Elizabethan femininity, before she donned men’s clothing, providing space to hide her harness. Malvolio’s harness looked like part of the ropes that bound him when he was flown in. Osborne designed and constructed costumes to allow for the water weight, including a pair of pumpkin breeches that filled with water and drained in comic ways when appropriate.

Davi Napoleon writes a theatre column for the online paper, The Faster Times (, which she hopes will be as provocative as the column she once did for TheaterWeek. Her feature, “Problem/Solution,” appears regularly in LD.