“No curtain. No scenery.” So begins Our Town. When director David Cromer began work on the show for the Hypocrites Theatre Company in Chicago, he surmised that Thornton Wilder wanted a production stripped of artifice, but Cromer felt that an empty theatre set, with ladders, theatrical lighting, and costumed actors speaking in New England accents, had become its own kind of artifice, and he knew the direct address and flashbacks that once startled audiences years ago are old hat today. He wanted to do the play without artistic trickery, something lighting designer Heather Gilbert would come to call “naked Our Town.”
The Hypocrites used the Chopin Theatre, a black box in a basement. Scenic designer Courtney O'Neill would have to deal with columns and a low, slanted ceiling, about 11' at one end and 15' on the other. “We had no options for levels or scale,” O'Neill says.
There are four lights in the ceiling. “You see productions of Our Town with…no scenery but lots of pretty lighting,” says Gilbert, who would have to create an environment that appeared to be free of theatrical lighting and do it in a way that allowed spectators to see everything. “We had a big, open rectangular room that doesn't allow putting the audience in the dark and actors in theatrical lighting,” she says.
“How do you do a play whose innovations are now vocabulary?” Cromer says he asked himself. “How do you find new ways to surprise without artifice?”
They began to design by avoiding design. What if the basement space looked like a basement? What if furnishings were any old things? “We bought a couple of tables and chairs that looked as if they were lying around in the rehearsal room,” says O'Neill, and that was it. To create ladders, the chairs went on top of the tables.
“We wanted the action in and around the audience,” says O'Neill, who found the room lent itself to telling the story without separating the audience from actors. They opted for alley-style seating, with the audience on two sides of a long stage and two 8' separations between two center rows. When characters would walk home from school, they could wind their way through aisles and walk through the entire room. Action occurred behind as well as in front of some spectators. On one end of the alley, black curtains apparently masked backstage space, from which actors could enter and exit.
Gilbert found ways to create depth and delineate levels in the large space without theatrical lighting. Although it appeared as if nothing happened, lighting did change infinitesimally; at night, it was a little darker. Still, light cues couldn't be obvious. “The theatre had just bought brand new [ETC] Source Fours, but we didn't use them [yet]. David wanted us to continue the idea of nothing but work lights,” Gilbert says. “We walked right past the Source Fours and went shopping in the light bulb section of Home Depot.” She used a variety of clip lights of various wattages, some with GE Reveal A-Lamps, GE bug lights, Sylvania spot R-lamps, and plant lamps.
“The Reveal lights have a different color temperature,” continues Gilbert. “We used them in the alley around the interior, where we used the halogen and plant lamps. That allowed for the eye to shift focus between the two areas when the actors crossed in and out, without having any light cues.” Four practicals, seven halogen 500W work lights, a mini halogen work light, an ETC Express 24/48 board, and 36 dimmers completed the equipment list. “That's all we used until the third act,” adds Gilbert. “We ended up creating depth and shifts solely through different color temperature in various A-lamps. It's incredibly effective.” The cost? The Reveals came to six for $3. The plant lamps were about $5 apiece.
Costumes also met the anti-artifice criterion. Designer Alison Siple drew inspiration from the closets of the actors and then found contemporary clothes, tweaking details down to the tattoo on the character Emily's foot.
“We were aggressively unafraid to be boring,” says Cromer, who also acted as stage manager. He hoped this would cast a spell, “slow the audience's heartbeat down to the speed of the town. We were trying not to hand the play to them. We hoped they would lean into it and come to us.” So there it was: people watching people in street clothing, under work lights, with a couple of tables for “scenery.”
And then, everything changed.
During intermission, the actors playing the dead came out for the cemetery scene. “There were all these people that you hadn't seen before on folding chairs all throughout the space, staring straight ahead, away from the curtain,” O'Neill says.
Remember the black masking curtain? When Emily returns to earth, the drapes that appeared to hide backstage areas were opened, and there it was: a fully functioning 1899 kitchen that would have worked for an early production of Miss Julie. Bacon sizzled. Water steamed. A cyc drop created a sense of trees and space beyond the house. This sudden move from anti-artifice to naturalism must have been at least as surprising as a ladder on an empty stage.
A sliding door on the other end of the alley led into the lobby. Gilbert pre-set four theatrical lights in the lobby, all ready to go, and set up four others during intermission. “We shot the light right through,” Gilbert says. “We created the ultimate artifice…and ironically, we hid all the artifice — the lights, the trees, the drop — in the lobby. The audience walked right underneath the theatrical lights and didn't even register them. At one point, we wanted to leave the lobby aspects of the reveal up for the audience's exit after the show. We were enamored with the idea of the audience walking through the set-up, but safety issues kiboshed that.”
Lights for the reveal included an ETC Source Four 50° ellipsoidal and four Source Four PAR WFLs (all 575W), a 25W lantern practical, four 6" 750W Fresnels, and red and yellow A-lamps in the stove. Spectators, deprived of any theatrical artifice were suddenly inundated. All the ingredients — period costumes, lights, sound cues, even ladders — were now present, suddenly and without warning, like a sudden return to life.
“The kitchen was vivid and nostalgic,” says O'Neill. “Emily is remembering all the sights and smells and her mom, and she can't handle the stimulus from revisiting that moment.” In the last scene where Emily returns to the dead, the director had her close the curtain. Sans teeth. Sans eyes. Sans artifice.
OUR TOWN GEAR
1 ETC Source Four 50° Ellipsoidal
4 ETC Source Four PAR WFL
31 Clip Lights with GE Reveal
2 Clip Lights with GE Reveal
13 Clip Lights with Plant Lamp 60W
5 Clip Lights with GE Bug Lites 100W
5 Clip Lights with Sylvania Spot
4 Practicals with 300W Lamps
1 Mini Halogen Work Lights 250W
7 Halogen Work Lights 500W
4 6" Fresnel
1 Lantern Practical 25W
1 Red A-Lamp
1 Yellow-A Lamp
1 ETC Express 24/48 console