Problem

The Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University gives student designers and actors a chance to work in a huge space. Director Robert Kalfin and his design team — projection designer Marilyn Ernst and students Josh Schwartz, costumes, and Alex Hawthorn, sound — hoped it would accommodate Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, with its 14 scenes plus prologue and 11 distinct locations. “When Bob started meeting with designers, we talked about how this is a play about the cosmos and man's quest for knowledge, and how that quest is legislated,” says scenic designer Van Santvoord. “We wanted a tall surround with projections, encompassing a set that looked like it was created by human endeavor.”

You'd think a theatre with a 68'-wide proscenium 39' to the grid would serve Brecht's study of an early victim of the war against science, but the Skirball Center appeared to be waging its own war against theatrical events. Built for multiple purposes, the Skirball features a dance-friendly cherry wood sprung floor that cannot be nailed, screwed, or stapled; the Galileo crew would have to install a complete show deck. A projection screen about halfway upstage was perfect for screenings and PowerPoint-style lectures. The screen housing stayed on stage throughout, proving an impediment to storage as well as design; the screen came in handy for lectures — two occurred during the show's five-day run — requiring that scenery be moved upstage behind a closed traveler. The space in front of the screen was just 27'.

Another issue that had to be addressed was an irremovable soffit hanging into the space along the farthest 7' upstage. “When they bought the soft goods for the theatre, they decided to cut down the cyc and the bounce to fit under the upstage soffit,” Santvoord explains. “Although the grid over the stage is at 39', batten high trim is only 36', and the soffit hangs at 24'. At high trim, borders are 26', but they are usually trimmed to 22' to use the cut down bounce and cut down cyc.”

Santvoord designed a mobile, spanning 35', to hang over the stage. Projections on and around it would include topical text, Galileo's comments, and some of what he saw through his telescope, “a wonderful way of showing the overarching theme of play,” Santvoord says. “Looking at the drawings of the stage didn't give us a good sense of what the height limitations were, so we designed thinking we had 28' or 29'.” When the technical staff let the designers know what they were up against, rescaling began. “We shrank everything about 10% in all directions.”

But problems associated with the mobile continued. “There is something like 6' of fly space, giant gold columns, and an acoustic eyebrow covering the downstage 20' of the stage,” student LD Travis Sawyer says. Sawyer couldn't figure how much the mobile would swing until it was in the air. “This meant that I really couldn't put very much light on stage from above. The mobile might swing right into the beam and kill any chance I had of lighting the actors.”

Although the space is well equipped, the number of dimmers also proved problematic. “We were trying to cover 45'×45' with scenery that was in a different spot every scene with only 288 dimmers,” says Sawyer.

Solution

To deal with set changes and the need to hide scenery, all major set elements were on castors and had wagon breaks; 35 student actors repositioned rolling scenery during interludes. “We used a muslin traveler on a wire to mask different parts of the scenery and create exits, entrances, and background,” says Santvoord.

Santvoord brought the 24' cyc to the farthest upstage line set that would give him full height and lifted it up off the deck 7'. “That gave us a projection height and cyc height of 28',” he explains.

The housing for the movie screen became bottom trim for everything. A projector was mounted on the balcony rail and achieved maximum projection height by using spring clips to double the borders on themselves. “Since the cyc is hanging 7' above floor, we built a trough under it, with pipe legs to make it somewhat architectural. We could use the space underneath to store our moving scenery.” When clearing the stage for the other events, they removed the muslin traveler and the horizontal wire. Shorter pieces of scenery could go under the cyc, and a tall step unit could remain upstage of the movie screen behind the house velour traveler. Most of the show played downstage of the plaster line, with the orchestra pit covered.

Santvoord turned to “props wizard” Craig Grigg to construct the mobile with him. “It looks as if it's Calder-esque, but in order to make it safe over the stage, it's picked in three different places.” The planets, cut into circles with a router, were made of ¼" Baltic birch on either side covering 1“ blue foam. Stretched and stapled glistenette, a lightweight spandex that has sheen to it, covers the back. “It drapes and stretches beautifully,” says Santvoord. “The shorter arms on the mobile, made of 3/8" steel rods with rated hardware on each end, are practical. “The two longest arms on the top are not practical and are made of PVC pipe, which is held to shape with 50-pound fishing line.”

To light the swinging mobile, Sawyer used four 21' booms on either side of the stage, which created a new problem. “We don't own any full sticks of pipe, the space didn't have any, and we couldn't find a place to rent them. We ended up having to rent 12' pipes to attach onto the 10' house booms.” Loading in on a tight schedule with only one genie created a new round of problems.

The huge eyebrow in the space made it difficult for Sawyer to put light on the apron, where the whole show was staged, a problem he solved by renting truss to hang right below the eyebrow, over the apron. “It was the perfect place for me to put some of my moving lights and some of the specials,” he says, adding that he wasn't able to afford 1-ton motors to load up the truss as much as he would have liked.” Sawyer used three booms on each side of the stage.

“Bob likes the idea of seeing some of the mechanics,” Santvoord says. “We knew it was going to be ragged around the edges, but it went along with the Brechtian quality.” One other concern was not enough cyc lighting. Sawyer did as much “two-fering” as possible to deal with the limited dimmers, which “ended up not being too sad.”

“Since the soffit destroyed any form of cyc light where Van wanted to put the cyc, we had to move the cyc a few line-sets downstage of the soffit, and I put a row of sky cyc units behind it,” says Sawyer. “To light the bottom, which was 7' off the ground, we had to drop chains from a pipe under the soffit — the battens don't move under the soffit — and fabricate a batten trimmed at 7'. I hung a row of [Altman] Zip Strips that ended up looking great and doing a much better job than the sky cycs. We had to leave the bounce in the house position, which made it more like a bounce on the bottom half, and nothing for the top half.”

The mobile met a happy end: Atlantic Monthly magazine decided to use it for an event at the Skirball. “We left it stored behind one of the borders,” says Santvoord.

If you have encountered a problem while designing or building a concert, event, exhibit, or play, please tell us about it at davi@comcast.net.

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