At The Shaw Festival, They Aren’t Just In Noel Coward’s Plot
Ken MacDonald crumbled up a section of his model for the Shaw Festival's Design for Living and threw it on the floor. “I got frustrated with my design of studio/warehouse windows for the opening scene,” says the scenic designer, who had cut window holes into rough cardboard. But when he glanced down, there it was — exactly what he wanted: a twisted, distorted maquette, the right wall to evoke the relationships of the main characters.
Using a stylized unit set, MacDonald differentiated the play's three locations with color — Paris, red; London, blue; New York, chrome — and landmarks, shown through upstage windows — the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and an Art Deco skyline featuring the Chrysler building, each building as warped as the set. Later, when a critic said the play seemed to be designed by a drunken Frank Gehry, MacDonald was delighted.
He had met his conceptual challenge, but problems in the scene shop were just beginning. What material would lend itself to twisting? How exactly would the unit stand on a base that also had undulating curves? Moreover, the Festival works in rotating rep; while one play is on, another waits in the wings. It had to be possible to disassemble the set for storage and put it back together easily. “How are you going to build it, and how are you going to break it apart?” technical director Mark Callan wondered. And would the parts be small enough to make it down a narrow alley leading to the loading dock?
Head of set construction Leslie Tunmar asked MacDonald to bend a single piece of cardboard to achieve his design. “As long as you produce it from one sheet of paper, I will reproduce it,” he promised.
Easier said than done. MacDonald and his assistant folded and pushed and coerced the model into an ideal shape with compound curves, bending first one way, then another. Tunmar tried to do the same with Sintra®, a lightweight PVC board that is highly rigid and impact-resistant and can be heated and bent. But it didn't come in long enough lengths, and it proved too fragile for a show requiring constant reassembly. Steel would be the solution, and the problem.
They bolted and welded a 35' long × 17' high steel sheet to a wooden frame. Only two people could sculpt at a time since it would be impossible to synchronize bending motions otherwise. Two scissor lifts made it possible to work from above. After hooking truck straps on one corner, they started cranking. One man would get up and lean on the steel, using his body weight to help bend the 1/8× flat bar. Using come-alongs and chain motors and lots of physical push, they bent it, now up, now down, now around a bit. They also curved the wooden base.
The finished curved structure wanted to fall over, more so after it was separated. “Leslie came up with beams that strengthened it,” says Callan.
“We cut the set into three pieces with a blade, then welded rota-locks to the back,” Tunmar adds. “Once the set was locked together, it was reasonably stable. We had to put wheels on it to roll it around.”
MacDonald applauds them. “They built the base with all its undulating curves and the metal band windows standing straight up from it,” he says. “They are an amazing bunch.”
Success? Well, almost.
Built off-site, the set had to go into the Royal George, a small theatre with a small loading dock in the rear. Since the last time a show opened there, a new building went up close to the boundary line. Even though the set had been cut to be portable inside the theatre, it became clear that the largest piece, 16'×8'×3', wouldn't make it through the narrow alley.
They flew the piece over the building, using a crane. Dents appeared on the sidewalk as the over 500lb piece began to ascend. When it landed, problems persisted. How would they get it through the door? “Lots of people pushed,” says Tunmar, comparing it to getting a honey-fed Winnie the Pooh through a hole in the classic story. “Once it was inside, we sort of welded it and straightened it up. We've had a few joints pop on it.”
“It was one of those scary things. I couldn't guarantee the set would work,” adds Tunmar, who now feels out of danger. Each time crews change to and from the other play in the rep, it changes shape a little. But if they weld sections periodically, he expects the scenery to survive the season.
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