Problem

Kate Robin's Intrigue with Faye is the story of a therapist and a documentary filmmaker who try mending their troubled relationship with videotape. Was it an ideal fit for Chicago's InFusion Theatre Company, which “infuses” dramatic works with elements that include music, dance, or film, or was the year-old company taking on too much?

The stage set is an apartment, but Intrigue also transpires in several external locations. Characters operate a camera to show prerecorded footage and instantly replay images from four hidden spy cams; that way, the couple can observe themselves together or with others in scenes that have taken place elsewhere or in the apartment.

The play opens in a hall, for instance, with a kiss that continues as they enter the scene. They see each other at work, at the doctor's, waiting for the subway. The audience watches on eight LCD panels in the grid around the stage and on a large TV that is part of the set. Scenic designer Chelsea Meyers, who had never worked with video before, says the play is partly about how people change when they know they're being videotaped.

Video designer Lucas Merino asked himself how he would set up a camera system in his own apartment. Clearly, actors couldn't rewind to exact moments or find yesterday's footage in seconds while on stage. “Instant” replays would have to be prerecorded. “All the action the characters supposedly rewound was prerecorded weeks in advance in the set designer's loft,” Merino says.

Production manager/assistant director Bridgette O'Connor, who scouted external locales and helped set up the spaces, says the process was fraught with problems. InFusion rented the Royal George Theatre, a 50' wide and 15' deep black box, and had to schedule load-in for a week before the first preview. Videotaping had to be completed before the set went in.

And so, Meyers tweaked an existing world — her own apartment — to turn it into the world she designed for the characters, a world she would have to recreate on stage. “We knew we wanted layers and levels on the stage, and we wanted a specific color scheme — cool and a little industrial,” she says. She cleared her apartment and repainted, putting furniture where Merino could get at scenes with his camera. “It had to do with shooting angles,” she says.

Prerecording limited both what could be done on location and on stage. The small stage restricted movement in the larger apartment, and because scenes on location were already taped, changes were impossible once they got into the theatre. “I wanted to add elements,” says Meyers, but with time tight, reshooting wasn't possible.

The entire team was affected, of course. Costume designer Christine Pascual needed to complete all garments early, lighting designer Heath Hayes had to find ways to duplicate natural daylight on stage, and sound designer Scotty Iseri needed to copy sounds in the environment. Director Mitch Golob had to keep blocking consistent, as well.

In the theatre, locating doors proved problematic, partly because Meyers had designed a door where there was a fire exit that couldn't be used. Also, there were issues with available power. “You could only have so many video outputs,” says Merino. He recorded the hall scene with four cameras, for instance, but could only use three feeds for it.

Could they duplicate reality? “How far are we going to take this?” Merino says he wondered.

Solution

“One thing that made it easier is this didn't have to look like a movie. In the story, all the prerecorded video is meant to be taken by two people with a shaky camera,” says Merino. This also made it possible to do the show on a budget. They borrowed and rented video equipment, picked up a big screen TV from Craig's List, and used cabling and some of the monitors from a previous show. “We had to buy a few more things, and they cost less than $1,000. Little bullet security cams cost $50 each on Amazon.com,” Merino adds. They had no crew for camera or audio. “We wanted to make sure we got a clean signal, so we did use a boom operator.”

Would the audience believe this was the apartment they were seeing on tape? Not really. “We weren't trying to trick the audience but to make it seamless,” O'Connor explains, adding that, in a couple of scenes, you could see a brick wall that was actually the fourth wall in the theatre. Still, they tried to match everything up. They recorded every scene three times, once with the two leads, then the lead male with the female understudy, and then the lead female with the male understudy, so they were prepared for any configuration on a given night. Meyers, a painter who thinks of sets as gigantic functional paintings, says she and Merino made up for an inflexible situation by being extra flexible themselves. “I made a lot of concessions because of what had to be,” she says.

“Chelsea painted walls in the colors the set would be. We wanted furniture colors and paint colors to match exactly, but we didn't have to fake out the audience,” Merino says, adding that the lighting was close but not exact. They masked the fire door to mesh with the set, and Merino doctored the tape so entrances were less obvious. By building the stage out an extra 2' and adding an additional rectangular piece stage right, they gave themselves more playing space and a shape that was closer to the loft. Still, spectators would have to suspend disbelief.

Four hidden cameras would pick up a feed and a fifth, cabled and wired, would be in the hands of the actors. While they pretended to push buttons during their scenes, stage manager Tara Malpass played and switched from a booth. “The stage manager had the awesome job of switching live camera to prerecorded video running off the computer. It was continuously stopping and starting,” says Merino.

They converted tapes to video files, using Windows Media Video format. “Previously, we had done a lot of playback on DVD players, and we didn't want to do that because there's so much starting and stopping,” Merino adds. “If the DVD skips or hiccups, it's almost impossible to get back to where you were. A tape system is better to not only see the video but access different files using a standard video media player and Windows video files.”

Even working within extreme limits, the team enjoyed the creative process. Merino created an intermission montage using footage obtained from actors and understudies who recorded their own lives for several days; he took images of actors eating breakfast, brushing their teeth, riding the train, and put it all together. He had to be careful, though, since the play is set in New York, and he had to edit out someone walking near the Sears Tower.