Sometimes in rotating repertory, you just have to do more with more.
From February 15 through November 2, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) stage operations crew will have repped 11 sets 611 times: four sets 382 times in the 601-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre, two sets 128 times in the flexible-seating New Theatre (270 to 360 seats), and three sets 101 times on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage. This doesn't include changeovers for techs or dresses.
While changeovers and storage are a challenge in all three theatres, the New Theatre presents a unique challenge for stage operations. The storage area is two levels below the performance space. Not only are the sets repped, but the seats are as well. Fortunately, the OSF employs a large group of dedicated and determined stagehands who get the changeovers done.
The rotating repertory schedule requires extensive planning, thought, and worry. Successful execution requires even more. My involvement in the process begins when the “roughs” come to the theatre from the set designer. These preliminary design packages come in a variety of forms — photographs of models, PDF files, computer-generated drawings, hard copies of hand sketches, pithy narratives — and they often arrive from significant distances, as our company is located in Ashland, Oregon, which seems pretty far away from everywhere.
I am not directly concerned with figuring out how much a set is going to cost to build. The scene shop has a staff for that, and there are other things for me to worry about. My worries center on whether the changeover can be completed in the required time frame and how many stagehands it will take to get it done on time.
For the 2008 season, the seating for Shakespeare's Coriolanus is a modified in-the-round setup (276 seats); the seating for Luis Alfaro's new play Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner is in avenue configuration (276 seats), with seats on the stage left and stage right sides of the set and no seats at the downstage end. Movement of sets, seats, and props happens via a large, 15'5"×14'3" — but never large enough — freight elevator that carries the equipment from basement to performance space.
The set roughs for Coriolanus were due in early December 2007, final set design package due a month later, and first onstage rehearsal slated for mid-March 2008. The designer, Richard L. Hay, is the resident and principal scenic designer for OSF.
Roughs for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner (BLD) were due at the end of March 2008, final design due end of April, with the first onstage rehearsal scheduled for late June. The bi-coastally-located Robert Brill designed the set for this production.
My initial reaction to the design for Coriolanus was, “No way, too big.” While part of my concern came from budgetary impulses, I confess I'm wired to worry. I begin by thinking, “This is never going to work,” and make my way around to feeling, “This is how we'll make it work.”
The Coriolanus set is, as previously mentioned, modified round. I'm usually enthusiastic about sets designed in the round because they normally don't include walls. Not Coriolanus — this design has walls, towers, and walkways on the edge of the set that intersect with the seats and the audience. The large floor has a number of steel grated traps through which actors enter and exit.
On seeing the initial design for BLD, I had a similar reaction as I did when I saw the Coriolanus roughs, but this time I meant it more sincerely. The set has an automated multi-disk, a revolving bed, a tracking recliner, automated curtains, an onstage elevator, a revolving, tracking mannequin, an actor who never touches the ground in the second act of the play, and signs — signs that rim the perimeter of the theatre above the seating area. Eight panels totaled 180' of signage.
Time is critical in our world. When I'm looking at design roughs, I have a limited idea of the runtime of the particular production. I know that most of Shakespeare's stuff is long, but there are often cuts made to the scripts. Coriolanus remains long. By the time an audience clears the house and we can begin the changeover, we're three hours past the top of the performance. If we're changing over for an evening performance, we have three hours before the house opens. BLD, on the other hand, is just over two hours. That gives us more time. If the schedule only called for matinees of BLD and changeovers into Coriolanus for evening performances, life would be easier. It isn't.
So as I got involved in the BLD design process, I knew that Coriolanus would be a three-hour performance. It looked like the changeover from Coriolanus into BLD was going to be a three-hour experience. This was not a workable hour total, as it would have the changeover ending at “half hour,” when the house opened. This presumed that, in the case of BLD, a pre-show flying call was done, and the actors had some time to walk the play space.
As I considered balancing the math of the hours, I wanted to see a smaller BLD set, and I kept looking at the audience-encompassing signs for BLD. It appeared in the early stages that it would take three to five stagehands (the number going up and down at various parts of the process) between 40 minutes to an hour to put up these signs. I wanted them to be cut, but Brill wanted to keep the signs. In hindsight, I might have tried to forge some kind of compromise to cut down on changeover time. I didn't, and the signs stayed. The scene shop agreed to make the various automated scenic elements as plug-and-play as possible.
On June 20, Julie Marie Myatt's Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter closed and left the rep in the New Theatre. BLD came in, rehearsing onstage June 22 with many techs, and opened July 5.
I worked out the following for the Coriolanus/BLD elevator trips:
Down - Coriolanus props
Up - Empty
Down - Upstage seats, two wedges, seating aisle
Up - Arrow wagon
Down - Two USR onstage light boxes
Up - Fridge wagon, yummy signs
Down - Two US light boxes, USR green steps, US aisle steps
Up - Recliner wagon and US track
Down - DSL fort
Up - Kitchen wagon
Down - DSL light box, DSL green steps, grates
Up - USR escape wagon
Down - Three DS light boxes, DR aisle steps
Up - USL escape unit
Down - DS risers
Up - Empty
Down - DSL and USL escape units, SL green steps
Up - Pole wagon, mannequin, light boxes
It worked, and we had the rotation of the scenic and prop elements in the storage space down to a science, but this only partly solved the time issue. Faced with the reality of having to make these changeovers happen in a timely fashion, the only remaining option was to use more stagehands.
The original labor budget called for eight stagehands to complete the changeover in two hours, 30 minutes. By that time, the Coriolanus/BLD swaps were averaging two hours, 40 minutes with 11 stagehands.
These are the times that try men's souls, fray men's nerves, and really tax my budget. But we have an amazing crew of stagehands and technicians who always pull together to figure out how to keep this rep going. And Bill Rauch, the OSF artistic director, has an open door, and we have had many long discussions this season about how to make this three-ring circus hum like a finely-tuned machine. As a result of our discussions, I will now be part of the early scenic design meetings, so I can weigh in on what's in the realm of possibility and what's not, according to a shift supervisor's perspective. So I figure the sets will still rock, the shows will still start on time, and I may just have a little more of my sanity intact.