If there is one overriding theme to the scenic design for Big Fish, it is the elements, including water and wood. They play a large role in the look and feel of this musical, including the orchestra pit turned into a river and the scenic portals designed to look as if they’re covered with rough-hewn wooden planks.
With the book by the screenwriter of the film, this production is filmic in its treatment, with the number and variety of scenes a challenge for scenic designer Julian Crouch. “In a way, my first attention was how to design a show where my design wouldn’t slow the action down,” says Crouch. “Even on the last page, it changes location about five times. There were many challenges; at one point, we bring on a whole field of daffodils within about 30 seconds. This was a massively challenging design to do and not make the show limp along.”
Combine the large number of scenes with the limited real estate in a Broadway theatre, incredibly small wing space, limited room up in the flys with all the lights and rigging, and your work is cut out for you. “I had to find something that could take us anywhere and yet had to be specific,” Crouch says. “Stro [director Susan Stroman] wanted the locations to be specific yet did not want a unit set. Also, the locations that we go to are varied; some are fantasy, and some are real. A lot of the action happens down by a river. There are a lot of outdoor scenes, with trees or in backyards. What was the language we would work with? I settled on this wood finish because of the kind of planks at a circus, a dockside beside the river, picket fences, wood-sided buildings. I didn’t do something completely specific for every single scene, but wood is the language of the portals.”
Crouch had the scenic portals built to look like rough wood; the sliders can iris in and out with headers and legs. “So there are different ways that the show can close down to allow scene changes behind,” he comments. “Then, within that, there are other elements that are more specific to each scene; each scene has its own specific piece of scenery.”
The wooden portals serve as a base for Benjamin Pearcy’s projection design. “In the beginning, we knew that we needed projection,” Crouch says. “It’s a show where I think that projection is necessary. With this particular show, I wanted a feeling that it was painting a picture and serving our stories. In a way, the projections represent that. The wood surfaces provide a place that can take projections but also, to some extent, break them up, so they become more painterly, rather than just a bunch of screens or a large LED screen. That was a fine balance to find something that would have enough intensity but still give the whole show some overriding style.”
To aid the projection designer, Crouch created a paint treatment to help with the brightness. The wooden panels of the set are slightly lighter toward the middle where most of the projections fall and darker toward the outer edges. “I work a lot at the Met Opera, and I picked up a method to help with the brightness issues. We put mica into the paintwork, which gives us a fantastic kickback from both the lighting and the projection. I would say that’s the most important thing we did,” he says.
One of Crouch’s favorite solutions is dancing elephants, which are really just the buttocks of elephants. “They give the illusion of being the whole beast; you just see the elephants from behind, and they do a kind of tap dance. I credit Will Pike, the puppet designer on the show. He brought great attention and skill to things like the dancing elephants and the giant’s girlfriend’s legs. Then there is also a very fine piece of projection, lighting, and costume design for the Witch’s sequence, where Ben is projecting onto clothes to great effect.”
Frank McCullough is the associate scenic designer for the production. “Frank is fantastic,” says Crouch. “A lot of the solutions for this show are his as well as from Aurora [Productions], the production management team. Aurora was fantastic as well. They bring an incredible knowledge and experience to actually make these things work and come up with a lot of solutions themselves. I think that most of the challenges are backstage because it is a very big show. So just getting something onto the stage and having room for the dancers and singers backstage is a lot of work. A lot of stuff is stored up in the wings—up high and out of the way. There is an awful lot that the audience never sees, just to get that simple bit of scenery onto the stage.” The bulk of the scenery was built by ShowMotion in Milford, CT and was painted by Scenic Arts Studios in Newburgh, NY. While the show was trying out in Chicago, a couple of scenic pieces were built and painted by Chicago Scenic Studios.