The opportunity: Design sets and lights for Hamlet. The challenge: Do it for $2,000. Go.

John Kurzynowski, the young actor and director who issued this challenge to me, is a recent graduate of NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing. We met last year when we were both working with Target Margin Theatre (a company for which I am an artistic associate). Last summer, we collaborated on Pullman Car Hiawatha, part of Target Margin’s Theatre of Tomorrow festival at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City, NY. I find Kurzynowski’s style extremely compelling. His storytelling is very visual and, at times, counter to the story of the text. Much of the work comes from trusting instinct, and I really wanted this design to feel organic, to be less like “scenery” and more like “space.” This time, Kurzynowski offered me the opportunity to design both lighting and scenery for Hamlet.

Produced by Guy Yedwab and Sydney Matthews’ relatively new company, Organs of State, Hamlet went up in February and March 2010 at the Paradise Factory Theatre in New York. Our production of Hamlet had distinctly non-traditional casting. Stacy Jordan, another NYU alumna, played Hamlet. Tommy Heleringer played Ophelia. Anastasia Olowin played Laertes, and no one was cast as Claudius. Instead, nearly the entire company traded his role back and forth throughout the play. This kind of playfulness is a hallmark of Kurzynowski’s work, which at once presents and undermines the expectations of a text.

We started the rehearsal process in December with a five-week workshop period. Through a period of exploration of the story and ideas of Hamlet, without touching the actual text, the company began to build a common shared vocabulary. We explored grief and loss, and the rottenness which can surround us. We also laughed a lot. Because much of this early improvisation fed directly into the final production, I made it a point to be at rehearsals as much as possible. I tracked what the actors were doing by taking cell phone photos and making seemingly never-ending lists.

Kurzynowski and I also met regularly to look at research images and versions of a ground plan. We knew from the beginning that we were not going for a traditional theatrical “set.” We wanted to create a kind of playground in which the actors could manipulate objects and space as they needed. Early on, I started looking at images of space being cut through with lines rather than walls: string sculpture, demarcation of space through tape, and sculpture created through the piling of everyday objects.

The performance space also exerted a strong influence on the design. Kurzynowski and Yedwab had found the space before I was brought on board, so it was another given of the production. I believe that part of the design process is about letting the space tell you what it has to say. In the case of the Paradise Factory, this happened early on and particularly loudly. There is history in the space, and that felt important to me. Coincidentally, I designed my first professional show in the Paradise Factory for the 2003 NY International Fringe Festival, when the space had been oriented differently and painted a dark blue, then common in downtown NY theatres.

The walls of the Paradise Factory are now exposed red brick and cannot be painted, screwed into, or altered. They are, however, already irregular and marked with decades-old, spray-painted graffiti. We decided very early not to build fake walls, but to use the bricks as they were. Instead of paint, and deeply influenced by my research, I decided to use a tape treatment on the brick. I wanted a kind of organic “horizon line” to continue around the space—eventually, it even extended behind the audience—and we taped out things like a doorway (complete with doorknob) since we couldn’t build one in. Along the upstage wall are two windows that we partially revealed and an emergency fire door. With 11 actors and a highly physical production, we really wanted to maximize stage space while guaranteeing approximately 55 seats, so, while the seating is arguably flexible, we quickly arrived at a pretty traditional end-stage configuration with a large aisle stage left.

I chose a white semi-gloss for the floor. We painted it early during load-in and, instead of sealing it, decided to let it get scuffed and dirty in an organic way. After all, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Making this choice in the middle of a snowy New York winter was slightly more than we had bargained for, but the result was very satisfying. Using simple red tape lines, I outlined the upstage lip of the stage and a square of space around a pile of chairs. I painted a red target on the white floor, which worked as a kind of touchstone, or home base, for Hamlet. Hanging above the target was a single clear 150W light bulb that served as a reminder to the audience of Hamlet’s ruse.

Other than the space itself, the largest scenic elements were the pile of chairs and the red curtain that ran across the back of the performance space. It was important to both Kurzynowski and me that everything on stage be integrated into the action of the play. The original design included a giant pile of chairs that extended from the floor to the grid and then continued across the room, with chairs hanging from the grid. The idea was that the pile worked like a Jenga game. The actors would be able to pull chairs out at any point, and the remaining pile would, magically, stay put. This design would have taxed our limited budget, but we were excited about the theatrical magic involved. Through the workshop and rehearsal process, we learned that we wanted to eliminate anything onstage that wasn’t used by the actors. This included the magic chair pile.

The final pile of chairs we used was smaller than the original design but still dominated the space. The seemingly random stack was made of mostly wooden chairs, with a few metal school chairs thrown in. There were several styles and colors represented, but all within a muted color range. It was important to me that the chairs and the room felt as though they were of one thing. The red curtain, likewise, was a muted red, semi-sheer, poly-silk that we borrowed from Target Margin Theatre. The top of it was about 8' off the deck and hung from a simple aircraft cable, allowing the actors to manipulate the space and speaking to the theatricality of doing a play about, in some ways, doing a play. Kurzynowski and I are not interested in hiding the mechanics of theatre.

We rented our additional props, including chairs, two giant steamer trunks, and a water basin for Ophelia’s drowning, from New York University and Anything But Costumes, and borrowed some additional items from the Brooklyn-based theatre company Polybe + Seats.

Kurzynowski chose not to work with a costume designer. Together, we sculpted the palette into the world of the play. The red brick walls informed the clothes, and we ended up pushing for patterns and muted color blocks. Though we started out thinking that Hamlet would not wear black, by the time we got into tech, Stacy was spending half of the play in a black camisole and pink tutu. After all, how else would we know she was acting mad?

Kate Marvin designed sound using Ableton Live 7.0.18 on an Apple Mac Book running Mac OS X version 10.4.11 and a Korg NanoKONTROL MIDI controller. She was in rehearsal throughout the process so that the sound responded to the action in a truly organic way. Ultimately, almost the entire show was scored, and in many ways, this score informed how the lights responded to the space.

The lighting design was also a direct response to the space. I wanted the space to feel expansive and airy, while also allowing the play to be the dark, ghost story that it is at its core. I was interested in broad gestures, so I used 1,000W L&E Mini-Flood™ open-faced units to light the walls of the theatre. Kurzynowski also incorporated a 500W halogen worklight into the staging. Using the reflected light around the space transformed the room, making the audience aware of its edges and softening the light on the actors. I also used the Mini-Floods as frontlight, in part to economize the number of units, but also to reveal and expand the space. Because the light is less directional, the Mini-Flood always seems softer to me than an ellipsoidal, perhaps because it is less concentrated.

One of the most beautiful moments in the show was Ophelia’s mad scene in which 3,000 colored flower petals were slowly dropped onto the floor (by an actor) as ETC Source Four PARs, focused as shin uplights, caught them drifting downward. All of the white light in the plot slowly faded to full— accompanied by Abigail Washburn’s three-minute recording, “It Ain’t Easy”—literally filling the room with a light that was almost too bright to view. The room was different because the world had changed.

I was, of course, limited in both equipment and positions. The lighting grid at the Paradise Factory only covers about half of the room. There were about 60 theatrical units in the light plot. The house system has 48 EDI 600W SCRimmer Stick™ dimmers run from an ETC Express 48/96. I supplemented the dimmers with an ETC Sensor+ 12x2.4kW dimmer rack from Tribeca Lighting in New York. From the house equipment, I used five ETC Source Four 50° ellipsoidals, eight Source Four PARs with WFL lenses, three Altman 360Q 6x9 ellipsoidals, one 360Q 6x12, seven 360Q 4.5x6s, and 15 6" Fresnels. In addition, I rented three Altman 6'-3" Ministrips (with EYC 75W MR16 lamps), the 13 1,000W L&E Mini-Floods, and four additional Source Four 50° ellipsoidals.

Hamlet was an amazing experience and a real lesson in how economy of means can push the work farther than it can go when you have all your wishes and dreams right at your fingertips. A truly collaborative experience is far more satisfying than one full of the newest fancy toys but no real communication.

Natalie Robin is a NYC-based lighting designer, a founding and associate company member of Polybe + Seats, and an associate artist of Target Margin Theatre. She is also an adjunct faculty member in NYU’s Department of Undergraduate Drama. In 2008, she was chosen as a Young Designer to Watch by Live Design. She is also a photographer, writer, and production manager. Visit her online at www.natalierobinlighting.com.