For the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of Cat, a computerized curtain that changed shape during the show was a central element in that design
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof doesn’t usually leave artists and technicians struggling to meet difficult challenges. “The set is a bed-sitting room of a plantation home in the Mississippi Delta,” Tennessee Williams says at the top. He calls for an upstairs gallery, white balustrades, furniture that includes a double bed on a raked floor, and lots of floor space to allow for free movement—no problems there. And he asks for a touch of poetry: walls that dissolve into air, stars and moon above, soft light—not so hard either.
Traditionally, a curtain opens to reveal this design, but for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Cat, a computerized curtain that changed shape during the show was a central element in that design. The play began in a closed place and opened gradually, relying partly on Christopher Akerlind’s lighting to close and expand the space.
Characters seeking privacy would have no place to hide, as decided by director Christopher Liam Moore and his team, including scenic designer and OSF associate artistic director Christopher Acebo. “One of the things we really wanted to explore was the idea of public and private space,” says Acebo. “The play is about secrets. We decided to create a room with no walls, so you didn’t know where people were coming from, so everything takes place in a very public space. There are conversations that don’t come together or get interrupted. We wanted a space where anything could happen at any moment, a set with no doors.”
“The director had the instinct to divorce the piece from the literal environment a play like this typically has,” adds Akerlind. “It’s an Elizabethan aesthetic, suitable for a Shakespeare festival. Take as many things away as possible, and let the performers and text exist in empty space.”
A few 1950s furnishings suggested a bedroom, and the shop would have to create a curved cabinet for a working television, side tables, and benches, but in this abstracted environment, very little else was needed. Scenes played out in an open airy space, with a white carpet. This space was reconfigured for each of the three acts, less by moving scenery than by adjusting a white silk curtain. “The whole set was basically white, except for a red rim of Astroturf that ran behind it. There were two curtains, the one on the truss and a large white curtain behind that, with oversized crown molding,” says Acebo.
The open space would not just create problems for the characters with secrets. It would be problematic for the designers, technicians, and shops.
If moving the curtain during the show were not problem enough, moving it in and out of the theatre between shows certainly was. “The track had an inset circular curtain track with a floor to ceiling curtain that would change the nature of our big vast empty space,” Acebo says. “The story asks us only for the same room, but again, Chris Moore’s instinct was to be more emotionally expressive and reshape the room.”
The track, 32' in diameter, had to be taken out for scenery that came in for other productions. “Not only did we have to create a really large truss, but we had to break it down and rep it and store it,” says Acebo. This included changing everything from floor to tracking to things that fly in, changes that had to happen in the two-and-a-half hours between Cat and Hamlet, as well as between Pride and Prejudice and She Loves Me, the other shows occupying OSF’s Angus Bowmer Theatre at the same time.
The Bowmer, a 600-seat thrust, was built in 1969. “We’ve outgrown the size of the theatre and the technology,” says Acebo. “There isn’t a fly loft to fly the truss out for other shows. It was challenging for us because we had to lift it at eight different points. Some points were in our house itself. The whole thing weighed about 2,000lbs.”
Akerlind, who designed lights for Hamlet as well, says one challenge was to use the rep plot and a variety of specials to create the design. The rep plot included about 200 units; an LD could make cuts but not change the focus. “The changeover was unbelievably fast,” says Akerlind. “Hamlet is close to three-and-a-half hours, which made it even tighter. The electricians on each production had a lot of cuts to make. Hamlet had a lot of architecture, a lot of lamps.” Nothing was shared physically between the two shows. Even the stage shape differed. “Hamlet is very masculine, angular and muscular, and Cat is feminine and curvy,” adds Akerlind. “Hamlet is closed off, and Cat is open.”
“We built a truss-like box out of 1" square tubing,” says construction supervisor Bruce Jennings, “with the curtain track inside operated by computer-controlled motors. That way, we knew exactly where we were at any point and how fast the curtain would open or ramp up to speed. It was motorized on both ends, so we could bunch the curtains together or open them up to make a solid wall of curtain.
“The curved box truss had two 1" squares of steel tubing, 9" apart on top and bottom,” continues Jennings. “The trussing was 8" tall, connecting the dots with ¼" steel round bar that left the bottom open to run the curtain in-between.” Fortunately, the team was able to complete the truss early and build in cues before rehearsals began.
Rose Brand Poly Silk on the outer ring and Poly Cyc on the inner ring allowed light to create shadows from behind when needed, as when the character Brick takes a shower. It also kept the weight down a little. To get the curtain rigging in and out of the space in a house with limited fly space, the crew members broke it into pieces to fly it in two parts and then stored it on a back wall. “We also constructed a special holding mechanism for it,” says Acebo. “Once it came down and got folded up, it took up very little space.” When the truss came in and was attached, the show curtain opened via the in-house automation system to become a backdrop for the 18'-long white curtain that could be opened at various places. “One of the beautiful things about it was the [Parker BET 232 and 233 DC] motors that drove the curtain live within the track itself and were suspended by cable. Two power sources went to it. Everything else was within the open frame truss, and it could open in various configurations,” says Acebo.
Properties manager Jim Clark says it’s often easier to build period furniture than to find it. For Cat, he did buy a bed and bamboo style chairs, but Diane Greene constructed end tables, and properties artisan Jennifer Stoke built a curved television cabinet. Although the shop had tackled curved cabinets before, “this time, within the large curved cabinet, we built the shell of a TV to make it look period,” says Clark, who put a black-and-white TV inside with a video feed of a period news clip. “We took the plastic shell off the TV and built a wood shell,” he says. “The furniture moved to different places in each act. In the Act Two position, it was near a plug in the floor, and we got a video feed from there. The cabinet also had speakers and a wireless mic radio-controlled from the booth.”
Akerlind colored the space, using the OSF’s color-changing system of Wybron Nexera LX Tungsten Profiles controlled via an ETC Obsession II. “I was allowed to plot extra lights,” he says. Sidelights helped create an airy feel. Because some sidelight was obliterated by the overhead track, Akerlind used many of the extra units to put additional sidelighting in place. “We weren’t going for a detailed, realistic atmosphere,” he says, so over-duplicating the reps sidelight worked. To heighten white marble and red carpet around the side, he adds, “a poetic extension of the ‘hot’ in the title, I started off with spicy yellow in the top light system. That had one foot in each world—expressive and realistic.”
Michael Maag, lighting department manager at OSF, designs the rep plot for each space. “The rep plot with 166 fixtures serves as the base plot, and each of the five lighting designers can place 36 ETC Source Four ERS units, six Source Four PARs, and eight 6" Fresnels to use as specials specific to their shows,” says Maag, adding that Cat also used six Philips Vari-Lite VL1000 TSD units, five VL2500s, two Martin Professional Atomic 3000 Strobes, and eight Apollo Smart Color scrollers.
Akerlind also used two 2.5KW PANI projectors to backlight the upstage curtain, while all front projections on the curtains were fed by an SAMSC Design Catalyst media server to a Digital Projection International (DPI) Lightning 40HD-T projector. Maag created video content using Adobe Photoshop and Apple Final Cut Pro.
Lighting also had work in real time, beginning just before sunset and ending after a nighttime fireworks display. “So I found a mixed cooler color that suited the room, illuminated by an overhead fixture, but bold and spicy enough.” Transforming in and out of acts, Akerlind shifted the weight of light slightly, in a way that could be felt but not consciously perceived. “The amazing characters and their issues and tensions existed in higher relief because they weren’t competing with lots of dressing, trim, and slatted shutters,” says Akerlind.Davi Napoleon is a theatre columnist for The Faster Times. An expert on not-for-profit theatre in America, she is author of Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre. About clashing ideals and personalities, artistic triumphs, and financial setbacks, Chelsea is a story set in the 1970s that foreshadows the struggles of the American theatre today.