PROBLEM

“When I design, I respond to the existing space, and actor-audience relationship is a primary concern,” says scenic designer Sara Ossana. Faced with a space that measures 37'x30' with a grid sitting low at 11' under a 13' ceiling, Ossana created a dive bar/punk club for the 2010 production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Perishable Theatre in Providence, RI. Seating for 60 to 65 spectators—on couches in front, high top chairs at the back, and a bar in the corner—took half the space, but Ossana says the constraints supported the show. “The texture of the room became part of the scenery. You really felt you were in a grungy club, and it made the script sing. Guests needed to feel this dive bar had always been there, that this was a real rock show,” she says, adding that director Megan Sandberg-Zakian wanted a strong sense of place, tied to Providence. Ossana, who painted scenery by hand, created a mural of the city of Providence on the back wall. Sound designer Adam Howarth based his design on “sonic intimacy,” using a distributed system of low-hanging loudspeakers “that put Hedwig’s vocals in the audience’s lap. The speakers were so low you could just about touch them while standing,” he says.

Wig and makeup designer Michael Dates relied on a soft palette of pinks and golds to give Alexander Platt, playing Hedwig, a feminine look. “I did not want Hedwig to look like a drag queen, but a transsexual who passes in the day but wears heavier glam rock makeup for shows,” says Dates. Lighting designer Jen Rock put candles on the tables; spectators could see one another, as in a bar. She created effects that included a clip-light mounted to a wall poster that Hedwig could refocus on herself, an antique beer sign that lit and scrolled through various colors, a rope light under the bar, and two strings of colored holiday lights under a beer sign. “One challenge was Hedwig’s transcendence at the end of ‘Exquisite Corpse.’ Hedwig freaks out, and lights flash and then black out. After that, Hedwig sings ‘Wicked Little Town’ in a tight spotlight. We wanted to pull out of that song as if light was emanating out of Hedwig,” says Rock, who hung about 15 strands of twinkling white holiday lights that Hedwig could touch. But what if the grid were 24' off the floor? What if the room was 60'x100'? What if there were 150 spectators? When success struck, what would the team do about a show designed for the intimate Perishable space? As the show headed for the Trinity Rep at Chafee Performing Arts Center for a second run in 2011, there were concerns. Did the $2,500 scenic budget support the jump in scale? No. Would costumes and makeup be too subtle for spectators, once 6' to 15' from actors, and now 10' to 50' away? Yes. How about sound, lighting, scenery? The problems seemed insurmountable, everyone agreed.


SOLUTION

Then the team made a radical choice. They would not remount the Perishable production. The same artistic team and actors would do a new production, suited to this space. Now the scene would suggest a local high school, the night after a prom that had Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as its theme. “Hedwig rolled into town and had no venue to play in, so she was dumped on the slightly dismantled prom set. I felt that the adolescent undertones of the prom as coming of age, as well as the fragmented sculptural references to Greek and Roman Gods in the Venus theme, would play well into the repeating motifs of the play,” says Ossana. The prom stage became Hedwig’s, with stairs in front and a cordless mic, so she could circulate in the audience, too. Spectators sat at messed up tables, post-prom—a crumbled table cloth here, missing flowers there, glitter scattered on some. High-top seating in the back ensured good sightlines for those behind the tables. A vinyl arcade dance floor complemented pre-show ‘80s prom music, and spectators got up and slow-danced. The higher grid made it possible to hang props, including a large “Welcome, Class of 2011” marquee above the stage. Rain curtains, cheesy prom décor, a photo booth where faces are cut out so people can stick their heads in, and balloons—plenty of balloons—filled the stage. “In tech, balloons got in the way of the followspot,” says Ossana, “so popping balloons became part of the pre-show. The set isn’t precious.” “It was a true collaboration between Perishable and Trinity. The Trinity scene shop did an amazing job of putting the show together with limited resources,” says Ossana, who also relied on Trinity Rep’s properties master, Michael Getz. “Last year we were all crammed into this tiny sardine can of a space. The show almost happened on top of the audience, and I felt that, if I breathed wrong, the audience would hear it. The intimacy was amazing but also a bit unrelenting,” recalls actor Alexander Platt. “This year, there’s been more distance, which has allowed me to relax a little more and to let the size of the character fill the space.

Last year, we were blowing the walls off; this year we’re filling the space. I’m not going to say one is better than the other, but I think it has more impact when I go out into the audience and interact with them. Last year, the audience members expected me to be in their laps. This year, they’re surprised when I am, and on a large level, that feels more in tune with the show’s aesthetic.” Rock made sure lighting didn’t exclude spectators. “I wanted them to still feel they were part of the performance,” she says. Fire codes prevented her from using real candles now, so she substituted LED candles. Although she put Hedwig in a followspot, a straight up system of gobos across the audience kept them in the mix. “At the Perishable, Alex [Platt] looked out at a field of light above him at the moment of transcendence. At Trinity, he interacted with the lighting,” says Rock, explaining that the actor turned his back to the audience, and when he turned back toward them, everything came back to life, his movement cueing lights that reestablished the room as it was at the onset, with rock ‘n’ roll stage lighting and gobos across the house and some highlight for the rain curtains.

Although Howarth knew “it would be nearly impossible to recreate the spatial relationship between the audience and the sound system, he hoped “the conceptual integrity of the rest of the original design might still be saved.” In Perishable, the room was so small that the audience probably experienced direct sound from onstage amps. “In the new space, we were able to have better control over the mix of the band, but this distanced the band from the audience,” says Howarth, who tried to regain intimacy by placing loudspeaker arrays left and right of the stage just above audience head height. Since that made them visible, he changed course, flying them at grid height and losing intimacy again. The original spatial relations just wouldn’t work. Finally, a new sound design enveloped the audience. “It could be morphed from the feeling of a traditional rock concert with a left-center-right point source system into an experience that surrounded the audience, placing them in the focal point of sonic immersion,” says Howarth.” I could better source the vocals and band mix in this new surrounding field. A whole new Hedwig was born.”

Sound effect cues translated well to the new venue, however, sometimes even proving more effective in the new space. “More room meant better separation between sources, allowing for sounds that were flown from one source to another to move through space with greater impact,” says Howarth. “The same source material was used from the original production to build the cues. Reverb was used as a theme to signify a rejoining of Hedwig with Tommy as it was in the original production. The overall pace of the show remained the same.” The close quarters of Perishable required speakers with a wide dispersion while the plaster over concrete walls of the Pell Chafee Theatre required as much pattern control as possible. “We used loudspeaker systems and vocal microphones that were much more directional in the remount from the original, including a cardioid sub-array and line array for the center speaker array,” says Howarth. Dates, who became co-costume designer with Ossana, took ideas from costumes designed for Perishable, iconic elements from John Cameron Mitchell’s original, and blended them with some of his own. Adding studs, spikes, and glitter, Dates hoped to make Hedwig edgier. “I combined some elements of the Southwest with some elements of London seventies punk,” he says. “As Hedwig goes into a flashback sequence prior to ‘Wicked Little Town,’ I wanted to see a softer Hedwig that would match the beauty of the song. Since there was not time for a real change, I had the character Yitzhak dress her onstage in a lounge-type gold lame shawl dress we had built. The overall effect was a gold/blonde monochromatic, very feminine Hedwig. It also helped the audience get that they were in a flashback sequence. Our original costume designer [Jennifer Lyons] did a great job with the mechanics needed to execute our reveals and breakaways, so those were kept.”

To pump up the look for the larger venue, “the wig got bigger and longer, the makeup heavier, and the costumes had to really dazzle,” says Dates. “The main wig was actually a full wig with hair pieces and extensions sewn in for length and fullness. It took a beating during the run, but a couple coats of Krylon Crystal Clear kept it in shape, as well as a lot of hair spray.” He used synthetic wigs from Wig America in San Francisco, adding a soft gold glitter each night. “When Alex rocked out, glitter fell out into the air.” Dates wanted these costumes to look homemade or found. “Hedwig is on a limited budget! We used zippers, sequin trims, confetti dot fabrics, frayed denim, furniture fringe trims, and plaid fabric,” he says. “It was a hodgepodge that somehow all worked. I did some studding with old school brass spikes from Search and Destroy on St. Marks Place [in New York] that left me with almost bloody fingers! Basically, if it glittered under Jen Rock’s lights, I grabbed it and got it in there!” Dates wanted a less stylized Hedwig than makeup designer Mike Potter had created for Cameron Mitchell. “Particularly the eyebrows and blush were softened,” he says. “I think that stuff was great on Cameron Mitchell because he is petite and pretty to begin with, but for Alex, I also had the additional task of feminizing his features, as well as making him look like a hot rock ‘n’ roller without getting into clown territory. Alex brought so much to this character, and his acting chops are so refined, that my tasks were really just the icing on the cake.”

Perishable Theatre Gear

Lighting
1 ETC Express Console
13 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 50˚
9 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 36°
2 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 26˚
14 ETC Source Four PAR WFL
12 6" Fresnel
4 PAR64
7 PAR56
3 Altman Lighting 6 x 3.5
3 L&E Mini-Strip
1 Clip Light
1 Antique Beer Sign
1 Rope light
2 Strands Colored Holiday Lights
Multiple Strings White Holiday Lights
21 1.5kW Dimmer
9 2.4kW Dimmer
2 Leprecon Dimmer Pack
Votive Candle
7 A/B switch

Audio
1 Mackie 1604-VLZ3 Console
3 EAW JFX290 Loudspeaker
2 EAW JF60z Loudspeaker
1 EAW SBX220 Loudspeaker
4 EAW SMS5 Loudspeaker
2 JBL EON10 Loudspeaker
3 Lab.gruppen FP3400 Amplifier
2 Yamaha H5000 Amplifier
2 EAW UX8800 Processor
2 DBX DriveRack 260
1 TC Electronic M-one
Stage Research SFX
Shure SM, Sennheiser MD, Countryman Type 85 DI Microphones


Trinity Rep at Pell Chafee Performing Arts Center Gear

Lighting
1 ETC Element Console
12 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 50°
26 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 36°
20 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 26°
3 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 19°
40 ETC Source Four PAR WFL
4 ETC Source Four PAR NSP
6 MR 16 WFL (Birdies)
1 High End Systems DataFlash AF1000 Strobe
5 Strings White Holiday Lights
LED Votive Candle
48 2.4kW Dimmer

Audio
1 Allen & Heath GL3300 Console
5 EAW NTL720 Loudspeaker
4 Apogee AE5 Loudspeaker
4 EAW JF80z Loudspeaker
1 EAW FR153 Loudspeaker
4 Meyer Sound USW-1 Loudspeaker
4 EAW VR21 Loudspeaker
2 Yamaha H5000 Amplifier
5 QSC Audio PLX2402 Amplifier
1 EAW UX8800 Processor
1 XTA Electronics DP266 Processor
4 DBX DriveRack 260
1 TC Electronic M-one Stage Research SFX
Shure SM and Beta SM, Sennheiser MD, Countryman Type 85 DI Microphones