When it rains, it pours. Enjoying a deluge this fall is scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, who has two shows running on Broadway: Chaplin, a musical portrait with a black-and-white design reminiscent of its subject’s films, and Grace, a drama of conflicting emotions set on a turntable that brings the characters closer together and pulls them apart.
Off Broadway, for the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, he’s designed the US premiere of British playwright Nick Payne’s If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, which is noteworthy as the New York stage debut of co-star Jake Gyllenhaal and for an unexpected sequence that literally immerses the audience in the play’s themes.
The show, which premiered in London in 2009, is about an overweight and unhappy teenage girl (Annie Funke), who, unable to communicate her pain to her mother (Michelle Gomez), a self-absorbed teacher, or her father (Brian F. O’Byrne), an ardent environmentalist lost in the jeremiad he’s writing, finds a sympathetic ear in her slacker uncle (Gyllenhaal). Michael Longhurst directs. “He didn’t direct that original production, and I had never seen pictures of it, but it was much smaller and simpler,” Boritt says. “There’s much textural reference to water, and when Mike and I first started talking, he said, ‘Look, there’s a lot about rising sea levels throughout the history of the world, so I think we should do something with that.’ There was also this idea of having disposable things on the stage that are constantly being thrown away.”
Conversing via Skype this past May, the two reviewed several concepts, including an outsized iceberg made of water bottles to tie in with the play’s Titanic references, before “boiling the scenery down to the absolute minimum of objects we needed to tell the story and piling them all up onstage,” the designer says. “Even in the most economical telling of the story, there’s this stuff, which even an intelligent, ecology-minded family can’t get rid of. There’s a lot of crap in their lives, physical and metaphorical.”
The actors toss a good chunk of the scenery into the long, water-filled tank that fronts the stage. A kitchen counter, a refrigerator, two tables, and, more exotically, a saber-tooth tiger skull in a glass case encountered at a museum are among the objects that go in. “The show is very tough on our prop master, Buist Bickley,” Boritt says. “Every single one has to be waterproofed and flameproof, and they all have to survive being violently chucked into a water trough night after night.”
This isn’t Boritt’s first time in the deep end; he once devised a watery transformation for the title character in a Dallas production of The Who’s Tommy. For If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, however, the near-death of one character in a bathtub suicide attempt threatens to spill out into the audience, as the tub overflows, and in less than a minute, 4,000 gallons of water engulf the entire stage, collecting in the trough. The actors play the rest of the show in water up to their ankles.
“Coming up with the idea was the easy part; it took forever to get it to work,” Boritt says. “We sat down with Gene O’Donovan of Aurora Productions to talk about its feasibility. Water Sculptures, a company from London that had done Mary Stuart and some other water plays, said it was possible and did some of it. We came up with five huge tanks backstage, with little pathways for the actors to get through. The water recirculates through all those tanks and is filtered and kept heated, so that when it hits the stage, it’s bathwater temperature and not uncomfortable for the actors. In a show that’s about environmental consciousness, we were conscious of not wasting 4,000 gallons of water every day.”
The tricky part, Boritt notes, is wrangling the water. “We’re flooding a carpeted set that attaches to a Plexiglas® tank,” he says. “Under the carpet is a pool liner, and getting that to stay attached to the tank as the full force of the water hit it was extremely difficult. We had leak problems for quite some time. The poor guys at Aurora were fighting it for weeks, and I give credit to the Roundabout. For the first ten days, there were mats over the front row as the water was leaking out under the audience, and they never asked me to cut it. It was a gruesome tech process, and my fantastic associate, Alexis Distler, really bore the brunt of it and kept things on track.”
Costume designer Susan Hilferty and lighting designer Natasha Katz were unfazed by the challenge. “The characters aren’t wearing anything fancy and don’t get all that wet,” adds Boritt. “The water does change how the light plays off the stage, as we go from this carpeted dark blue box to something that’s completely reflective and moving. In a practical sense, there are a number of lights that are either in or near the water, and all of them had to be made water-safe.”
What has the designer learned about working with water? “Not to do it lightly,” Boritt laughs. “There were two big difficulties. One was trying to join two big tanks together—one Plexiglas and one rubber—and getting the right kind of sealant that would get them to adhere completely. Water can get through a tiny pinhole. And the other one is that water is heavy. Seven tons of force hit that Plexiglas wall when it first fills up, and although the tank is sealed, when that force hits it, all those seams shift just the tiniest bit, enough to keep opening tiny holes. In the middle of tech, during previews, we had to go in and reinforce the front tank, as it did lurch about a half-inch the first time we filled it up. The most important thing I learned was to have a few extra days to get everything in, and dry it and test it a few times before going into tech.”
The flood season continues at the Laura Pels, with the invaluable assistance of its crew. Says Boritt, “They come out with these water extractors, drain the whole thing, dry it all out, put blowers on it, and use machines to suck the water out of the carpet. They’re really wonderful.” If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet is scheduled to run through December 23.