A massive five-ton wheel set the stage for the world premiere of Joel Agee’s new translation of the Aeschylus classic, Prometheus Bound. Directed by Travis Preston, the production was produced by CalArts Center for New Performance in association with Trans Arts, and seen in the outdoor amphitheatre at The Getty Villa in Malibu, CA, September 5 to 28.
Prometheus, punished by Zeus to remain chained to a mountaintop for stealing fire from Mount Olympus, is, in this case, chained to the kinetic wheel that measures 23.5' in diameter and sits on a base with a footprint of 20'x14'. “The wheel was built at LA ProPoint’s scenic shop in sections, brought into our modular theatre on the CalArts campus, which can handle a 35' height, and assembled there, as the LA ProPoint shop doesn’t have the height,” explains production manager Gary Kechely.
Last July, the wheel was moved to The Getty Villa in sections and assembled on site, using a 90-ton crane that had to reach 110' to swing all the components over the villa. “First and foremost, we looked at what the space had to offer and the logistics of making it work within the construct of The Getty,” says Kechely. “One of the unusual challenges was a black marble stage floor. You can’t fasten anything into it, and it has a level of fragility especially in light of something as big and heavy as the wheel.”
Since Prometheus was intrinsically bound to this steel creation, if it moved, he went with it. “We tried to make it as comfortable as possible for the actor,” adds Kechely. “We needed something for him to perch on and tried different materials, so he had freedom to move his arms and legs. A seat was fabricated to support his weight when he needed it to be supported and straps he held on to for a greater range of movement.”
Efren Delgadillo, the wheel’s designer, notes, “Travis asked for the biggest wheel possible, thinking of Gothic clocks, images of Atlas, and Leonardo Da Vinci drawings. He thought 30' was a good height, but 23' is perfect. We wanted to make sure it didn’t look like a hamster wheel.”
This steel wheel is only 3' wide, so, as Delgadillo explains, “It needed an out-rigger, or it would have had to be almost 8' wide to stand on its own. The wheel was skinned with sheet metal where the performers climb on it, while Prometheus was on a smaller aluminum wheel, cranked manually and geared to move clockwise or counterclockwise so he was always standing upright. It was an amazing moment when he started moving on the wheel.”
Lighting designer Anne Militello used front-position lighting towers at The Getty Villa that hold up to a maximum of 10 fixtures each, as well as a backlight position attached to the balcony of a wing of the villa that is the backdrop for the large stage. “Numbers of lights are also limited on this bar, but it a very good position,” says Militello. “We added side truss positions that were more front-sides since the ‘wings’ of the stage are part of the public hardscape of the museum and need to be clear for daytime museum hours. The Getty is very conscious of safety and cosmetic issues, and therefore the space is beautiful, well kept, and easy for visitors to walk around in.”
The lighting rig comprised eight Philips Selecon 5-13° zoom profiles, approximately 75 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals of various sizes, 35 ETC Source Four PARs, and one Brite Box Flame MT3000 medium-throw followspot.
“The wheel was lit mostly from the side and back, with a followspot lighting Prometheus since he rotated around the wheel. Because the wheel was constructed of a framework of thin concentric rings, I had to be very careful with any front-lighting, since the villa building in the background got most of the light. So I used front light at very low levels, sometimes for ghostly shadows in the distance against The Getty façade,” Militello explains.
Backlight creates very strong patterns on the acting floor by shining through the wheel as a gigantic gobo. “Most of the action was on the wheel, but actors also worked on the large thrust ground in front. Since there was no sidelight in this area, I had to rely on the front towers and the shadowy backlight for the downstage areas,” notes Militello. “It was not a brightly lit piece, as the play is mysterious and mystical. I used a combination of cold and warm white light for contrast, with the occasional blue to denote evening and the cycle of time, plus green to play into the mystical and surreal. It was my interpretation of time, the rotation of the earth, and the heaviness of Prometheus’ plight.”