Late in 2007, drama teacher and director Mike Chappell asked me to design an April 2008 production of Les Misérables School Edition at the Huntsville High School (HHS) in Huntsville, Alabama, where I had been volunteering as a set designer and technical director for the past four years.
At the time I was asked to design Les Mis, I admit I was somewhat unfamiliar with the show, so I made the trip just before the holidays to see the show on Broadway. The trip was invaluable, and I was able to get a better idea of the look and feel of the show and how the whole “machine” needed to work. As many of you are probably aware, the show never stops, and the turntable is an integral part of the show. I did some preliminary drawings, but when I returned from the trip, I was able to finalize plans and actually start building platforms over the holiday school break.
I built a 12-foot turntable four years earlier for James and the Giant Peach but never attempted anything this large. The table we wanted had to be 30 feet. I talked to several local technical theatre folks and also contacted Tracy Nunnally, technical director at Northern Illinois University, whom I met several years earlier at his performer-based flying workshop in DeKalb, Illinois. The motor and drive I used for the James turntable was purchased by a local theatre group, Fantasy Playhouse Children’s Theatre, from Nunnally back in 2004. I knew it was available but wasn’t sure it could drive the larger turntable. After getting some feedback from Nunnally, I was able to put some ideas on paper that I was fairly confident would work.
Since the turntable would only be for one-time use, and I could build the pieces on the stage, I decided to build it in four sections. The basic concept was a ¾" plywood top with two-inches by four-inches bracing and then ¾" plywood tracks where the casters would roll. I estimated that I needed five rings of casters, so that the casters would be no more than four feet apart in any direction. That meant I needed 75 fixed casters for the turntable to ride on. The turntable was driven by a 2HP motor with 20:1 gear reduction. A chain, similar to a bike chain, was wrapped around the circumference of the turntable and connected to the motor. The motor was connected to a drive console, which could be used to adjust speed, direction, and stops for the turntable.
We started layout and platform construction in December, and the show was in April. Since the show was at HHS, students and parents volunteered as laborers to get the set built and painted. Work calls were normally scheduled for two nights a week, plus long Saturdays for the four-month period, although there were many more hours pumped into the project by many of us. On average, I had probably eight-to-12 crew at each work call with a variety of skill levels and talents.
The turntable was very important to the show, but it was only one of the many pieces that we had to construct. For example, since the turntable and casters ended up being 11¼" higher than the stage, I had to build up the entire stage into the wings, so that all of the scenery and action would be on the same level. The entire elevated section was 80-feet wide by 45-feet deep.
Additional Set Pieces
Other key set pieces were the customary barricade, the Paris set unit, and the bridge, each of which had its own challenges to design, build, and move. In the Broadway version of the show, the barricade and Paris sets comprised one unit that changed from one set to the other via hydraulics. Since I didn’t have welding or hydraulic capabilities, I had to keep that in mind when I did my design. I did, however, want to design pieces that could be moved by the student stage crew without them being seen.
For these set pieces, I started rounding up bits and pieces, and I asked the students and their parents to help me find old barrels, crates, wagon wheels, doors, balusters, railings, fence pieces, and old wooden furniture that could be used in the show. I decided to build these with internal areas for the stage crew to stand/sit and be able to push the pieces in from the wings when needed. They were stranded on the stage for entire scenes, but the effect of the units moving without any crew was terrific. Both units were based on two 6'x12' wagons with six 4" swivel casters each.
The Paris units were split-level step units that, when separated, could be connected by the bridge unit or, when put together, formed an interesting series of levels. The barricade units, before covered with the set dressing, appeared to be A-frames when viewed from the side. The inside of the A was where the crew lived. We piled the set dressing on and adjusted it until we got the desired effect of a barricade. The challenge for the bridge unit was that it had to be flown, and it had to line up with the Paris units when they were in place. It also had to lower to the floor to be used during the suicide scene. It was approximately 3'x12' and was rigged to fly from one batten.
The Light Stuff
Good lighting was very important to this show, especially to have the upstage area dark during transitions. Matt Schuster of Sound Source Productions was the lead on lighting and sound for the production, and after speaking with him, we decided to install a ground-support system on the apron of the stage across the front of the proscenium in order to get some downlighting across the front of the stage, so we could keep the upstage areas dark during scene changes.
The auditorium has two lighting coves in the house, but we felt the lighting angle was too sharp to use those. Originally, we were going to also install scaffolds downstage right and left of the stage for followspot positions but changed those to also use ground support with followspot chairs in them. This sharp angle lighting was integral to the success of the show.
The whole set design was a great experience but certainly a lot of work. I had plenty of great help from the high school students, their parents, and some folks from outside the school as well. The technical challenges and logistics necessary to get this show together are far above most other shows I’ve worked on. That said, Les Misérables School Edition turned out to be one of the best and most rewarding shows I’ve ever done. I have to thank Huntsville High School and Mike Chappell for giving me this opportunity.
See additional photos and the print version of this story in the March issue of Live Design.
Another twist on Les Mis can be seen in Brad Hathaway’s recent article: A New Look For Les Mis: No Turntable.