Spring break is almost over; mid-terms for the Spring semester at Simpson College have passed; The past two months are a blur. In addition to teaching 2 courses this semester, pinch-hitting as department chair while my colleague is on sabbatical, chairing a major committee requiring weekly two-hour meetings with significant “homework” between meetings and running Stage Crew Showdown during the week-long KCACTF festival in Lincoln Nebraska, I opened 3 shows in 2 months.
The First Production
It began with the opening of Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris for Stage West here in Des Moines at the Des Moines Civic Center’s Stoner theatre. It opened January 10. The play is a sort of prequel/sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The first act explains how the house in Clybourne Park came to be affordable to Leana and follows Karl Linder’s attempt to prevent homeowners Russ and Bev from selling to Leana and her family. The setting for the first act is the living room of an older (but still respectable) row home in a middle-class Chicago suburb as Russ and Bev finish packing up their belongings. The action occurs shortly after Linder’s visit to Leana’s apartment in A Raisin in the Sun, making the time circa 1959. The second act occurs in the present, over 50 years later in the run-down shell of that same row house. The neighborhood has undergone a complete change of character and has fallen on hard times. A yuppie couple has bought the place and has plans to raze it and put up an urban version of a McMansion in its place. Neighbors and a lawyer from the community meet with the homeowners to try to dissuade them from their plans as they struggle with the inevitable gentrification of the neighborhood.
The shallow, wide thrust and unusually low-ceilinged upstage area of the Stoner theatre made it a challenge to satisfy the script’s requirements. The setting used the voms for the main entrance to the house and to the kitchen and featured a stairway appearing to lead to the 2nd floor, a china cabinet, a fireplace and a basement door arranged on the back wall. The architecture featured turn-of-the-century Arts & Crafts details. Furnishings were mis-matched items acquired by Russ and Bev throughout their lives in this home. We chose to take the decline of the home in the 2nd act to the extreme, imagining it as the shell of a home after all the architectural mouldings and fixtures had ben salvaged and it had become derelict, perhaps as a hangout for drug addicts or street gangs. The solution for the transformation from Act I to Act II was to create the Act II setting as the foundation of the scenery. We built a cosmetic “skin” of flats representing the Act I Arts & Crafts setting that attached over the Act II scenery to represent the interior of the 1959 room. At intermission, those flats were removed to reveal the crumbling
plaster-over lath and the grafitti-stained walls of the 2014 ruin. The final scene of the play flashes back to the events that occurred a year or so before the action of Act I when Russ and Bev’s son, returned broken from the Korean war last spoke with Bev, hours before taking his own life.
The Second Production
Night of the Soul by David Farr opened in Blank Performing Arts Center’s Barnum Theatre on February 11, seventeen days after returning from KCACTF . I designed sets and props and technical directed, assisted by two students (assistant prop designer Caitlin Featherston-Preister and assistant set designer Josh Zieman) and by the Theatre Simpson Scene Shop Supervisor/Assistant T.D Rick Goetz. The play features the stranded spirit of Joanne, a victim of the Bubonic Plague circa 1350 who died unrepentant and has been fated to remain tethered to her burial-place until she has the opportunity to redeem a living person. This state of affairs continued some 660 years until a hotel was built on the site. There she impersonates a chambermaid while observing the patrons unseen and awaiting her chance for release. Enter Francis who is the first person to be able to see her in all this time and is in need of redemption having permitted his father to die without making amends for a long-time-ago transgression . Most of the action takes place in present in the hotel room, the hotel elevator, the hotel lobby, and the unfinished basement of the hotel where human remains of the 12th century plague pit halted further basement construction, in the living room of Francis’ mom’s flat and in flashbacks to a 10 year-ago confrontation between Francis and his father which created an irreconcilable rift between them, and in 1350 as the Bubonic Plague ravaged Joanna’s village and friends.
The Barnum Stage is a flexible space with a low 14′ ceiling and grid. We configured the stage as a shallow-thrust with a central vom and seating for 120 patrons in a shallow V-shape on either side, forming a wide stage with multiple small simultaneous settings (set under preshow seen above)
The central and largest playing area was the hotel room with a full-sized bed, side-tables with lamps & alarm clock, a low minibar complete with glasses and ice bucket, a desk with room phone and hotel writing-paper, a door to the bathroom and a room door.
Stage Left was a 10’x 10′ raked platform representing the Hotel Lobby with a registration desk complete with monitor, keyboard and phone. Between the two is an area representing the inside of the elevator linking the 3rd floor room, the lobby and the basement. Stage right on another
10’x10′ raked platform is the flat where Francis grew up It features two mis-matched stuffed chairs, a beat-up end table and an old shaded standing lamp. Downstage of the hotel room and 20″ lower is an area that represents the basement of the hotel. The dirt floor is littered in the corners with the larger bones of the half-disentered plague victims. This area (used at times in conjunction with portions of the other spaces) represents the 1350s village, a train station, and a street at other times during the play. Beneath the platforms, representing the plague pit is a jumble of long bones and skulls. The skulls came from a local theatrical costume shop (purchased last year for a prop that never was for Winter’s Tale) and from Amazon.com. Josh Zieman created the long-bones from newspaper, tape, and newspaper paper mache.
The Third Production
The third production Street Scene by Kurt Weil opened on February 28. The play originally premiered in 1947. It has regularly been produced by opera companies and I designed it for the Simpson Music Department which produces an annual Spring opera. This one was somewhat a departure for that company which regularly stick to the more mainstream Operas such as Die Fledermaus, Merry Widow, The Magic Flute, Falstaff, The Marriage of Figaro, and the like. Music Director Bernard MacDonald brought in Tyro talent director Mo Zhou a young but already established opera director to direct.
My longtime stage design hero Ming Cho Lee often reminds us that it is a disservice to think that a play presents a problem. Thinking like that does a disservice to the play. It is our reactions to and preconception of the Play that create the problems that it is then up to us to solve. Therefore, we solve the problems that our ideas and concepts about the play create. I tried to bear this in mind in approaching this production. If Street Scene has a challenge, it is in the fact that the play is usually produced on a set that represents a totally realistic front of a brick New York City “brownstone”. It seems to require at least two stories, 10 or more windows, a large stoop leading to a main entrance and another basement door. To recreate such a realistic street front on Pote stage would not be all that difficult, except for the 1 1/2 week build between the closing of Night of the Soul and tech of Street Scene, a budget that makes 2-story highly detailed sets a real stretch, a labor force of undergraduate theatre majors most of whom would rather act than build and paint scenery, and a scene shop that is a sixth the size of the proscenium stage. I was also not excited to design another realistic brownstone just like all of the other realistic productions of the play that I have come across.
While researching New York “brownstone” houses I found photos of several building fronts under reconstruction. The intriguing feature of the buildings was the scaffolding obscuring all or part of their faces. That got me thinking about turning the architecture inside out, making a multi-story structure of scaffold and hanging detailed window frames, sills & sashes and doors on the scaffold. I presented the idea to Mo and she immediately connected my idea with another productions that she was familiar with (perhaps the Dresden Semperoper production or maybe on from the Young Vic)
I presented my research and a rough sketch to Mo Zhou at a meeting on October 12. She seemed to like them, especially the fact that instead of sitting the street front parallel to the proscenium, we could angle it between 5 and 10 degrees. I posted the Vectorworks/ Renderworks rendering and an accompanying floor plan to the Dropbox that Mo established for that purpose and received positive response again from both Mo and Bernard. The drawings were done by mid-November, but construction didn’t start until February 16 (The day that “tech week” of Night of the Soul began). Three 9:00-5:00 Saturday work calls with the Music Students and ten 12:00-5:00 afternoon work sessions with work-study and service learning students later, we began tech. I was pleased with the result. It was interesting, functional, doable with our labor force and affordable.
I realize that someone who relies on freelance design work for a living, or works full-time as a designer would not find this pace unusual. Many educational institutions involved in professional training might open 3 productions withing a 2-month span. However, considering the other institutional demands upon my time, this schedule was grueling. Simpson’s ATD/Shop Supervisor Rick Goetz and I calculated that we had one day off ( a day on defined as no less than 4 hours and often as many as 20 hours on-the-job) between Saturday January 17 (we left for KCACTF the next day) and March 8 (the first day of spring break). The day off: February 2 (Superbowl Sunday). That’s working 47 out of 48 days straight!
Oh, well, enough of my bellyaching. I just turned down a gig with Stage West for June. I tell my students that they need to have a darn good reason for turning down work, because busy and fed is better than idle and hungry. My son will be graduating from high school during the days leading up to tech for that show and I must be present for family coming from out-of-state for the series of events leading up to and following that occasion. Perhaps that is reason enough for turning it down. Still, that leaves me without an actual design assignment in the forseeable future and I may be suffering from withdrawal.
Better get on with nailing down Theatre Simpson’s next season! As acting chair, it is my responsibility to see that this is done in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, thanks for listening. Have fun! But be safe!