Sunday, April 26, 2015

Burdens of Earth--Lighting Design

Carl Day as Joseph Smith Jr.

Burdens of Earth by Susan Howe was produced winter semester, 2009 in the Snow Black Box Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho

About This Play
This play is a dramatization of events in the five month incarceration of Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight, Caleb Baldwin and Alexander McCrae in the Liberty Jail in Liberty, Missouri.  Smith and his companions were arrested and held in the Liberty Jail from December 1st, 1838 to April 6th, 1839.

Mormons revere this time as a defining moment in the life of founder, Joseph Smith.  At his lowest point he wrote sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a volume of revelation and scripture in the Mormon faith.

About The Jail
The Liberty Jail was a double wall masonry building with a two foot thick limestone exterior and a one foot square timber interior wall.  Between the masonry wall and the timber wall there was a foot of space filled with loose rubble to discourage prisoners from tunneling out.

There was a room above for the guards during the day and a dungeon below.  At night, when the guards were not present, the door of the prison was barred and the prisoners had access to that room as well.  The inside dimensions of the jail were fourteen and a half feet by fourteen feet.  The room below had a six foot ceiling and the room above had a seven foot ceiling.

In the lower level, the only openings were two small iron bar covered windows six inches tall by two feet long.  I am unsure if there was glass in those windows.  Upstairs there were two larger, iron bar covered windows.  Between the upper level and the lower level was a heavy trap door.

The prisoners were held here during the coldest part of the winter of 1839 without blankets or bedding, only straw on the stone floor for comfort.  Food was scant and not very good.  Accounts at the time suggested it was sometimes poisoned or worse.

Because the charges they were being held on were thin at best, on April 6th during a prison transfer, the sheriff and the guards got drunk on whiskey and the one sober guard helped the prisoners saddle up and escape.

The jail was later used as an icehouse and later torn down.  The floor of the dungeon and part of the foundation remained and in 1963 it was purchased by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons.  The jail was partially rebuilt inside a visitors center.  An image of the reconstruction can be seen here.

Because of the revelations received there and how defining it was for Joseph Smith, the Liberty Jail is considered a sacred site for Mormons.  Susan Howe's play, Burdens of Earth explores the time just before their escape, at the lowest point for Joseph Smith when he is questioning himself.

There are three different kinds of scenes within this play.  The first type of scene takes place in Joseph Smith's present, in the jail.  The second type of scene takes place in his memory or in the memories of others.  The third type of scene takes place in his imagination, thinking what if I had done "this" differently.  For much of the play, Joseph is upstairs writing at the jailer's desk while his companions are huddled for warmth down below.  There is a single candle upstairs for light and a small lantern in the dungeon below.

During the play, the four companions of Joseph Smith portray themselves in the present and other people in the flashbacks or imaginary scenes.  Sometimes they portray sympathetic characters and sometimes they portray belligerent characters.

The climax of the play is when Joseph Smith receives the revelation that becomes the 121st, 122nd and 123rd sections of the Doctrine and Covenants.  The incarceration of Joseph Smith changed him and he became even more committed to the safety and security of the Saints than he had been previously.  He also became more serious and driven as a leader.

About the Set
Richard Clifford, the scene designer and Roger Merrill, the director took a research trip to Liberty, Missouri to see the jail and to take measurements and learn as much as they could about it.  They decided to create a full sized replica of the actual reconstruction of the jail in the Snow Black Box Theatre.  It was an impressive set.  The Snow Black Box Theatre is large enough that the full sized replica could fit inside.

There was a rampart down below that showed the foundation of the jail and it was used during the flashback scenes as a path or a work space.

The set for Burdens of Earth

The Lighting Design
For the scenes set in the jail in the present, the lighting was pretty straightforward.  The scene designer had a single candle in the room upstairs for a light source and a small lantern downstairs.  In addition, there were the four windows in which moonlight could stream for motivational light sources.

Since the play took place at night, I was able to use minimal directional lighting for these scenes and fill them with blue light.

Motivational lighting on Joseph and Hyrum Smith

Candlelight coming from the left, moonlight coming from the right

Motivational light in the dungeon, 

Lighting the upper and lower levels

Pink light on floor is a window gobo just before dawn

Moonlight from the window

I lit the memory scenes and the "what if" scenes in much the same way.  Some of those scenes were happy memories and some of them were not so happy.  This play takes place during the "1838 Mormon War" in Missouri.  Some of the depredations of that war are dramatized.

I chose soft, warm light to dramatize the happier memories, sometimes with leafy breakup to show an exterior scene.  Because of the cantilever of the upper floor over the lower room and because there were walls covering the sides of the jail, I had to install some low profile small fixtures into the beams of the floor to get light inside.

During many of the scenes inside Joseph's head, he was an observer.  It may have been something he witnessed, or it may have been something he heard about later.  Most of those scenes played out on the lower level with Joseph standing or sitting on the upper level.  I lit Joseph in the present and the other actors in the memory for those scenes.

Oliver Cowdrey comes to the Smith home

Joseph and Hyrum in the present, Oliver in the memory

Joseph lamenting the alienation of Oliver Cowdrey

Foliage breakup on memory scene on rampart

Dark memory scene on rampart

Memory scene played on dungeon floor

Violent memory, blood red light with leafy breakup

Remembering a member who left

Coming into the light

Interior scene in memory

Remembering a happier day

I enjoyed working on this show.  It had been an original script first played at BYU in Provo, Utah in 2001.  It seemed to be an honest exploration of Joseph Smith and his companions rather than being sentimental, which so many scripts like this tend to be.  We had a solid cast, great designs and a very good production.  It was a pleasure to work on.

At the climax of the play.  Always darkest before the dawn

Production Details
Directed by Roger Merrill
Scene Design by Richard Clifford
Lighting Design by Gary Benson
Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
Sound Design by Antonia Clifford
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director:  Patty Randall

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Children of Eden--Scene Design

Children of Eden show button

Children of Eden, music and lyrics by Steven Schwartz and book by John Caird was produced winter semester, 2010 in the Snow Drama Theatre on the campus of Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Children of Eden is a musical in two acts based on the Book of Genesis from the Holy Bible.

Act I:
Act I chronicles the lives of Adam and Eve, and their two sons Cain and Abel.  It begins with the creation of the world by the character, Father.  He then creates Adam and Eve and introduces them into the Garden of Eden.  As in Genesis, Eve is enticed by the serpent and eats the forbidden fruit.  Adam then eats and they are expelled from the garden and away from Father's presence.

They create a life for themselves outside the garden with hard work.  They sacrifice to Father.  They have two sons, Cain and Abel.  The boys grow up and Cain has the wanderlust.  He wants to find the way back to Eden.  In his travels he stumbles upon a ring of stones and realizes there might be other people.  He tells Adam and Eve who forbid him to go back.  They fight and Cain tries to kill Adam but Abel steps in the way and is killed.  Father puts a mark on Cain and his descendants.  Cain runs away.

At the end of her life, Eve talks about her family, Cain's departure from the family, her son Seth has grown to manhood and has children of his own.  The act ends with Eve's death and her ascension into Father's presence.

Act II:
Act II is the story of Noah and his family.  It starts out chronicling the generations of Cain and Seth all the way to Noah.  Noah has three sons, Ham, Shem and Japeth.  Ham and Shem have wives but Japeth does not.  He is in love with the servant girl, Yonah.  The problem is, she is a descendant of Cain and bears the mark.  Noah forbids him to marry her.  The act begins with them building an ark against the coming storm.  Father has told Noah that the storm will come and a flood will cover the earth.  

Noah and his family will be saved along with two of each specie of animal, male and female.  Just like the Bible.  Japeth decides to sneak Yonah on board the ark.  The storm comes and rages.  The storm continues and the family believes they are doomed.  They discover Yonah and want to throw her overboard so Father will calm the storm.

There is a fight between Noah and Japeth that resembles the fight between Adam and Cain from Act I and before anyone gets killed, Yonah intervenes and stops it.  She throws herself between them and stops the fight.  Mrs. Noah asks Noah if Father talks to him anymore and he admits that He does not.  She tells him he has to be the father now and Noah decides to marry Yonah to Japeth.  The storm ceases, the floods recede and the family all go their separate ways.

The concept for our production of Children of Eden evolved over time.  Like all good concepts, it started out much larger than it ended up being.  We originally were going to build large set pieces for every scene.  There was a garden set, a wasteland set, a Stonehenge set, a set outside the ark, a set inside the ark etc...  It was going to be huge.

The first evolution of the design went modular.  The idea was to create modular wagons that would be configured into different shapes and then the fronts covered with muslin painted to look like the rocks or the garden or the ark etc...  We were going to fix the muslin to the wagons with industrial strength Velcro.  Stonehenge was going to be created by fixing a pin into the turntable and when the turntable turned, it would drag the stones into place.  The stones being really tall wagons.

As we worked through some of this, it was clear the concept needed to shift one last time.  The painted muslin was too heavy and unwieldy, and took forever to attach to the wagons.  Building and dragging huge stones onto the turntable was going to prove way too expensive.

At some point, the idea of using fabric in an abstract way was brought up.  The costume designer, Richard Clifford was already going to use fabric to create the tree of knowledge abstractly.  We decided to expand that to different elements of storytelling in the scene design.  As far as the covering of the wagons went, we cut that entirely.  The modular wagons became more about shapes and configurations and began to look kind of like a jungle gym.  It was a good solution.

We also decided to use the four foot extension over the orchestra pit and our stock platform that goes in front of the pit.  There were times we wanted the action right in the laps of the audience.

Quick sketch of the modular wagons

Idea for a wagon configuration

And another

The proscenium of the Snow Drama Theatre is 41'-4" wide.  First of all, for the continental seating we have in that room, that measurement is several feet too wide.  That makes the Snow Drama Theatre very difficult to mask.  Through the years, where appropriate, I've opted to use portals for masking.  Basically, the portals are picture frames that fly where the normal masking would be.  At the end of the portal on each side, I add an eight foot wide black leg.  A leg is the floor to ceiling black drape that lives on the edge of the stage.  Essentially, what that does is allows me an extra six feet of masking at each position.  It also means I have to decorate the portals

I wanted the portals to be painted chronologically from back to front with images from the great ages of European man.  Starting with images from Lascaux France and the cave art there.  The next one would be Ancient Egypt, then Ancient Greece, followed by Ancient Rome and finally the Renaissance.  Hyrum Conrad, the director liked the idea, but he did not want to limit it to European man.  He felt that this is a play for all people on all continents and wanted the portals to reflect that.

I still designed them chronologically but followed what Hyrum had asked for.  The rear portal was painted with images found on rocks in Africa, primitive, prehistoric rock art.  Then second to the last portal was painted with images from Mesopotamia in the Middle East.  The third portal was painted with images from Mesoamerica.  The last portal was painted with images from Classical China.  Finally the proscenium was flanked with two large paintings that were copies of prophets from Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel.

Portals and show button

Stage right portals

Stage left portals


Act I:  
In the Beginning
The show began with a bare stage and dancers with light.  We added the star drop and actors carried large gator-board stars and planets during the creation song, "Let There Be."  The planets and stars were painted with luminescent paint and a blacklight was used in this number.

Let There Be.  Bare stage

Star drop added, Father on the pit surround

The Garden
I wanted all of the scene changes to be fluid.  So while the action was taking place at the end of the first scene, stagehands began moving the modular units in place for the garden scene.  All of the action and light was on the forestage as the wagons moved out.  We used just about every silk plant we had in storage to create the garden scene.  The first part of the scene change involved getting the wagons into place.  The second step was to place all of the plants.  I instructed the stagehands and prop wranglers to work as fast as they could, but if they sensed the lights coming on into the scene, they should slow down and act like God's gardeners, finish the job and leisurely exit the stage.  It helped that the chorus actors were in contemporary clothes for the first part.

We needed a waterfall in that first scene, so we used about ten yards of blue silk, manipulated by the chorus actors.

Later in the garden scene, Eve goes off and encounters the serpent and the Tree.  We made Adam and Eve's hut out of lodgepole pine timbers and draped fabric.  The tree was a giant costume piece made of draped fabric.  We arranged the modular set units in a different configuration so Eve would have to climb to the tree to get the fruit.  The tree costume was worn by several actors and the trunk and roots dangled down to the floor

The garden

The silk waterfall

Adam and Eve's hut in the garden

The serpent and the tree

The platform units were all modular and on wheels.  For every scene we just reconfigured the wagons to create a different stage picture.  There were two hexagonal platforms and several ramped platforms that made all of this possible.

Expulsion From the Garden
Once Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, we reconfigured the modular pieces into a dreary wasteland.  We created a similar but larger hut for them since their family was growing.  We also moved a ramp and the shorter hexagonal platform to stage right and placed an altar on it.  To make the wasteland, we purposely placed the ramped platforms in a position where they didn't go anywhere.  They went nowhere.  I designed this configuration to be purposely disaffected.  If someone were to try to move from one place to another on the platforms, it was supposed to be difficult.  Nothing matched up.

Adam and Eve's hut in the wasteland

The altar

The fragmented configuration of the modular set pieces

We stuck to the idea of fabric for Stonehenge.  As part of the choreographed movement, the stage cleared of all the modular scenery pieces and actors brought out six bundles of fabric.  Each of the bundles had a frame of 1/2" square steel tubing, about four feet by two feet I think.  There was rigging hardware attached to the steel frame and as part of the choreography we flew lines down to attach to the stones.  At a particular moment in the song, the stones grew from the stage.  The stones were made of muslin, painted to look like stone.  In order to make the stone look fragmented, I used hot glue to engineer creases and folds into them.  I think it looked cool.

Bundles of fabric

Stonehenge grows

The scene takes place

Eve's Death and Father's Platform
We struck Stonehenge and reconfigured the wagon units to the next scene.  Eve's death.  We used the ramps to get Eve up to the top of Father's platform.  I need to say this about Father's platform.  It was round while all the other platforms were polygonal.  It was the tallest platform symbolizing both heaven and the fact that it was just out of reach for the players on stage.  It was painted sky blue or heavenly blue while all the rest were painted brown.  In other words I wanted it to be different in every way from the regular wagon units.  There was also a circular staircase going up the interior of the platform.  It was the only wagon with it's own staircase.

When Eve passed away, she lay on the stage and the players placed a piece of white silk over her.  the two players kneeling at her head secured the fabric to the floor and Eve sat up under the fabric, stood up and walked out.  All of the players on stage, her family focused on the fabric while she sang her last goodbye and ascended the ramps up to the heaven, or Father's platform.  It was quite stunning, visually.

Father on his platform

Eve under the shroud

Eve's spirit leaving her body

Leaving more

Almost there


Act II:
Act II begins with Noah and his family, the ark well underway.  We added one piece that was the prow of the ship.  It was an abstract piece but was the right shape and when it was placed in the ark configuration it was very evident what it was.  The first configuration was of the ark in progress.  The second configuration was of the ark finished and ready for the animals to enter.  We placed a ramp up into the side of the boat for that to happen.

The ark in progress

Dinner with the Noah's

The ark finished

Inside the Ark, During the Flood
We removed the prow piece for the interior of the ark scenes.  We reconfigured the modular set pieces and created different chambers for the animals and Yonah to be in and hide in.  Of course the ramps and hexagons were used to make everything work.

I need to give a shout out to my friends at Brigham Young University in Provo Utah.  They had created animal heads in thermoplastic mesh that we were able to borrow for our production.  They were wonderful pieces and more importantly it saved us a great deal of money to be able to borrow them.

Inside the ark

Some of the great animal masks

End of the Play.  The Ark Comes to Rest
We moved the prow of the ark to stage left and reconfigured the modular platforms to create the top of Mount Ararat.  The family emerges from the ark and each of the boys and their families say goodbye to Noah and Mrs. Noah.  Each family goes their own way.  We had wooden handcarts full of possessions for this scene.  Noah and Mrs. Noah become empty nesters.  We brought Father's platform in for this scene as well, although this time we didn't have any other platforms connect to it.

The end of the play.  The ark comes to rest, everyone says goodbye.

I really enjoyed working on this play.  I loved the story, the concept, all of the designs, working with my colleagues, the music, the actors, the technicians.  It was a true pleasure to be involved with this work.  I think it turned out well.

Production Details
Directed by Hyrum Conrad
Scene Design by Gary Benson
Costume Design by Richard Clifford
Lighting Design by Richard Clifford
Sound Design by Antonia Clifford
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director Patty Randall