Sunday, June 3, 2012

Amahl and the Night Visitors--Scene Design

The Star
The opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti was produced Fall Semester, 2003 in the Snow Drama Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Amahl is a crippled boy with a very active imagination.  He has "cried wolf" too many times so his mother does not believe him when he says there is a wondrous star in the heavens.  She prays that her son will not have to become a beggar and goes to bed.  There is a knock on the door and Amahl answers it and finds the three wise men on their way to visit the Christ Child.

Amahl and his mother fetch the neighbors who dance for the kings and entertain them.  The kings show Amahl and his mother the things they are going to take as gifts for the Holy Child.  After the kings and Amahl have retired for the night, his mother attempts to steal some of the gold in an act of desperation.  She doesn't want Amahl to have to beg.  The page to the kings catches her in the act and is about to punish her when Amahl attacks him.  The kings are horrified that their gift of peace could lead to violence and they tell her to keep the gold.

They tell her who the gold is for and she is ashamed.  She tells the kings to take the gold to the Christ Child.  Amahl has nothing to give, so he offers his crutch to the kings to give to Him.  Amahl is miraculously healed and begs his mother to allow him to accompany the kings to Bethlehem to see the Holy Baby.  She does and he does.

Roger Merrill, the director told me he wanted to see the layers of the city and the surrounding hills in the set design for this piece.  He also suggested a cut away unit set.  Somewhere in the meeting he said he wanted a very big star.

I wanted to have a very biblical looking star.  Not a five point star or a star of David, but the iconic star with an elongated tail seen in many of the great masters' paintings of Bethlehem.  I knew I wanted it made of clear acrylic so it could be lit and glow.  I drew an image of what I wanted and took it to my friend, David Oliphant in the Physics department to help me get the math right.  David looked at what I had and broke it down into polygons, then he did the math.  The whole thing was based on a four inch cube with the head, tail and four arms projecting off the six planes of the cube.

David did the math and Ray Versluys did the cutting and the fabrication of the acrylic star.  It was a beautiful piece and really communicated to the audience exactly where and when the show was taking place.

The needs for this set were a door for the Wise Men to enter from, a window for Amahl to see who is at the door, two beds and some stools.  We added a second window piece that was a flown piece as Amahl is seated outside playing his flute at the top of the show and his mother has to call him in the house.

I asked Jessika Watson to assist me in this design.  She was a very bright student who has since gone on to get a degree in scenic design.  She did a great job on the show and did most of the model building.  Unfortunately, the model ceased to exist several years ago and I have no photographic evidence of it.  It was beautiful model, however.

I designed the house and the window unit to look like mud bricks and was intending to paint them and maybe have some foam pieces, but Ray Versluys, our technical director had been working in film construction for a very long time and suggested we use polyurethane spray foam insulation for a surface treatment.  He knew a local foam company and arranged for the pieces to be foamed.  It was relatively inexpensive and very effective.

The first piece we did was the flown windo piece.  There was enough of the wall to indicate a window and an exterior surface with the cutaway edge very similar to the cutaway edge of the rest of the set.  We carved the foam in places to indicate broken plaster and also the stones around the door and windows.  When it was painted we took raw umber paint and applied it heavily around stones and other parts of the set and then sprayed it with a spritzer bottle set on stream to create the aging and run marks.

The Wall

Another shot of The Wall

The Snow Drama Theatre has a proscenium arch that is 41'-4" wide by 20'-0" tall.  It is a very wide proscenium.  In designing this show, I had to balance several things.  The size of the proscenium, the idea that this was a poor person's home and the fact that a chorus of about fifty people were going to be on stage dancing.  We acheived that balance in a number of ways.  First we shrunk the proscenium by about 4 feet on each side, then we employed the cutaway aesthetic to the set which at the same time establishes boundaries and then allows you to break them.  Finally we showed the other buildings and homes around Amahl's home and we also showed the sand dunes in the back where the kings enter and exit from.

Set showing false proscenium, cutaway set, neighborhood buildings and dune field

Roger requested a ceiling piece at some point in the process and I designed a timber frame over Amahl's bed that we could hang things from.  The frame was built from blue styrofoam and painted to look like heavy timbers.  He also suggested we have a place in the room where Amahl's mother could prepare a meal so I designed a small stone oven in one of the walls.

Detail showing timbers and stone oven
I designed the floor to be a dirt floor and had intended it to be painted.  I didn't communicate that to the technical director very well and one day I came onstage and found the workers dumping topsoil everywhere and spreading it out.  It really did look good, but dust kicked up wherever anyone walked.  We were supposed to have the villagers dance, so that was going to be alot of dust every night.  It was especially bad because we had a full pit orchestra. 

We did a couple of things to keep the dust down which ultimately worked. First we placed straw all over the floor.  That helped.  I recommended that the scenic artists mix a clear acrylic sealer in water and spray it through a garden sprayer every day for a week or so.  Between the straw and the sealer, we were able to keep the dust down pretty well and still acheive the look of the real dirt floor.  By the time we introduced the orchestra to rehearsals, the dirt had been compressed to the point that it resembled hard pan.

Dirt floor, dancers, no dust

I made the curtains in the window out of monks cloth, which is one of the oldest weaves for textiles still in existence.  I cut holes in the fabric, cut the bottom irregularly and then snapped the fabric like a whip several times.  Monks cloth is such a loose weave that it will unravel rapidly when stressed in that way.  When I had acheived the look I wanted I immersed the monks cloth in a thin wash of raw umber paint and then air dried it, then I hung it in the window.


Over the years the theatre department has done many biblical type shows, and we have accumulated quite a collection of biblical looking pieces for props and set dressing.  I used burlap bags, biblical looking pots and baskets, rags, three legged stools and an old style straw broom to dress this set.  We also built a rope bed for Amahl's mother and created some straw tick mattresses for Amahl and for his mother.

The set with dressing for Amahl and the Night Visitors
I enjoyed designing this opera.  I felt the set worked well, I also thought the performances were well done, dancing was well choreographed and overall a well directed piece.  It delighted the audiences and was quite successful.  It was well timed to correspond with the Christmas season.  I'm gratified to have had the opportunity to work on this production.

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

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