Monday, May 13, 2013

The Spitfire Grill--Scene Design

The Spitfire Grill

The Spitfire Grill, the musical by James Valcq and Fred Alley, was produced in the Kirkham Arena Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho, Fall Semester, 2006.

Percy Talbott is a young woman, just released from prison looking for a fresh start.  During her incarceration she clipped a picture of Gilead, Wisconsin from a travel magazine and has determined she will move there.  When she arrives, she is met with suspicion from all she meets.  The sheriff, Joe Sutter, convinces the owner of The Spitfire Grill, Hannah Ferguson to give her a job.

Things don't go so well at first but finally the women settle into a tenuous truce.  Hannah has a bad fall in which she breaks her leg and Percy is left to take care of the grill and it's patrons by herself.  Hannah asks Percy to leave a wrapped loaf of bread by an old stump behind the diner.

Percy is useless in the kitchen and is joined by Shelby, the wife of Caleb, Hannah's nephew.  Together they make sense of the business and in the process become close friends.  Caleb is unhappy with this situation.

The three women, Hannah, Percy and Shelby become very close and Hannah tells them she has been trying unsuccessfully to sell the grill.  Percy comes up with an idea to raffle off the grill with an essay contest.  One hundred dollars to enter, best essay wins the grill.  Caleb, a real estate agent who has had the grill listed for ten years is upset by this plan and feels he is losing control of everything around him.  He decides to investigate Percy.

Percy confides in Shelby why she was in prison.  Her stepfather raped her and when she became pregnant, he beat her repeatedly until she miscarried the baby.  Then he raped her again and when he fell asleep she slit his throat with a straight razor.  It seems that almost everyone has forgiven Percy but she cannot forgive herself.

The advertisement for the raffle is a huge success and letters from all over the country come pouring in.  Everyone in town gets caught up in the excitement.  Everyone except Caleb.  New life comes to Gilead.

All through this, Percy keeps leaving the loaf of bread at the stump and we meet Eli, Hannah's son who deserted from the army during the Viet Nam War.  He is homeless and a vagrant.  Living on the bread left by his mother.  He leads Percy to the mountain top where she finally learns to forgive herself. 

Percy helps to reunite Hannah and Eli and everyone is reconciled.  Hannah gives the grill to Percy and Shelby as there advertisement was the best essay about the place.

Great script, wonderful production. 

The director, Roger Merrill wanted us as a design team to explore the idea that this was a town in limbo, a stagnant, static place.  He also wanted a unit set without scene changes.  The challenge for this was the fact that the play begins in prison, goes to the exterior of Gilead to the interior of the grill, then behind the grill to the woodpile.  There's a scene in several locations in the town and finally to the mountaintop.

As Roger was talking about what he wanted to say with the show, I kept having images of octagons moving through my mind.  I didn't understand at first why octagons, but I went with them.  I sketched up several thumbnail groundplans that involved octagonal decks and showed them to Roger.  I was unsatisfied with not knowing why octagons and began to intellectualize my choice.  I determined that this was a play about halted progression, and that octagons were the international shape of the stop sign.  The important thing about stop signs is that they are only temporary and progression can begin again, which is also a theme in this play.

Thumbnail groundplans

Thumbnail groundplan

Since this was a unit set, we knew we were going to change locations with lighting for many of the scenes.  The Kirkham Arena Theatre was a found space theatre without a fly loft.  I decided to add a cyclorama to the back of the set to facilitate lighting shifts.  It also helped to create a kind of limbo in which to tell the story of the play.  We didn't want the cyc to be lit all of the time, so I placed a poorman's scrim three feet in front of it.  The poorman's scrim was created with brown tricot stretched tightly on a frame.  I had already used tricot in this fashion before in my career and knew it would work.

There was a serendipitous effect when Richard Clifford, the lighting designer focused a source four with a cloud gobo on the scrim and it ghosted through to the cyc which gave us a double image of the clouds.  I used that effect a few years later on my lighting design of Oedipus.  It was stunning.

Percy and Shelby in front of the dark scrim

Clouds ghosting on the scrim and cyc. Effy, Shelby, Joe and Caleb

Nighttime on the cyc, Percy and Eli

As I designed the set, I chose to use two octagons to symbolize the interior of the grill.  Since the majority of the play took place in the two rooms of the diner, I added much more detail on those two platforms.  The upper platform was the kitchen and had a refrigerator, a counter, a stove and a backsplash.  The lower platform was the dining area and had a wainscot and a couple of tables and some chairs.

Downstage left I designed a lower, smaller octagonal platform to be the entrance to the grill and downstage right I designed another octagonal platform that functioned as the back porch.  Outside of the porch I dressed the set with a stump and an axe and a pile of wood.

Upstage right I designed a half octagon platform that was much higher and was at the level of the top of the backsplash.  This platform functioned as both the prison and the mountaintop.  It gave the sense of coming full circle.

Hannah on the upper octagonal platform, the kitchen

Caleb on the lower octagonal platform, the dining room

Percy, Joe, Shelby and Hannah on the dining room deck reading the raffle entries

Percy and Joe on the small exterior platform DSL

Shelby and Percy on the back porch

Percy and Hannah with the loaf of bread on the stump behind the grill

Three non-descript locations somewhere in Gilead

The half octagon as the prison, with Percy

The half octagon as the mountaintop, with Eli and Percy

Octagons, with Percy and Joe

I enjoyed working on this show very much.  I felt that the scene, lighting and costume designs all came together to fulfill the director's vision of The Spitfire Grill.  This is a great script and it is almost impossible to exit the theatre without having an emotional experience with the material.  I'm glad I had the opportunity to work on it.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment