Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Tempest--Scene Design

Prospero and the Ariels

The Tempest by William Shakespeare was produced winter semester, 2013 in the Snow Black Box Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Prospero, who is the rightful Duke of Milan has been exiled to an island where he discovered magical tomes and equipment and mastered it.  He has also used his conjuring to bind the magical denizens of the island to him, namely Ariel and Caliban.  He has reared his daughter on the island for seventeen years.

With the aid of his magic and Ariel, he discovers his brother, Antonio who usurped his Dukedom and Alonso, the king of Naples are on a ship.  Through conjuring, he creates a storm that drives their ship to the island and then shipwrecks it.  The passengers and crew are stranded in different parts of the island and  Prospero commands Ariel to look after them.

Miranda, Prospero's daughter, runs into Ferdinand who is the son of the king.  He is the first man she has seen other than her father and the monster, Caliban.  They fall in love with one another, naturally.

The other crew and passengers of the ship provide comic relief in the play and there are great scenes involving some of them and Caliban.  Ultimately, though the plot spirals around until the confrontation with Prospero and his brother.  In the climax of the play,  Antonio begs Prospero for forgiveness which is granted.  There are great themes of repentance, redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation in this play.

Justin Bates, the director of The Tempest was very interested in an anachronistic approach to this play.  The play was written in 1610 but we played it in modern times.  He was also very interested in shadow play for many of the magical moments.  He also wanted the part of Ariel to be played by five people who sometimes would all be on stage acting as one and other times act as individuals.  He also said that Ariel could exit from stage left and immediately enter from stage right etc...

At the time, I had been (and continue to this day to be) inspired by the work of Georges Mèliés, who was a pioneer in cinema special effects.  Mèliés' most well known film is an adaptation of Jules Verne's A Trip To The Moon.  Mèliés shot all of his movies on a stage on his property.  The stage had a hardwood floor and all the magical scenery was placed on top of it.  I was particularly inspired by an image from a Mèliés film called The Mysterious Island.

I drew a thumbnail sketch, that measures roughly one and a half inches by about two inches of my idea for the stage setting.  Then I drew larger study drawing to present to the director.  The stage would be set in one corner of the Black Box Theatre and we would create a modified thrust seating package.

Thumbnail sketch of The Tempest

Study for the set design of The Tempest

I designed a hardwood floor on a rake for the main acting deck.  The director wanted to be able to have Ariel and Caliban enter from trap doors in the stage floor so I placed three traps arbitrarily throughout the space.

On the back of the deck, I designed a Georges Mèliés style stage set with a cave and a shop built, magical tree.  The idea for the tree was that Prospero may have taken a limb from that tree to create his magical staff.  At the end of the play, he would return the staff to the tree.

One of our Ariels was very athletic and a gymnast and so for her we bought hand and footholds from a climbing wall and I designed a climbing route with her on the cave front.  I thought Ariel would appear more organic if she were climbing around once in awhile.

Inside the cave opening, I designed a large sheet of muslin to be hung and create both a projection screen for our shadow plays and to act as a cyclorama when it wasn't being utilized as a rear projection screen.  The screen was actually double hung and had a trip catch on it because the director wanted the lovers to be revealed at the end.  The idea was to illuminate the lovers behind the screen, then trip both drops.  The front drop fell to the ground and the rear drop fell from the grid behind the lovers.  This was done because we didn't want backstage to be visible to the audience for the last five minutes of the show.  We had a team of students design and direct the shadowplays.

Finally, because the island was a mystical place, I thought there could be nothing more magical than a part of the set opening and revealing a giant, amethyst geode bookcase during the scenes inside of Prospero's cell.  I've always been a rockhound.  It made sense to me.

Our technical director, Ray Versluys, came to us from the movie industry.  He has techniques and connections from that industry that have made our production values better.  As a designer, I never worry about whether something is possible or not.  I know that if I can imagine it, Ray can build it.

The cave and the tree were created by building a superstructure out of sonotube, scrap lumber, cardboard, chicken wire and gauze.  Then he sprayed them with two part urethane foam.  Think Great Stuff on steroids.  Once the foam cured, we carved it and painted it.  The climbing wall was built before the urethane was sprayed so we could hide the handholds.

The carpenters build a large boulder that was hinged so it would swing out and expose the bookcase.  I created the amethyst crystals with my prop class and did the finish work on the geode bookcase.  A tutorial for how we did this can be found here.

Everything else was basic theatre set construction.  There had to be tunnels under the set for the players to enter and exit through the trap doors, and the trip drops were built on plans that are hundreds of years old.

Ray also designed lights for this show.  It was a beautiful lighting design, magical, mystical.  A set is only as good as it's lit.

Antonia Clifford created the sound design for this production of The Tempest.  Sound design is the youngest of the design disciplines in theatre.  Our production values have gone up considerably since she started not only designing our sound but also teaching students how to design sound for live theatre.  Her sound design for The Tempest was brilliant.

The set as it appeared when the audience arrived

The tree, lit magically
Ariel on the climbing wall
The versatility of a piece of fabric and colored lighting 

We also attached a clothesline in the opening

More versatility in light

And more

And more

The feast from below

The ship shadowplay

The tempest begins

Terror on the deck

scary beasts in shadowplay

The true form of Ariel

The lovers revealed in shadowplay.  Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of the two trip drops
The amethyst bookcase

With Prospero for scale

This was a great opportunity for me as a set designer.  This felt like a complete production.  There was a great collaborative effort on the parts of everyone involved, the director, the design team, the technicians and the performers.  All in all a very good production of one of Shakespeare's greatest plays.  I was fortunate to have been a part of it.

Production Details
Directed by Justin Bates
Scene Design by Gary Benson
Costume Design by Kathy Schmid
Lighting Design by Ray Versluys
Sound Design by Antonia Clifford
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director:  Patty Randall

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