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.

Synopsis
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.

Concept
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


Execution
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

Closeup

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

Stonehenge
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

There

Act II:
Noah
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

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