The 2014 Tony winner for Best Scenic Design Of A Play, Beowulf Boritt spins the audience through multiple locations in Act One, written and directed by James Lapine, and based on the autobiography of playwright Moss Hart. The play moves through the early years of Hart’s career, from his childhood home in a tenement to the grandeur of a townhouse owned by his writing partner George S. Kaufman. Produced by Lincoln Center Theater, Act One will be filmed on June 14 & 15 for the Live From Lincoln Center series on PBS.
The three-story set on a giant turntable fills the stage at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. “It was hard but a lot of fun,” says Boritt. “James Lapine warned me it would be challenging, with a first script that read like a movie— how do you tackle that in a theatrical way? He hired me 18 months out so we had a lot of time to work on it.”
The first scenic idea was an empty backstage with props lying around, a concept Boritt admits was “not terribly unique...then the night before our meeting, I had a Eureka moment.” The designer envisioned a multi-layer, rotating, three-story set: “Stacking space on stage is something I always find interesting,” he explains. “The Beaumont is big, and as big as the set is, many of the scenes are small with two or three people, and we wanted intimate spaces for these scenes.”
To deal with this contradiction, Boritt’s goal was to “fill the space yet force the action downstage. I reordered the spaces many times, so that the moves are mostly small. It was great to have James writing and directing— a real collaboration as the show changed even through previews, with new scenes, new sets, two sets for the hotel lobby scene until the last week when we finally settled on one of them. I had to orchestrate the movement of the set to fit the movement of the script.”
Boritt counts about 35 locations, or 35 different spaces, on the set, with the tenement taking up a large portion of the ground level, an upstairs apartment, and a roof not used too much. To keep track, he created a huge document for tracking the locations: “The set keeps moving, with the props crew running around backstage to redress each set as needed. Ken Billington even snuck some light in backstage so they could see what they were doing."
The play is roughly set it to 1927, but as Boritt explains, “It starts a bit before that, then you see Moss Hart in the 50s looking back on his life. The bulk of the play takes place before Act One opens, and there is a huge jump and lifestyle change when he makes it, from the tenements, how grim his life was as a kid and how glamorous it was once he started working with George S. Kaufman, whose house is a magical theatrical kingdom, a little over the top, somewhat Federal with a mansard roof…many styles pushed together as in many New York houses.”
Boritt’s color palette changes, from black and white and gritty in the tenement to bright, airy colors for the house. “The upstairs more George, downstairs more George’s wife,” notes Boritt, who conducted a big search for just the right colors, the right desk and accessories. “In the book Moss Hart describes his grim childhood in poverty with vivid contrast to the posh life he first encounters at Kaufman's house,” Boritt explains. “I really wanted to pop that in the design, and chose to literally make the difference black and white. The tenement is actually a dark wood, but so covered with soot and grime as to be almost black. New York is sooty even today, but I can only imagine how dirty 1920s New York, heated mostly by coal, must have been. All the furniture in the tenement is similarly muddy greys and browns and blacks. In contrast Kauffman's house is glossy white, and his office is crisp shiny warm wood tones, and the house has big lush flower arrangements to pop the color and light of his world.”
Theatres Within A Theatre
The play calls for several theatres, from the opening theatre in the Bronx where Hart’s Aunt Kate is watching an Oscar Wilde play, the Broadway theater Moss later takes Kate to, the Rochester road house where his first play Beloved Bandit plays, The Mayfair Theatre where The Emperor Jones plays, the stage at the Catskills camp, and the various theatres in Atlantic City, Brighton Beach, and Philadelphia where Once in a Lifetime plays, and finally the Music Box Theatre on Broadway.
“We decided to make a generic theatre with gold detail and a red curtain to mirror our show curtain which is red and gold—all very archetypical Broadway,” notes Boritt. “And the items placed within that little proscenium define where we are. There are three drops that play in that space, all rigged to the back of the proscenium, and several smaller set pieces that also plug into it. We also have a little Austrian curtain, also rigged to the proscenium frame and run on a motor that can close down in the arch. Finally, I hid Carney lights through the proscenium arch and the boxes so that it creates an impression of the Coney Island boardwalk for a nighttime scene where Moss figures out how to solve the play's structural problems.
Additionally, the play called for the entire cast to be in the theatre's second balcony for the beginning and end of the story, so Boritt had a challenge: “In order to make a second balcony, I needed to have a first balcony, so that part of the set is three stories tall, and the second balcony cantilevers—and has to hold 15 actors—out over the second level box seats. I had it all painted as a dark mahogany and wrought iron and highlighted in a metallic gold which felt like so many of the early 20th century theatres I've spent time in.”
In terms of lighting the set, Boritt notes that lighting designer Ken Billingston’s work was crucial throughout. “As soon as we had the basic idea, I showed it to him to make sure he could light it, and from that point on we always knew we'd need a lot of lights on the set. In the end there are 6 dimmer racks (120 dimmers) hidden around the set inside trunks and under tarps, and the power for those all comes in through a center commutator. I always knew that Ken would have to focus the eye even more than in a normal show. The set as a whole is massive (60' diameter, 30' tall, and 100,000 lbs) but most of the individual locations within it are very small, about 15' or 20' wide to help focus the giant Beaumont space down to a human scale. Ken had to further control our eye, often erasing parts of the set so we'd focus where we needed to. We worked very hand in glove the whole time and Ken's always a fantastic collaborator and a great artist.”
For Boritt, the massive scale of the set was the challenge—and the fun—of it. “Lincoln Center says it’s the biggest turntable ever put on a Broadway stage. It was an expensive idea, more than our budget could bear, so I got the design fully prepped about 10 months before the production, and we bid it out to Showmotion to see if they could build it for the money we had. Because we were so far ahead of the game and they could carefully prep things and not have to go into overtime, they were able to do it. On a more typical Broadway schedule, I think the set would have cost 50% more,” Boritt admits.
“It took my associate Alexis Distler forever to draft it because it was so complicated, and every piece interconnects with so many other parts of the set. It was so tall that they couldn't fully assemble it in the shop, and we didn't see the roofs or the water tower in place until we were on stage. And because it took so long to paint—everything that looks like wood beams is actually grained and painted 5" x 5" square steel tube— it wasn't finished when they had to start loading the turntable into the theatre, so Bill Mensching put the entire set on to chain motors and flew it up to the ceiling of the shop, 36" off the floor, and the turntable was disassembled from under it while 35 painters worked up in the air all over the set.”
Act One was a massive propping job for props supervisor Buist Bickley. “We had so many props that one day John Lee Beatty walked by the room we were setting them up in and asked how many shows they were for—and we said "those are just the props for act one of Act One!" notes Boritt.
“The scale was a huge challenge, but all through tech I kept pinching myself because I felt so lucky to get to build a set like this,” Boritt says. “It's a lucky combination of a play that requires a set on this scale, with a director who wasn't scared off my the challenges of staging a show on such a complicated space, and a theatre space at the Beaumont that was big enough to hold the idea, and an organization like Lincoln Center that believed in and supported us in creating the idea.”