When the design came in for I Am My Own Wife at the Dallas Theatre Center, properties master Rich Gilles was worried. Acquiring pieces would put him way over budget, and he couldn't borrow what he might destroy. Putting pieces together would be tricky, at best. And, oh yeah, the build could kill somebody.
The 35-character play for one actor and lots of antiques tells the story of transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who survived Hitler's Third Reich and the East German secret police, all the while collecting artifacts from the 1890s: Victrolas and gramophones, clocks and lamps, paintings and furniture. “Nazis would go into Jewish neighborhoods [after people were removed] and dump everything out the window,” says Gilles, adding that Communists in Eastern Berlin also took over homes of the wealthy, throwing out belongings before dividing dwellings into small flats for workers. Charlotte collected the items and created a museum for them.
Taking his lead from Derek McLane's design for the original production, which included floor-to-ceiling shelves showcasing a wide variety of museum pieces, scenic designer Lee Savage also opted for a furniture wall. But now antiques wouldn't be on shelves. They would be the wall. He covered the theatre's existing semi-circular back wall in cinder blocks to evoke the world of East Berlin, the Holocaust, and burnt out buildings. Against this, he placed a furniture wall of period pieces that included a real piano, wardrobes, and many clocks. “Charlotte talks about her friend, a clock collector, so we had a grandfather down to small clocks,” says Gilles, noting that it would be difficult to recognize some of the items embedded in the wall until lights attracted attention to one thing or another. Mounted on a curve, furniture extended 18' above the stage in some places. Windows, doors, iron gates, fence pieces, and other architectural elements were also part of the mix to create a sense of environment.
Act one opened on a scrim portal. “We wanted to peel away layers during the play,” says Savage. “Finally, we wanted to show the actor as another object within this landscape [of artifacts].”
Everyone agreed the concept was exciting. But was it possible?
“We went through our own prop stock and tagged everything Lee thought we could use. He would have preferred the furniture came from the Grunderzeit period [approximately 1871-1895] in Germany, but we would have spent $20,000 in props alone. We picked ten or so objects authentic to the period and filled in gaps,” says Gilles, who spent about $4,000 for several items, including a “gorgeous armoire and a grandfather clock,” pulling and gathering more than he needed to be able to find what he wanted as he tried to create this piece of sculpture. “We pulled about 80 to 100 pieces from our stock and raided the Kansas City Rep and the Alley Theatre,” he says, noting that somewhere between 120 and 150 pieces comprised the finished wall.
Gilles hired extra people for the load-in. Savage was on hand as truckloads appeared, pointing to items he wanted at each level. “He would say ‘Use that there at that angle,’” says Gilles. He built a structure to which he could attach the antiques, eight 2'×4' walls, separate independently floating units, each with a floor and top. These were open, so the crew could attach structures and eye bolts where needed. Gilles created brackets for large items and used bolts for smaller ones. “In addition to the eye bolts for rope and plastic ties, I bought shelf hangers from 11" to 2' that we could bolt to the framework and set furniture on top of,” he explains. “Each piece had to be specifically hung on a structure, sometimes with black zip ties of the sort used to bundle wires in electrical work,” he says. He also protected every piece with foam padding.
Working in two teams of two on ladders and sometimes standing on top of furniture, they met frustrations. “Sometimes, you would get a piece up there, and there was no way to attach it; it was just too heavy, so you had to take it down and rebuild the structure.” Sometimes, they were bringing a piece to point B but left it at point A — the pile shifted, and the piece landed. “There was a chaise that we managed to suspend in mid-air,” he says, “and there wasn't any further we could go with it. It took us three, almost four, days to put everything up on the wall,” he says.
They hauled furniture up on two ladders. “We don't have a good rigging system in our theatre, and we didn't have easy positions for winches or lifts,” says Gilles. “Nobody got hurt, but what we were doing was probably too dangerous.”
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