Theatre Marriages--for Better and Worse


If all non-profit theatres and opera houses were the same size and shape, with similar equipment and comparable shops, moving a production from one venue to another would be boring but possible. Today, as funding lags, many theatres try to reduce costs by sharing productions. And more and more, they ask designers to do the impossible--create one show for houses with radically different spaces and equipment lists.

Kate Edmunds designed the set for David Wheeler's production of The Heiress at the Berkeley Rep, a 3/4 thrust. When the production moved to two proscenium houses of different sizes (one in Phoenix and one in Tucson) at the Arizona Theatre Company, she argued for "additional walls stage left and stage right, which would give the design the coherence it needed in the proscenium venues."

The walls did go up and the production maintained its integrity, but Edmunds recalls times when money concerns compromised art. She won't name the show that opened in a proscenium house "far too small for the play and the director's vision of it." She says that production worked only when it reached its second home, a substantially larger proscenium: Neither producing organization wanted to pay for the two different designs the show needed. When productions tour, she adds, "Money goes into things nobody ever sees--hardware to collapse a set so it can fit into a truck, for instance. They are giving me a normal budget, but I'm not working under normal circumstances."

How can theatres minimize such problems? Since sets will expand or contract in a second venue, Edmunds suggests that the first theatre build for the second as well, so "the puzzle can be put back together coherently," and such things as paint finishes won't have to be approximated in a second shop.

But scenic designer David Gallo has found the originating theatre often isn't interested in constructing things it can't use, and the next theatre has scheduled its season without plans to build anything. "When the set needs to be expanded for the second venue, who's going to deal with the issue of things that need to be enlarged?" he asks.

Edmunds also advises theatres to send their technical directors and production managers to the first theatre for the initial build, a performance, and the loadout. Also, if an assistant technical director from the first venue travels with the show to the second, the new tech staff "is not put in a position of getting a box from overseas with all the directions written in a foreign language."

Think scenic designers have a hard time of it? Lighting designers maintain that their situation is worse. "Time is always on the side of set designers, who can plan for different venues," reflects Scott Zielinski, who recently designed lighting for a three-theatre collaboration on Floyd Collins, the Adam Guettel-Tina Landau musical. And Donald Holder notes that costumes transfer directly unless there are cast changes, and scenery usually requires only slight modification. "Jitney's show deck and perimeter masking was modified from city to city, but the rest of the set remained unchanged," he says by way of example; Gallo says he found the Jitney transfer smoother than most.

Jitney opened at the Huntington in Boston, planning a move to the Center Stage in Baltimore. Then five other theatres got in on the act and Holder had to redo the light plot for each venue. He developed his design for the Huntington, a proscenium house, "then transferred it to a modified thrust with catwalks [Center Stage], then a deeper thrust with much lower trims and no catwalks [Studio Arena in Buffalo], then to a theatre similar to Center Stage [Geva in Rochester], then to a proscenium space like the Huntington, but with a very deep apron [the Goodman in Chicago]. Each theatre had vastly different inventories, dimming and control capabilities, and of course, lighting positions," he notes.

Holder says the added venues usually allowed only two days of tech before first audiences came. "I started with the same channel list (or list of lighting ideas) from venue to venue, and simply developed each light plot around it," he says, adding that he started the tech process with all the lighting cues written, then balanced each cue to adjust for the new positions and instrument types. "The downside was that with each subsequent venue, the cues got farther and farther away from the original design, but there was no time to really look carefully at or revaluate each one. Most of my time and effort was directed at getting the production to the level it had attained in the previous theatre, rather than take it another step further."

That said, Holder sees advantages in multi-productions, and not only for budget-strapped non-profit theatres that can eliminate weeks of rehearsal in subsequent venues and some building costs. Actors, for instance, benefit from fairly steady employment: For Jitney, they worked from September 1998 through August of 1999, nearly non-stop.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Holder even sees advantages for designers. "It gives one the opportunity to develop relationships with all the companies where the show travels." Center Stage hired Holder for Jitney and sent him to the Huntington, which promptly hired him to do two more shows for them.

One of these, however, would be a tortured transfer. Larry Carpenter's production of The Mikado moved from the Huntington's proscenium space to the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, MA, a theatre in the round. Holder says, "The lush physical production in Boston had to be heavily edited--both lighting and design--for its transfer to Beverly. North Shore has a very tight changeover schedule, two days of tech time, and you're obligated to work with the repertory light plot, since other events are booked into the same space during the run of your show. Because of all these restrictions, I had to eliminate most of the lighting ideas that I felt were specific to the production, which was painful. In addition, the production in Boston had a very complex cue structure that, among other things, reshaped the space and altered the composition at the same time it was being reshaped choreographically. This was a crucial part of my design, but because I had so little time to mount the production, I was forced to scrap most of those ideas. Unlike the Jitney experience, I felt very frustrated by the Mikado transfer."

Floyd Collins began its latest incarnation at the Old Globe in San Diego. It went on to the Prince Music Theatre in Philadelphia, which has little wing space, then headed to the fly-deprived Goodman. Moreover, the Prince, once the American Music Theatre Festival, had built a new theatre "which they finished 10 minutes before Floyd Collins opened," scenic designer James Schuette only half jokes. Schuette designed with all three venues in mind, only to learn the dimensions for the new theatre were a little off. Sounds like a recipe for disaster--putting a brand-new show into a brand-new house might be anyhow--but when theatres put art above money, sharing production can be a plus.

On board throughout, the Old Globe's Peter Ballenger took the show to Philadelphia and Chicago, while the Goodman's Max Leventhal served as production manager for all the theatres. Preplanning insured that Schuette didn't have to retrofit anything, just make small adaptations. "When Pete built the show in San Diego, he knew which parts of the deck and masking would go to one theatre and not another," Leventhal says.

Floyd Collins had a partly live echo effect, which might have been a problem for the Goodman, but the Old Globe donated its board and microphones. Complex orchestrations required computerized sampling cards, which the theatres rented together, and which cost the three together slightly more than it would have cost one of them alone. The Old Globe sent sound tech staff to install the show at the other theatres and the Goodman's sound technician visited San Diego for the last week of the run, then ran the show in Philadelphia.

Again, transferring lighting design proved most difficult. Zielinski says that pressure to work through a show quickly turned him into a detective, trying to figure out how to make cues look the same while the inventory and hanging positions changed. With front-of-house positions in San Diego and Philadelphia three times further from the stage than they are at the Goodman, the same lights looked different, but he could get a similar effect with narrower beam spreads.

From all reports, what mattered most to Landau was the sky cyc, which transformed from shades of gray to bright colors, suggesting a stormy and constantly changing world. This required a complicated layering of scenic materials and the use of dimmable fluorescents and particular cyc lights that none of the theatres owned. "The relationship of those drops and lights had to be consistent in all three venues," Leventhal notes.

What if you don't have the same cyc setup? "You have vastly different-looking skies," answers Zielinski, who met with tech people at three theatres, requesting the same cyc lighting equipment at each. "You view the entire stage from that background. If that doesn't look right, it blows my sense of what the whole image should look like in a show so cyc-specific."

Zielinski credits Leventhal with convincing the theatres to make the purchase. They chipped in for equipment, which they divided at the end of the three runs. Leventhal says each theatre was able to afford more than it might have alone, the production was less compromised than it would have been had it not traveled, and the theatres benefited in the end by having more lighting equipment in each inventory. Theatres that share productions to save money may be disappointed, Leventhal notes, "but those who hope to do a better production will be satisfied."