All Aboard, Part One: Scenic Design Of The Passenger
There are few productions that can truly inhabit the massive and imposing space of the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. At this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, in a co-production with the Park Avenue Armory, the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger arrived for its New York debut, ready to fill the space. Director David Pountney, whose Die Soldaten was also presented in the Armory in 2008, has filled the brutal and enormous space with powerful music.
For scenic designer Johan Engels, transferring The Passenger from its previous incarnation at Houston Grand Opera to the Armory required no creative adaptation at all. From the beginning of his process for the premiere at the Bregenz Festival in Austria, he had conceived the piece without a proscenium and had always imagined a big square space. “The brutality of an empty stage was going to be the space that we placed the set into,” he says. “I really designed it almost for the Armory. It’s finally come home.”
Engels identifies The Passenger, which recreates themes from the Holocaust, as “probably the most difficult task I ever had—how to put that there with the respect for history and at the same time not create a theatrical showpiece.” He was inspired by looking at cruise liners, especially at the structural dichotomy between above and below decks. “I found it very interesting, when you look at an old cruise liner, it gets pretty gruesome where people have to sleep, as the chimneys go down into the ship. The chimney of the boat extended down and became the notorious crematorium chimneys of Auschwitz.”
The set for The Passenger had to allow the story to jump back and forth between an ocean liner in the 1960s and Auschwitz during World War II. Engels created a nearly full-sized ship that sat on top of train tracks and barracks that recall “the atmosphere of Auschwitz, not a reconstruction of Auschwitz.” Upstage of the ship, as Engels describes it, “Steel sheets distort the light to create a horizon line that becomes the sea.” For Engels, it was also vitally important that the details of Auschwitz be recognizable to survivors. Below and around the ship-camp structure ran full-sized railway lines. On them, train cars became bunk beds, and offices, camp barracks, and guard towers moved on and off stage, changing the breadth and claustrophobia of the space.
Brad Kanouse, associate technical director at the Houston Grand Opera, traveled with The Passenger from Houston to New York City for the Lincoln Center Festival remount. The set itself was originally built for the Bregenz premiere and was rented by Houston for the American premiere in January of 2014. It was then stored in the Houston Grand Opera warehouses before being transported to New York in five 53' trucks (just for the set). According to Kanouse, planning started in the 2013 season for the New York production, “when we were looking at the Armory and researching the specs and how the show would fit into the venue. Once we put the ground plan into the Armory, we then were able to tweak it so it was in the ideal position. We also met with the Lincoln Center Festival staff to discuss logistics. This included every detail, including the seating arrangements, masking, truss above the scenery, sound, lighting, trucking, dressing rooms, orchestra position, personnel, schedule, and budgets.”
For Kanouse and his team from Houston, including technical and production director David Feheley, transferring from the opera house to a non-traditional venue did, of course, add extra considerations. “From the biggest scenic piece to bringing extra cotter pins, it all has to be thought of before the trucks are loaded in Houston. Luckily, we were in New York, and you are pretty much able to get anything you need fairly quickly. We had more than 20 trucks being unloaded full of gear on day one, and we pretty much nailed it with everything we needed.” The Armory does, though, have its challenges. The space has only one loading dock that barely fits a single truck. In order to unload the trucks from Houston, plus lighting, sound, rigging equipment, and anything else that needed to be loaded in, the team “had to stop three lanes of NY traffic and have a yard tractor back our trucks into the Armory, trying not to hit the parked cars across Lexington. This [could not] be done until the overhead rig [was] hung and out.”
Kanouse, however, started planning for this production in 2010, when he first saw The Passenger in London. “HGO knew we were doing the show in 2014, so I went ahead and did some preplanning. I had worked with the creative team before, and it was great to see them and work with them again. So for four years, I have been working with Johan Engels to fit it into our space here in Houston and then to make it work at the Armory as well.”
Stay tuned for two more Passenger articles: Part Two for lighting design and Part Three for sound design; or check out the September issue of Live Design, now available for free download for iPad or iPhone from Apple App Store or for Android tablet or smartphone from Google Play.