Big River, Small Stage


The University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre has launched some notable Broadway careers. Students graduate knowing how to sing, act, dance, and work in varied spaces, some that are small for the shows they do.

The Lydia Mendelssohn is a proscenium house with an arch width of 29' 11", arch height of 16' 10", and stage depth (from plaster line) of 24'. “We can't fly much past 33',” says Arthur Ridley, who has designed scenery for many shows there during the last 20 years. Ridley sometimes prefers the Mendelssohn to the university's larger house. “Big River has mostly two- to four-character scenes, so you want that closeness,” he says. But he acknowledges that performance conditions can be less than ideal, too: In A Chorus Line, the line was too long to fit from one side of the stage to the other, requiring choreographic adjustments. “They were elbow to elbow,” he says.

Designs sometimes need adjusting, too. Ridley says the theatre, built in the 1920s, has a permanent plaster cyc, and more frustrating, “our fly rail is offstage left, not more than 6' past the proscenium. We also have to consider our restrictions for loading in. The elevator is 8' square, dead centerstage. This limits the size of what we can build and consequently how we design scenery.


Ridley says when he reads a script, he begins to think about how to create a sense of space and locate scenes using just a few key pieces. Often, his solution is two-dimensional, dictated by the theatre itself.

“What we're dealing with, in effect, is a 19th-century theatre built in the early 20th century, so I wanted to go to an earlier theatrical style,” he says of his design for the department's recent production of Big River.“Since we don't have much depth, you can create that illusion in terms of two-dimensional stage paintings and perspective that expands things out to the side. I manipulated horizon lines to give the sense of a wider and deeper picture.”

Ridley researched the show, reshaping, cutting, and pasting illustrations used in the original edition of Twain's novel and on Henry Lewis's photo engravings of the Mississippi River, circa 1840s. These historical materials also informed the palette of the piece — sepia and hand-coloring dominated by pale greens, blues, and corals. A series of scrim-like backdrops and covered panels gave the illusion of more depth, with burlap substituting for scrim. Burlap costs less, and has the same see-through function. It also has a more visible weave than scrim, in keeping with the overall look. “Everything was somewhat rustic,” Ridley says.

Flexibility in moving between scenes was essential for a show that flows as freely as a river. “It's an ongoing narration, and there is never time to change the set,” says Ridley. “Instead of a mid-stage scrim, we used four sliding panels to allow for more flexibility in setting multiple locations.” Ridley often designs unit sets for the Mendelssohn, in this case with built-out dock-like areas in front of both sides of the proscenium, physically expanding the width of the forestage.

Ridley's detailed unit set for Sweeney Todd also relied on forced perspective. Using a cityscape backdrop, he made the stage seem taller. “Everything focused on the center unit of a full two-story set, which on ground level is Mrs. Lovett's shop, cellar, and parlor, and on the upper level, the barber shop.” At times, he masked the unit with an exterior street drop and title scrim, with upper galleries exposed all the way around. “By reducing the size of the drops, we actually made the space seem bigger and allowed for action on the sides as well.”

Again, Ridley based his designs for the title scrim on illustrations, this time from the original “penny dreadful,” the graphic novel of its day. “I adapted the street drop from 19th-century engravings of London, including the actual Fleet Street address where the story takes place.” Signs, with period typesets, hung along the stairway to the shop, advertising the price of a haircut or shave. Ridley used one wagon, first for the haircut competition, later for a table, and benches for outdoor dining. Smaller pieces of furniture helped indicate locals.

For the finale of A Chorus Line, Ridley says, “Instead of the patterned mirror panels with the sunburst effect at the back of the stage, we had a hanger fly in just behind the proscenium. We used the sunburst idea but echoed the shape of the Mendelssohn proscenium, framing in the dancers, then emphasizing the theatricality of the moment with built in chaser lights also paralleling the shape of the theatre,” he says. In addition to the vertical mirrors that designers frequently borrow from Robin Wagner's original design, Ridley added a horizontal top mirror, angling it down, multiplying the images of the line and creating a greater sense of depth.

Ridley frequently designs floor patterns to further “expand” the stage. For Boys from Syracuse and Così fan tutte, he again used forced perspective to make the stage look wider and deeper.

If you have encountered a problem while designing or building a concert, event, exhibit, or play, please tell us about it at [email protected].

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