Designer Roundtable: A Perfectly Marvelous Cabaret At Chicago's Drury Lane

A design team that included scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, lighting designer Jesse Klug, sound designer Cecil Averett, and costume designer Tatjana Radisic recently collaborated on a production of Cabaret, directed by Jim Corti, at Drury Lane in Chicago. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune called the production “mesmerizing,” and also noted, “If you wanted to find a flaw in Corti’s conception, it could perhaps be that his attention to detail is obsessive. Except I just talked myself out of that. The attention to detail, which translates as attention to truth, is what makes this production so exciting.”

We caught up with the team to discuss how it was, as Bembridge describes it, “one of those shows where everything came together beautifully.”

LD: How did each of you get involved in Cabaret?
Jesse Klug: I work at Drury Lane quite regularly and with director Jim Corti, so when the project was offered to me, I was more than happy to join on.
Cecil Averett:I had also worked on a show with Jim the previous year, and it turned out to be one of the best collaborations I’d had with a director to date. Even before that show was open, we began talking about his ideas for Cabaret.
Tatjana Radisic: I have worked with Jim, Brian, and Jesse on numerous productions at Drury Lane and elsewhere. Meet Me in St. Louis was nominated for a Jeff [Joseph Jefferson Award] for costume design, directing, and scenic design. Also, our production of Sweet Charity was nominated for a Jeff for lighting design and directing. Since we’ve had very successful collaborations on previous productions, Jim wanted to continue to work with a design team that proved to be successful.

LD: What made this production develop so well?
Brian Sidney Bembridge: The design just fit together gorgeously and without any difficulty. The three “visual” designers have a good understanding of each other’s language and aesthetics. Often the scenic design is a large gesture and serves as a clean background as it did in Sweet Charity and Meet Me in St Louis. Jim and I like a sweeping image that pieces can come in and out of. The scenery started off as the Friedrichstrassethe train station—with the help of lights, sound, and a little effect of fog for the train steam coming into the station, and then morphed into the club. Light and sound really helped transform the unit set, and costumes gave the club all of the punch it needed. There were lights under a Plexiglas® deck that disappeared when they were turned off and created a crowded stage when turned on.
JK: Jim’s vision was so detailed that I would credit the collaboration to a strong point of view from our director. That opening sequence of watching Cliff arrive in Berlin on the train car led to Brian’s choice of the set being the train station, which led to having a square of lights in the floor for the cabaret.
TR: We also all knew each other’s sensibilities and artistic potential. Over the years, we’ve developed respect and understanding for each other as artists. Therefore, our designs on stage complement each other, rather than competing.

LD: How exactly did the director get involved in the design process?
BSB: Jim is always design-oriented. He really wanted it to look like the period and not a modern interpretation of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. We looked at old silent movies and through great old books, like Peter Jelavich’s Berlin Cabaret (Studies in Cultural History). Jim also read The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood and wanted to stick to his visual descriptions. The realness and grounded story were important to him.
JK: Jim saw the story as Cliff’s dream, so that meant the character could never leave the stage unless someone or something else was taking his place in his own dream. This was the driving factor of the design throughout.
CA: He likes to be very hands-on when it comes to the design elements but still trusts and allows the artists he’s working with to flex their creative muscles. He sees the whole picture and really enables the designers to help him realize it. We share a lot of common views on the role of sound in musicals, and it was both challenging and refreshing to be involved in such an integral way with the overall production.
TR: Jim presented us with a beautiful love story and very strong concept based on Isherwood’s book. The period of the show was an era of extremes. The style of this period was magical and a world heavily influenced by fashion and beauty.

LD: How did the set come together?
BSB: We meshed a little of Penn Station with Friedrichstrasse. I started out a little too symmetrical, so we mixed it up a little.

LD: What materials were used for the set?
BSB: The truss was actually CNC-routed. It was more cost-effective to do that than cut and weld each piece of the truss that was specific. I thought I would not like it, but Ravenswood Scenic Studios sent over a sample to my studio, and with a few alterations, we were a go.

LD: Jesse, what about your lighting?
JK: We talked about the whole play taking place inside Cliff’s mind, so in his dreams, he would only see people in pools of light, and they would walk in and out of darkness. The set was the outer edges of his Berlin experience—the train station from where he travelled to and from the city—so it needed to loom in the background. As for the pools, they could be as small as a person’s face to as large as the whole stage when a cabaret number would fill his mind. Working within these parameters created a lot of interesting pictures and transitions, since it eliminated a lot of options.

LD: What software do you use during the design process?
BSB: This set was entirely hand-drafted. The shop then put it into AutoCAD, sent me the files, and I approved them.
JK: I used Lightwright™ 4 for all the paperwork, and the plot was drafted on AutoCAD 2008. I also used the ETC Obsession 2 offline editor as a way to preset some groups and other pre-tech setup.
CA: For the sound system design, I used Nemetschek Vectorworks, plus Digidesign ProTools and various odds and ends for building the sound effects.

LD: How did it all harmonize when you started tech, or did it need to?
BSB: I think just knowing and trusting each other’s artistry and instincts helped. I did ask Jesse to change a few things, but he is a great designer and has a great understanding of what worked with the set.
CA: When you toss everyone into the theatre and lock them in for 12 hours a day, you get to see collaboration at its best. The director, musical director, designers, actors, and musicians all feed off of each other, and some of the most amazing transformations took place with the show. It’s my favorite part of the process.

LD: In terms of color, what made it pop?
JK: The color palette for the show devolved slowly over time within the story. We started with a very colorful world of bright reds, pinks, and blues, and as the musical progressed, we eventually ended up with only white light. The evolution of color was supposed to follow Cliff’s view on the world, as it starts with wild exotic fascination and ends up with somber regret and fear.
BSB: For the set, it was just background allowing the performers to pop. Jesse could make the set black, silvery gray, or a bright color with the paint treatment we did on the truss.

LD: Cecil, tell us more about the sound.
CA: One of the biggest challenges with this show was the onstage monitoring. With such strong visual lines on the set, we had to use speakers that were low-profile enough to not intrude on the environment Brian created but good enough to give us the coverage the actors needed to hear properly. We hid Meyer Sound MM-4 speakers in the “ironwork” along the sides of the stage. We combined these with Meyer UP Juniors on the proscenium firing across the downstage area.
For mics and costumes, I hate to see microphones and cables on the actors. Nothing kills the sexy flapper like a mic cable and a lav bump on the face. So we were able to place the packs in the ladies’ wigs, and the A2 did a great job with arts and crafts on all of the actors that allowed us to hide the elements just below the hairline. We were able to get optimum placement on almost all of the mics.
Another challenge we faced was having the band up center on stage. While the energy kick this gives the actors is fantastic, the ability to control the overall volume of the band is greatly diminished. You have to incorporate the acoustic sound of the band into the front-of-house mix. This is where good EQ becomes crucial. The goal here was to get the system out of the way of the performance and enable mix engineer Jeff Dublinske to use his considerable talents to approach the mix musically. I think we got there.

LD: Tatjana, what about your costumes?
TR: Cut on the bias wardrobe possessed a fluidity that was perfect for the lights and movements of the theatre. My inspiration was cabaret costumes of the period. They were luxurious and fashionable—full of texture, colors, covered with feathers, beads, and pearls. For me, it was challenging and inspiring to bring to the stage a sensibility of the decadent, colorful, radical design of the period.

LD: Did anything in particular affect gear and/or design choices?
JK: We did end up changing the lights in the floor very late in the process. They were always supposed to be mini-strips, but I received a call from the scene shop and was asked to come take a look at how the set was being constructed. With all the bracing necessary under the raked deck, it was impossible to install mini-strips there, especially with access to be maintained. We decided to go with flood lamps on flush mount sockets instead, because that is all that would fit.
CA: The need to maintain the look of the set and the costumes played a huge role in our gear and placement decisions.

LD: What piece of gear was your workhorse? What else came in handy?
CA: I love the sound of the mic-pres and EQ on the Yamaha PM5000 console. That and the Galileo from Meyer for processing and distribution were our best tools on this show. This is, of course, secondary to having a good mix engineer.
JK: The Vari-Lite VL3500 was by far the most utilized piece of equipment for lighting this production. It allowed us to shape rooms into boxes that could then become circles or to have two characters in down pools of light that then would come together as one—particularly useful for telling the story of Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. The lighting package was made up of four VL3500 spots, five SGM Giotto Spots, two Rosco I-Cue Intelligent Mirrors, 12 L+E Mini-Strips, approximately 300 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, 50 Wybron Forerunner scrollers, six Altman Far Cycs, 60 Birdies, a Le Maitre Radiance Hazer, and a multitude of practical sources. The console was an ETC Obsession 2 750.
BSB: The theatre agreed to build an elevator for the train to lift out of the deck—something new for the theatre. Chicago Flyhouse built the winch elevator that brought the train car up and down very quickly for the top and finale of the show. We could adjust the speed, which was brilliant.

LD: What were the main challenges during rehearsals/programming?
BSB: Time is always a challenge at Drury Lane. Debbie Reynolds’ week-long performance did not make it any easier. The set was built so that the crew could install half of the deck and upstage part of the set. They then loaded in Reynolds’ set downstage of ours. The crew had to strike her set and continue loading in our set on Sunday night to be ready for tech on Tuesday. It was a little crazy, but Julie Walker, Drury Lane’s production manager, and the crew did an exceptional job. Brad Gonda, the TD, went over to the shop when they struck the set to make sure that everything was labeled correctly for the install. It was one of the smoothest processes, logistically and artistically, which really showed on stage.

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