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No Fault

No Fault

Doctor Faustus (Photo: Tristan Jeffers)

Fault Line Theatre, which has been around for just three years, is already beginning to shake the ground of the New York City theatre scene. Aaron Rossini and Craig Wesley Divino, who studied acting in the Brown University/Trinity Rep programs, and Tristan Jeffers, a designer who assisted Eugene Lee for five years, collaborated for the first time on a production of Henry V, supported by Brown/Trinity. Jeffers’ minimal set for Rossini’s tiny-budget production (with Divino in multiple roles) consisted of an overhead projector, a handful of chairs, and a rolling scaffolding unit. “We were very proud of our final production,” says Jeffers.

When they reached New York, they each had frustrating experiences with production groups that didn’t explore texts or center on actors. “If you’re not finding the opportunity, make the opportunity to do the work you want,” Jeffers says they decided.

Resourcefulness would have to substitute for resources. “Whether it’s your own Off-Off-Broadway company or someone else’s, the thing every design department is always running up against is not a lot of time and not a lot of money,” says Jeffers, who thinks the limitations encourage imaginative solutions. Fault Line’s first production in March 2011, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, “when we had the least money and the least helping hands,” is one of his favorites.

Fault Line rents space for each show, something that Rossini compares to renting a new apartment: in New York, spaces get snatched up pretty quickly, so they have to jump on whatever they find. This time, they found the American Theatre of Actors, which Jeffers describes as a small space with a suspended ceiling about 15' high, with half the tiles missing, walls with cracked paint, and wood boxes that hold seats, but it soon became clear that the space was ideal. “It made you feel you were in the forgotten corner of some very old library,” says Jeffers, where a scholar who has sold his soul is at work, obsessed with arcane secrets. “We would have had to make a clean theatre look less clean.”

Doctor Faustus (Photo: Tristan Jeffers)

Two large rolling chalk boards created other locales. “The boards could be walls, and a space in-between could be a doorway. Actors could flip them around to make them something else,” says Jeffers, who wanted to provide a flexible set that could conform to whatever actors discovered in rehearsal.

“The decoration of the play grew from that,” adds Jeffers. We painted every black surface with chalk and went to town on the walls with [symbols from] astronomy, alchemy, and demonology. It was pretty clear a crazy person did that. We added a ton of books, stacked in and around a hollow black case that looks like a clock. We stacked more books on top of that.” Jeffers says books were stacked so tightly that they were impossible to knock over, even though they didn’t use glue or a single nail.

Money Isn't Everything

This first outing also revealed advantages of working with other theatres and relying on their production manager to notice problems. “It can be a little stressful to self-police,” Jeffers felt, after the troupe learned it was in violation of fire codes. “You end up splitting your time between that and solving set design problems,” he says. Fundraising was also new to these artists-turned-producers.

Rossini notes that the theatre never tries to build what it can’t afford. “Nine times out of ten, the simple, pared-away choice is the best one; it allows the acting to be simple and direct, and not covered by design,” says Jeffers. “You can over-design the same way you can overact.” Fault Line’s designers all get that. “At the end of the day, if I’m focused on giving the actors the space they need to tell the story, it doesn’t have to be pretty,” he adds.

Frogs (Photo: Jacob J. Goldberg)

“If we had an endless well of money, I would want to have designers at rehearsals and actors at production meet ings,” says co-artistic director Rossini. John Eckert was a resident lighting designer for the Brown/Trinity MFA program and worked with the trio there before coming on board with Fault Line’s second production, Aristophanes’ Frogs. He depends on the lighting inventory at rental spaces and whatever adaptations landlords allow, but he doesn’t mind. “Sometimes we rent gear, but the main way we overcome that is by getting creative about how to achieve the things we are after.”

For Frogs, he worked in a theatre with very low ceilings, relying mostly on footlight and sidelight. He supported a vaudevillian idea with marquee style foot lighting, darkening the stage as characters descended into the underworld. To create a water effect on the walls, Eckert might have rented effects equipment, but large plastic tubs sufficed. He put mirrors and fish tank pumps into these tubs; when he shot light into these water boxes, mirrors reflected light onto the wall, and the walls shimmered in blues and greens.

The theatre did two more productions before developing a new play with director/playwright Michael Perlman, who also came out of Brown/Trinity. From White Plains would move from Off-Off-Broadway to Off, then run in Ithaca as well.

From White Plains (Photo: Jacob J. Goldberg)

The play, about bullying, takes place in the upscale living rooms of young men in their 30s, years after the bullying occurred. They are “past the Ikea stage,” thought Jeffers, who would have rented furniture if he’d had the budget. He wasn’t able to convince any furniture dealer to loan valuables to an unknown theatre either. The solution? Jeffers moved his own living room to the theatre, leaving only a casual chair and a cat bed at home. And when the play was reviewed in The New York Times, readers saw his furniture in the photo.  

For this production and those that followed, sound designer Chad Raines, who had worked with Perlman at the Roundabout Underground, joined the artistic team, creating a media collage using mashups in the style of musician Girl Talk.

One set served for two living rooms, with details and lighting distinguishing each. Eckert worked closely with Raines, timing cues so that lights would start on a beat and shift from lighting the stage to the negative space around the stage, keeping the play’s momentum while scenes transitioned. He created slightly different color palettes for each apartment and made use of three vertical Plexiglas® windows upstage, pulling out the architecture of the set in different ways to create the bar and subway.

The original space was more than 32' wide, with house left and right banked in just a little bit, and with seating wrapped in a gentle curve that wasn’t exactly three-quarter. Actors could enter from a variety of places. When they decided to move the show to an Off-Broadway venue, the Signature Center’s rental space was available. Jeffers says the space is “absolutely beautiful,” but offered limited ways for characters to enter, exit, and crossover. They considered trying a different seating configuration but eventually settled on building a deck. “It was more expensive than putting down a floor treatment, but it allowed a moat around the deck,” says Jeffers. Actors could still enter the performing space from just about anywhere. From a scenic design viewpoint, this move was trickier than a later move to the Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca, even though seating was now a three-quarter thrust. “We only had to change a handful of measurements in terms of the footprint of the deck,” says Jeffers. Eckert, who had to adjust for visibility in Ithaca, also experienced the most change from one NYC venue to the next.

For the People

Budgets have gotten a little better with success, but money hasn’t gone into design elements. Paying everyone involved in productions is important to the trio. “The dollar amount indicates a certain amount of respect,” says Jeffers, and they have been paying people more. “Just because one of the founders is a set designer doesn’t mean the theatre has to put a lot of money into scenery,” he adds.

The Faire (Photo: John Eckert)

In Crystal Finn’s The Faire, budget is the problem for characters who perform at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire and find themselves coping with dwindling audiences and impending unemployment. The play is set onstage, backstage, and finally in symbolic space as a stage falls apart and fair tents disappear. Burlap fabric of different colors rotated to suggest outside and in, and Eckert punched up the colors of the fabric and lit the actors with footlights when they were performing.

A star drop was perfect for the final scene, but renting one cost too much. “We wanted stars that surrounded the stage on three sides, so we bought 60 yards of inexpensive sheer black fabric and hung it like a cyc around the space. Behind that, we put about 600 Christmas lights, hanging from the grid so that they formed a web, and then we went along and taped over about two-thirds of them, so that we got rid of any sense of the individual strands and the randomness of stars in the sky emerged. It ended up being a really great solution to the problem,” Eckert says.

The Faire (Photo: Jacob J. Goldberg)

Costume designer Izzy Fields, who juggles graduate work at NYU with design meetings and fittings, came on board with The Faire, developing silhouettes for each character, then creating realistic dress that she could push to ridiculous extremes. “We went with a lot of sight gags,” she adds, “with people in sparkling, silly lion masks.”

In a fair that is under siege by sound, Raines sent canned music through outdoor Radio Shack speakers, the sort you might see in modern Renaissance fairs. He placed speakers behind the stage for construction noises that built and crashed, and he distressed one recording so it sounded as though it were coming through a warbly cassette tape as the play itself became more and more distorted. He found sounds on Internet sources as well as locations in Brooklyn, where he wandered with a hard disc recorder. At one point, there is something of a sound storm. “We don’t exactly know what it is, maybe a dust storm caused by tractors coming in to pave over the whole fair. Everything up to that point is realistic, but then there is a really dramatic shift to the surrealistic,” says Raines. Airplane sounds figured in, too.

Problem, Solution

Raines didn’t know he was foreshadowing a sound cue in the next Fault Line production, Breathing Time, which takes place in an office in the World Trade Center the morning of 9/11. Fans go on and off, and instead of piping that sound through a PA system, he connected fans to a lighting dimmer that could be turned off abruptly as planes crash in. This “reverse sound design is intense and visceral,” he says.  

Models for Breathing Time

Breathing Time, by Beau Willimon, creator of TV’s House of Cards, unravels in an office and a restaurant. A drop ceiling and fluorescents help create the office. A restaurant unit comes in. Since the people in the restaurant are talking about what happened in the office, Eckert lit the architecture of the office subtly during the restaurant scene, framing the restaurant and heightening the relationship between the two events.

The theatre is very long, 48'x24' with an 11' grid. Because there is no permanent seating, the team had flexibility. They thought about doing the play proscenium style, rejecting the idea first of all because risers wouldn’t work. “Risers can only go up so high before someone starts hitting his head on lighting equipment,” Jeffers notes. More important, they thought abbreviated alley seating might involve the audience more. They created a stage that is 12'x17'6" with three and four rows on either side of the playing space.

“Audience seating, how the audience is in the space, is something he always thinks about,” Jeffers says of his mentor, Eugene Lee. It doesn’t matter if the seating is poured concrete. If there’s a better way to do it, he’ll ask. I hope I approach projects in a similar fashion to the way Eugene approaches his: that I’m not settling for something easy or safe. He is a genius when it comes to understanding stories and knowing how set design can help everyone collaborate on a final product. He taps into that. He gets it. I hope I learned how to approach projects like Eugene approaches his own.”

Just before From White Plains transferred to Off-Broadway, Jeffers moved to LA with his wife, who writes for the TV show Parenthood. He no longer shares major decisions with co-artistic directors Rossini and Divino, but he continues to design for the theatre, which, for the first time this season, has the same design team for every show. “They start to behave in a way that’s similar to an acting ensemble, very brave and transparent. It’s extraordinarily satisfying in the same way that working with an acting company is,” says Rossini.  

See more photos in the latest issue of Live Design. Get the free downloadable app for the iPhone or iPad at the Apple App Store.

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