Problem/Solution: Floods And Rain On A Theatre Stage


Set in a Manhattan high-rise, with large windows that lean forward over the playing space, rain beating on them, The Evildoers might have been tricky to design even if playwright David Adjmi's climactic stage direction weren't “the world breaks apart.”

“That's almost more a cinematic stage direction than a theatrical one,” notes sound designer Bray Poor of the Yale Repertory Theatre production. “A literal explosion is difficult to pull off on stage, so you have to think metaphorically.” But by the time Poor and lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge became involved, scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez had designed a sleek penthouse loft with gleaming waxed floors, reflective black walls, glassed-in orchids, white neon details, and featuring a mechanical automation sequence. A kabuki drop covers the scenery for the first scene. “When the mirror and glass are exposed, it looks like a moving greenhouse,” says technical director Brian Swanson.

“The play is unlike anything I have ever seen,” Strawbridge reflects. “It draws you in with completely plausible, naturalistic dialogue, and recognizable characters and settings. Then, somehow, while never violating its own aesthetic framework, it deposits you in an apocalyptic realm where a cataclysmic flood, monumental violence, and resurrection are natural parts of the landscape.”

“Rain is a strong symbol in the production,” Swanson adds. As the shallow set splits in two and deepens, a large atrium appears, and torrents of rain hit the glass. “An apocalyptic flood requires a water source to flood on a nightly basis,” Swanson notes. Moving units were essential, too, each unit carrying its own supply reservoir and its own pumping system, with electricity running to each. It would have to be possible to control these automatically.

Just how much water makes an apocalyptic flood? Too much for the city of New Haven's water system, it seems. “Usually, when we're doing water on stage, it's always easier to use the city water system,” says Swanson. “But when you're dealing with that much water over that much surface area, we can't get enough without bringing in hoses. The biggest problem was how to spread the water out over the length of these walls.”

“It can be surprisingly difficult to make water visible on stage. It really wants to disappear,” Strawbridge notes. “We wanted the actors to be in the deluge, not just backed by it…The biggest challenge was posed by the many surfaces of glass and mirror in Riccardo's beautiful, sculptural set. Crystal is as important an image as water in the play.” Light could not be reflected into the audience, blinding spectators.


Swanson says window units, with see-through mirror backing and facets of cut stone, were mounted on a moving wagon, shaped in an L. Most scenes play center stage, in a U configuration between them, until a sand surround that leads to an alcove opens up as the set breaks apart. This reveals another slanted wall, covered with Plexiglas. The water supply rests in a fixed piece upstage.

After mocking up floods in the scene shop, the designers invited director Rebecca Taichman to see some of the possibilities. “We decided to have two cycles of rain, a sprinkling that would slowly beat down, then turn into a deluge,” says Swanson. “She wanted that sheeting look, like when you're in the carwash. We played with some more stuff, and she was not really happy until we put a hose to the back of the Plexiglas.”

That takes plenty of water, some 50 gallons per minute for 10 minutes to cover a space about 400sq-ft., 20' wide, and 20' deep. Two other units, about 10' at the top on one side of the L and 6' on the other moving unit, also supply water, each carrying its own reservoir.

To spread the water evenly, they tried drilling holes in PVC piping. “We had to hide the apparatus behind a thin profile on top of the walls. That would have worked, but it wasn't spreading out fast enough,” says Swanson. They finally settled on a fan-shaped nozzle of the sort used in garden spraying systems. “We found the biggest fan-shaped piece and fit it into the PVC. We got high pressure because the walls are all angled, and it naturally drains into catch basins at the bottom of each wall. Gravity was our friend with that.” They return the water to its reservoir and begin again, using the same water each night. “Everything has its own fixed water supply.”

A system of gutters within the base of the moving walls can collect the water and drain it quickly. “We always have water in reserve in case it takes longer to come down the wall, get into the gutters, and make it back to the reservoir,” says Swanson.

During tech rehearsals, they discovered the mirrored moving walls surface wasn't perfectly flat. “You couldn't purchase two-way mirror pieces in big enough pieces to cover the walls, so we had to cut individual pieces to fit them,” says Swanson. Once attached, they found bumps where one pane stopped and another started. When the water hit the second pane and bounced as it sheeted down, water went everywhere. After some trial and error, they eliminated bounce by adding plastic and wood filler in the gaps, covering it with waterproofing tape to create a smooth surface.

“Once the water began to stream down this back wall, I thought, ‘Let's mic it. Let's process it,’” says Poor. A loop of thunder begins to degrade. There is a subtle pulse in the background. “We put it through a reverb unit, and we might have used some echo or tap delays, which began to create a weird sound, almost like water in a cathedral. What had been a compressed visual and aural pallet just blew open.”

Poor began to elevate and create a hallucinatory effect ahead of this pivotal scene, which begins when a central character slices his throat and his wife lets out a horrific scream. Poor recorded her scream, a powerful shriek, and asked her to always scream the same way. Then he uses the scream, cueing a long sequence extended in time and stretched, so sound emerges from her voice and shoots out into the house. “We really pound the hell out of it,” Poor says. “The shriek turns into a mechanical howl, which feels right because of all the mechanical things that are going on.”

His sound loop includes a train horn that has been used in earlier scenes. “We get a lot of ancillary benefits from having mics up in the grid that are amplifying the water.” In final moments, when the last character alive shouts to the heavens, Poor adds, “We pick up a little of his voice in a reverbed mic, and it sounds like we are in an enormous hall.”

“Bray brought lots of options and stayed flexible right up to the end,” says Strawbridge. “It goes without saying that light and sound are interrelated, but that truth was more than usually evident on this project.” Sometimes sidelight makes water visible, and sometimes uplight is necessary. “It has a lot to do with the background. In this case, backlight and low light levels are most effective,” says Strawbridge, who lights through the water, using it to reflect light and continue the effect around to the fourth wall to keep characters immersed. “I projected a rippling motion from the front using custom wheels on ellipsoidals with gobos in very low box boom positions house left and right.” Careful work-sheeting solved problems created by the multiple glass and mirror surfaces.

To deal with automation problems with greenhouse units that have to track and spin, says Swanson, “We use a turtle underneath, so it can rotate as it tracks offstage. For scene changes, a portion of the stage can go into the trap room and rise out of it on a 16'×4' lift.”

“Rebecca was uncompromising in pushing for a visual and aural environment that lived up to the writing,” says Strawbridge. “We tried many, many different versions of each sequence before discovering what worked, but it's hard to articulate what it is that makes any particular moment feel right. The palette goes to extremes of color, rhythm, brightness, and darkness, but sometimes it is just a small refinement in timing that makes all the difference.”

“Since many of the key events are transitions, we were able to use mornings before actor rehearsals to try things. That was a huge advantage,” Strawbridge adds. “Without time and the freedom to explore and experiment, a project of this scope and ambition could not be successfully realized.”

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