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Social Networking: Designing Social Creatures at Trinity Rep

Social Networking: Designing Social Creatures at Trinity Rep

Photo Mark Turek

Jackie Sibblies Drury had been working on a play for the Trinity Repertory Company for a few years, and, as you might expect, the script went through rewrites. Social Creatures continued to go through sweeping changes during rehearsals for the Curt Columbus production.

Characters in the play barricade themselves in an abandoned building, hiding from the contagious undead who multiply outside. The undead were zombies in some versions, vampires in others. “In the course of rehearsals, everyone turned into zombies one day, but nobody did the next; this character was out, and another was in,” says Trinity’s production director, Laura E. Smith, adding that the ending was always in progress.

When lighting designer Josh Epstein arrived for the initial design meeting, he learned the last 45 pages of the play he had read no longer existed. “By the time I came back for a designer run before tech, there was another new ending, and by the start of tech, there was a third new ending,” says Epstein. “I knew not to get too emotionally invested in any single idea.” The theatre pushed the due date for the lighting plot up by a few weeks, which Epstein says might have strained lesser electricians and crew. Adds Smith, “I would rather hang everything at the last moment than have to rehang.”

Photo Mark Turek

Endings included a full-on zombie attack and one zombie urinating on another. “That would have involved some sort of rig, and that ending didn’t last very long,” says properties master Michael Getz. Finally, the play ends in almost complete darkness. In the story, a generator blows at the top of the show and is restored with difficulty, then blows out again. “We had to build the generator because real generators are ungodly expensive,” says Getz, who counts himself lucky that the generator did not have to function. The play does end with a zombie attack, but because it occurs in the dark, design requirements weren’t overwhelming.

Setting The Scenic

Smith says scenic designer Eugene Lee began looking for ways to stay out of the way of the evolving script. He brought furniture and props from the theatre’s warehouse, and then each actor picked five items his character might have brought into that situation. Getz says there was a mix of nice pieces of furniture, some of which were more industrial, as might be encountered in a warehouse. As the process continued, the feel became more and more industrial: drapes and backdrops from past shows, cots or beds for everyone, and a small stove figured in the design.  

Photo Mark Turek

Throughout the process, small props were cut and changed or handled differently than they had been at first. For instance, in two scenes, characters chase and kill rats. Getz considered remote-controlled toys, but the controls were unreliable. “The rat is so fast that we don’t really see it,” says Getz, who created rats by enclosing blood-filled bean bags in fur. When an actor chased one, furious movement distracted spectators who saw the rat when it reappeared and was hit with a baseball bat, releasing blood.  

Getz adapted Paramount Stage Blood for different scenes. “There was lots of blood going everywhere, and this is very washable,” explains Getz, who diluted the blood for one cue and added chocolate for another that required a dried blood look; he also added chunks of latex to a bucket that contained blood and body parts.

Since some characters have done horrific things in their recent past in order to survive, they don’t use their own names or talk about their pasts. However, each creates a historical record, stories on video, should they not survive. Peter Sasha Hurowitz, Trinity’s sound engineer, who did video as well, says this also allowed the audience to see “the characters’ pasts and how they were different when they weren’t in this pressured situation. A big part of what Drury was getting to in the script was how to get them in and out of this other world and into the world of the play,” he says.

Photo Mark Turek

Where would they tell their stories, so other characters don’t hear? And how would these “catalogues,” as the characters call them, be recorded? An early idea was to catch an actor on a live camera while speaking. When they decided to pre-record, they considered synching a live actor with a video, but Hurowitz found coordinating live and recorded lip movements difficult and potentially distracting to audiences. Instead, he shot body parts—the side of a face, eyes, an ear, arms—at different angles. Audiences saw these on banks of monitors on either side of the stage. There was some activity from other actors behind the actor who was speaking. “The idea was to get the sense of the recordings—of them talking on the video without seeing their mouths too much,” says Hurowitz. “We got a sense that they were being recorded and had recorded at other times.”

Drury added three lines to one catalogue a couple of days before opening, so its length would match the length of the recorded sequences. Epstein had wanted everything to feel 100% real but found himself changing as the play changed; he struggled to blend a raw sense of reality while lighting these theatrical moments and finally “created a separate lighting vocabulary for the confessional scenes” before bleeding the two worlds together throughout the play. He says he lit the catalogues to keep them clearly outside the timeline of the play and simultaneously “related to the world we had created.”

Initially, there was to be an enclosure that each character would enter to speak privately. What would it look like? Would it move? Lee drew ideas, and the actors tested variations, but by the time the enclosure was built, it was an isolation cell for those infected by the undead and not a place for the catalogues.

When a character leaves the hideout and returns, he is shoved into the booth. After all, he might have been infected. Later another character with symptoms is thrown into it. They tried a heavy-duty plastic that was hard to light from inside; spectators wouldn’t be able to see into the booth clearly, and sound was muffled, too. Chicken wire was out for an isolation booth, since, in the plot, even breathing on someone can turn him into an undead. Finally, Smith substituted a part plastic, part Plexiglas® 4' wall with a plywood top for the enclosure, so spectators could see through the transparent Plexiglas, and crews could hide materials needed for effects behind the solid portion. They attached this wall material to a rectangular booth built out of steel. Faux plywood would have been easier to work with, but characters get slammed up on a wall inside, and Smith decided strength was essential.

Characters don’t know what’s happening outside the windowless walls in their hideout, so Hurowitz also used footage from security cameras all over the theatre, too, allowing characters and spectators to survey the surrounding environment. Were there threats lurking? Except when the generator goes out, the cameras were always on. The idea was for audiences to feel as the characters did: unsure if they could leave. When the generator goes out, characters and audiences are plummeted into darkness. “We had them sit in a blackout for 15-20 seconds,” says Smith.

Lighting Creatures

Epstein managed to create a flexible light plot, he says, “based around some of the larger and unchanging themes and ideas of the play. One constant was that the play is set inside the actual theatre at Trinity Rep. These people had walked into an abandoned theatre full of theatrical lighting instruments already in the air. Another constant was that, unfortunately for the characters, although they had a room full of lights, they are in a world without power. So, we created a very simple plot that could theoretically be run by some sort of power generator.”

Characters brought lamps and practicals they might have gathered from their previous hiding spots for a sense of home. “Given their level of fear of what happens in the dark, they gathered worklights and bare-bulbs to make sure that the room was well lit,” adds Epstein. “Within this structure, we had the flexibility to shift the scenes to accommodate whatever script changes might arise.” 

Photo Mark Turek

Epstein and Hurowitz got new pages at the end of rehearsal breaks during techs. “We would literally shout back and forth between tech tables as we would prepare a whole new idea to try in five minutes. If one of us had a stronger feeling about something, the other would follow his lead as we put together a sequence,” Epstein recalls. “Sometimes I found myself responding as much to a sound or video choice made by Peter as I was responding to the new text. It was fantastic to work that way—designing together and in realtime—and it was so truly and deeply collaborative that it was hard to tell where one person’s idea started and another person’s ended.”

Hurowitz says song selections changed as the show went through rewrites, and each ending required a different tone. Finally, he ended with a lighter sound, “to bring it back to the earlier tone of the show” after a disturbing soundscape that included TV static and the generator clicking off as the lights went to black. 

Dressing Creatures

Costume designer Olivera Gajic researched natural disasters and manmade catastrophes, studying photos of people after hurricanes and the September 11 attacks—“the people left behind,” she says. She also studied the homeless, New York fashion eccentrics, and safety equipment, including gas masks and protection boots and coats. “I was trying to find that broken logic that happens to us in times of catastrophes. What do we bring with us in moments of disasters?”

Gajic knew any renderings she did would be tentative. Even the nature of the catastrophe was in question as rewrites progressed. “I designed two zombies as written in the draft of the script I read first, and the shop built them,” she says. “When watching the run, it made total sense that there was not a place for those.”

Photo Mark Turek

Cast and crew experienced a natural disaster of their own two days before tech, when fire broke out. Epstein, who was working at Trinity Rep for the first time, says the response inspired and amazed him. About 36 hours after the fire, crews had cleaned, repainted, and rebuilt. “They must have been thoroughly exhausted but were in great spirits and back serving the production again as though nothing had happened,” he recalls. Adds Gajic, of the full tech day that followed, “It was touching to see which kind of social creatures we are.”


Equipment List

Photo Mark Turek

Video Equipment
1 TroikaTronix Isadora Video Playback Software
1 Kramer Electronics VS-828 8x8 Video Matrix Switcher
6 AV Toolbox AVT-3155A Scan Converters
12 TV Screens—CRT and LCD

Lighting Equipment
1 ETC Ion Console
6 ETC Source Four 50º Ellipsoidal Luminaire
38 ETC Source Four 36º Ellipsoidal Luminaire
53 ETC Source Four 26º Ellipsoidal Luminaire
2 ETC Source Four 25º-50º Zoom Ellipsoidal Luminaire
3 ETC Source Four PAR MFL
12 ETC Source Four PAR NSP
1 PAR38 100W
4 Snubnose Birdies MR16 150W
9 8" Fresnel 1kW
4 Arri 5K Fresnel 5kW
1 High End Systems AF1000 Dataflash Strobe
30 Practicals of various types and wattage including:
    Wall-mounted emergency lights
    Cage light strings
    Portable halogen work lights
    Shaded living room lamps

Sound Equipment
1 Yamaha O2R Mixer
1 Apple Mac Mini Running Qlab 2
1 Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 FireWire Audio Interface
7 Meyer Sound UPM-1P Powered Speaker
2 Meyer Sound USW-1P Powered Subwoofer
5 EAW JF-80 Speaker
2 EAW VR-21 2-Way 12" Speaker
1 EAW FR-122hp 2-Way 12" Speaker
2 EAW  FR-153hp 3-Way 15" Speaker
1 JBL Control 1 Speaker
5 QSC PLX-2502 Power Amp
1 QSC PLX-1602 Power Amp
1 Sennheiser EW IEM G2 In-Ear Monitor
2 Audio Technica AT 5000 Wireless Mic System
2 Countryman B3 Lavalier


Davi Napoleon, a regular contributor to Live Design, is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater.

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