There are three different stories being told in the David Shire, Richard Maltby, Jr., John Weidman musical Take Flight, which had its US premiere this Spring at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey. The tales of Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and the Wright Brothers are interwoven into an examination of the human drive to be the first to do what has never been done before.
Two of the tales involve scenes in the cockpits of aircraft, so designer David Farley created cockpit sets that drop down from the flies with Claybourne Elder, who plays Lindbergh in one, and Jenn Colella, who plays Earhart in the other. Both performers play most of their scenes standing on the stage or on slide-on wagons with more traditional set pieces, but each spends some time swinging from the flies at the controls of their respective aircraft.
The two cockpits aren’t identical bookends, however. Lindbergh made his famous flight in Spirit of St. Louis in 1927 and Earhart’s final flight came more than ten years later. Airplane technology had changed considerably over that decade. The Spirit of St. Louis cockpit that Farley provided is angular, claustrophobic, and features structural members that are flat and square.
For Earhart’s cockpit, Farley took a bit of artistic liberty since the script didn’t reflect the fact that Earhart’s 1937 around-the-world flight attempt was in a plane with a co-pilot. However, he reflected the advances in aircraft construction, providing a more aerodynamically streamlined structure with weight-saving wholes drilled in the aluminum structure.
The kind of “flies” that you find above a stage are not the only kind that figure in the script. The other kind—the kind you swat when they swarm—figure prominently in the opening lyric: “A hundred miles of beach / a full mile wide in spots / a single hill you reach / by climbing up a hundred foot high rise / and flies! - No one mentioned the flies!”
That sets the scene for the first episode, that of the Wright Brothers, played by Stanton Nash and Benjamin Schrader, arriving at the desolate stretch of beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina where they would eventually succeed in man’s first powered flight.
Farley and director Sam Buntrock, who were reuniting after collaborating on the world premiere production at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2007, chose to use the image of that expanse of sandy beach as the basic look of the show, sliding set pieces on and off on wagons and, of course, down from the flies, but all within the frame of a sand colored stage that is wrapped in a sand colored portal with a mound of sand upstage before a white cyc.
Says Farley, “The sand dune—the location for the Wright Brothers storyline—was chosen as the ‘base’ for the set for the show as they were the forefathers of flight.” He points out that the other stories depended on those events, but also that “the vast open nature of the Wright Brothers location needed the most space as well.”
Director Buntrock wanted to have three different looks for the three different stories. “Nearly all of the Amelia storyline scenes were written as intimate naturalistic scenes” he says, adding that “Lindbergh’s storyline is much more abstract in style, with most of it happening in hallucinations, so we chose an abstract style for the aesthetic of his world.” The portals surrounding the playing space were fairly large in order to create more wing space and as a way to “allow the various wagons to enter and exit without [the audience] seeing the wings. The idea of the portals visually was to make the feeling of the sky as big as possible. Unfortunately, we did not have budget to have the lighting instruments to light the portals as part of the sky.”
There were six wagons. One set, that of Amelia Earhart’s manager/husband George Putnam’s office, used two wagons so that after the locale was established they wouldn’t have to use so much space, just putting Michael Cumpsty, who played Putnam, behind a desk for subsequent office scenes.
Cumpsty could play all of his scenes firmly planted on stage without swatting at flies—or hanging from them.