According to Hamlet, all the world’s a stage, and we the players on it. That’s convenient for our daily drama, since natural environments develop organically, and to some degree, so do our artificial habitats. Who amongst us hasn’t looked around the house and wondered where all those knick-knacks came from, anyway? But if you’re a professional, and want to reproduce the action in the microcosm of a theater, you have to start with a black box—and that’s where techs like Mike Madden, technical director for the Ensemble Theatre Company (ETC), step in to re-create the way we live. On the stage, every one of those details have to be planned, analyzed, measured and placed to perfection, starting from the floorboards up. The glitz and glamour of opening night gets the attention, and the actors bask in the spotlight. But a lot more goes on behind the scenes.
For the set of ETC’s next show, The Memory of Water, not even the floorboards are as simple as they seem. The set is designed to be a bedroom, at least in part, and Mike told me that “a lot of action happens on the bed”—certainly a tempting reason to see the show! In order to provide a better view of the main events, the stage has been raked, or constructed to slant upstage, tilting the whole performance towards the audience. And not just any angle will do. The Actor’s Equity Association regulates the amount of raking allowed for the safety of the cast. Mike and his one carpenter have limited the slant to a precise three-quarts of an inch of rise to one foot of run, quite a project when walls, doors, furniture and thespians all have to rest comfortably on the surface.
However, unlike other shows the Ensemble has put on with very elaborate interior décor, this production’s look is more abstract. Molding, fireplaces, bookcases, glass-fronted cabinets and a full garden with a roofed shed are only a few of the challenges Mike has cheerfully tackled in his years at the Ensemble, but he says that a less realistic set has its own set of difficulties. “I know what a living room looks like,” he told me. “But when it’s something that the designer took just from their own head—that’s harder to interpret and build without more input.” This show has specific requirements as well, such as a “floating” door and glowing walls, which use a double layer of fabric, or scrim, to create their effects. As a result, he expects more drop-ins from the designers, and potentially more changes towards the middle and end of the build—always challenging when the opening night deadline looms large.
Starting from the plans furnished by the set designer, Mike and his crew first struck the previous set to prepare the space for the new set. They’ve had to rebuild the front of the stage, put in the new raked floor, and begin preparing the walls, all in one week. In a few days the lighting designer will come in, planning lighting effects that will work with the set’s dimensions and special angles. Simultaneously, rehearsal has begun, and the actors are beginning to learn their way around Mike’s creation. Next week, we’ll look at how all of these elements come together to make the show go on!