A Week in the Life Backstage

According to Hamlet, mike%20building%20the%20set.jpgall 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 sam%20the%20carpenter.jpgEquity 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 set%20in%20progress%20week%201.jpgchanges 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!

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