by Gail M. Burns, July 2003
The third MainStage production of the season, Dylan Thomas’ only work for the stage Under Milkwood is up and running at the WTF. If you have already seen it, or if you are gazing in wonder at the photos which accompany this article, you may be asking yourself how do they do it? How do they close one show on Sunday afternoon and open another one on Wednesday night with an entirely different sets, lighting, costumes and performers? We had a chance to speak with the set, lighting, and costume designers for this show in order to take you behind the scenes at a typical WTF changover.
Every other Sunday afternoon the final curtain falls on a MainStage production. Immediately the set is struck, a noisy and energetic undertaking involving dozens of people. Walking outside the AMT can be hazardous as big chunks of plywood and other debris are heaved out of a second story doorway to make way for the new construction.
Landscape of the Body which closed last Sunday, had a spare, dark set. The play took place primarily in New York City in 1977. Under Milkwood follows a day in the life of the residents of a small Welsh village in the mid-20th century. The stage is dominated by a mound or hillock which rotates very slowly on a turntable, making a complete rotation once during the 90 minute run of the play and signifying the passage of a day. The actors rehearsed on a rug that was moved periodically until Monday evening when the new set was completed and they set foot on it for the first time.
“It takes a lot of prep work to do this so quickly. Other summer theatres take longer to changeover. The difference here is the large staff and the energetic interns and apprentices who work long hours to make it all happen. The quality and professionalism of everybody working here is amazing and our crew heads are just excellent this year, which is a God-send,” explained set designer Alexander Dodge, here for his 7th WTF season, “Just the work on the set takes about 30 people – 10-15 carpenters, 10-15 interns, and 1-15 electricians. We work ‘round the clock from the time the matinee curtain falls. We have meals served at midnight and four a.m.”
The turntable arrived partially assembled from the set shop in North Adams. Dodge and his crew started construction with the flooring, then the turntable, then the flying pieces of scenery and the surround of walls. The mound on the turntable is the last thing to be built. By the time Monday dawns they are on to set dressing.
At the same time lighting designer Rui Rita, a 16-year WTF veteran, and his crew are rehanging, recurcuiting, and recoloring 300-plus lights. Once that is done, time is spent focusing them. “We have a rough idea of where the actors are going to be, but you have no idea of how the heights will and sightlines will work. You don’t know how long it will take an actor to cross the stage. We don’t see the actual set until it is constructed either.”
“Working here you develop a sort of artists’ shorthand,” Rita observed, “You make your first and possibly boldest choice and that's what you live with. That has its pros and cons, but ultimately you end up making bigger, bolder artistic statements than in other venues where you have more time.”
Rita is doing a lot with follow spots to make sure the actors and set pieces on the constantly turning mound never rotate out of the light. “The turntable is fairly terrifying,” Dodge said, “With only two days to tech the show there is no time for anything to go wrong, but we always have contingency plans.”
Rita recalled a recent WTF production with a turntable where the mechanism failed to stop on cue. Actors and set were rotated into the lights, began their lines, and then continued to spin out of sight. The actors waited until they came back into view to pick up the scene, and that time, thankfully, the turntable stopped as expected.
The idea of using the turntable to give the feel of the passage of a day came out of discussions between Dodge and director Darko Tresnjak. “There are always meetings with all the designers and the director,” said costume designer Linda Cho, another 7-year WTF veteran, whose work is largely done by changeover time, “In my conversations with Darko, we decided to make the characters look very real, so I looked at a lot of photos of Dylan Thomas and the towns in Wales near where he lived. Costumes have to serve the play and the characters. One thing I love about designing for the theatre is the chance to do the research and learn about another time, place, and people.”
Cho oversees a crew of about 15 people in the subterranean costume shop at the AMT, including cutters, drapers, first hands, stitchers, costume interns, design assistants, a wig master, and a crafts person. The shop creates the actors’ clothing and any props which are worn. Under Milkwood called for the creation of 90-plus costumes for 39 actors.
Cho uses a combination of building costumes from scratch, renting, haunting thrift shops and vintage clothing stores, and shopping retail. She has her favorite second-hand shops in Berkshire County and is always tickled when the proprietors remember her each summer.
All three designers spoke of the challenges presented by Dylan Thomas’ lush language in Under Milkwood. Originally written as a radio play, the words are intended to serve as sets, props, lights, and costumes in the listener’s imagination. “Thomas’ words are so vivid and conjure such strong images that we all face the same challenges of how much to underline those images and how much to let the words evoke them.” Rita explained.
You can see the fruits of all these creative endeavors on the MainStage of the Adams Memorial Theatre. Under Milkwood runs through August 3 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Call the box office at 413-597-3400 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003