Walk the Plank

by Clare Floyd DeVries

 

How Shakespeare Dallas rectified its “bridge” problems

 

When Shakespeare Dallas expanded their season into the fall, they expanded territory, too. Their 2005 production of Twelfth Night started at their home amphitheatre in Samuel Grand Park, Dallas, then transferred to a fountain-filled park in Addison, Texas.

Twelfth Night’s set needed to be easy to transport and erect. It had to fit two stages: one wide and shallow, the other narrow and deep. But the toughest design problem was that — at mid stage — Addison had a 4-foot drop and an 11-foot-wide moat.

Bridges were required. For the main span between downstage and backstage, technical director Dave Tenney and I (as the set designer) decided to dress scaffolding with pipes and conduits like an industrial bridge. We counted on scaffolding really standing on the moat bottom. This faux bridge had an upper deck for dramatic entrances and a hidden lower one for surprise entrances. Secondary bridges were of steel grating with airline cable and 2-by-4 mid-span spacers that created light, elegant cable trusses. Heavy-duty brick flats from the summer productions became fall’s graffiti-tagged warehouse.

On the day before the show opened, the bottom of the moat was declared fragile. The mock bridge had to become a clear-span, double-decker bridge. Because curbs on each side of the moat were also delicate, the span grew to 16 feet. And the change in ground level on each side of the moat meant that both levels of the bridge had to be supported at the high end upstage and the low end downstage.

Quickly, Dave redesigned and rebuilt the span as nested wooden truss bridges: an upside down U and an upright U.

That season’s big lesson was to beware design assumptions based on information provided by a venue. It might change. And next year, could it please be lighter to move?

So for Shakespeare Dallas’ 2006 production of Much Ado about Nothing, Dave and I created lightweight scenery and a smorgasbord of bridges.

Much Ado’s central span was built of standard wood platforms braced by angled 2-by members below, skinned with lauan, and painted like the stone arch bridge of a baroque Italian garden. It crossed at upstage height to a belvedere with symmetrical curving stairs that brought actors to downstage level. The second span was a sloping rope bridge with 2-by-12 planks. During rehearsal this was stiffened for running entrances by adding a steel angle and cable truss like those used the year before. The third span — reached by ship’s ladder — was a floating pontoon bridge made from a standard platform with blocks of expanded polystyrene glued underneath. This time the hedge walls of the set were the lightest possible: 1-by lumber, burlap and camouflage netting.

If practice makes perfect, next season’s bridges will be even more varied, set walls will be even lighter to carry and they will pack tighter into the truck too.