- by Donnell Walsh
in Answer Box
The set for a musical about bodily functions needed bodies to function.
In preparing a design concept for Lindenwood University’s Spring musical, Urinetown’s version of the class struggle between the elite versus the working class kept pointing me toward that short-lived but powerful period in theatre history, Russian Constructivism. In my image search, among all those curiously animated old black and white photographs of actors struggling up and down wooden scaffolds with their great wheels and cogs, ramps and trusses, one seemed to stand out: the drawing and later model made for the 1922 Russian production of Meyerhold’s Magnanimous Cuckold by constructivist artist Luibov Popova.
After a fruitless inquiry with the Russian embassy about any intellectual property rights which might require permission from the Popova family, we proceeded to honor the spirit of Ms. Popova’s notions of conflict with a recreation, with modifications, of her stage setting.
In my design, doors and the leading edge of the primary ramp, now a safer stairway, were clad in corrugated steel for a stark industrial look, including a set of Western “bar room” doors under the main platform. Steel rolling steps, 10 feet high, were moved often to the side and front as entrances to and from the upper levels. The circus curbs from the original model became 18-inch-tall seats and tables when stacked for an endless furniture supply.
A giant wheel still dominated the upstage edge of the set piece. I wanted it to revolve for each scene change, with each spin revealing a bold graphic title, accompanied by the synchronous counter rotation of small wheels along with the odd stage left “windmill” form, which became a huge valve handle in my design. A center pivoted wall section was added to the up left frame wall to depict variously the plane timbers or flip to a large print of the central tower from Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent German film, Metropolis, for the office of Cladwell B. Cladwell and his cronies.
Once assembled, our big wheel—built of luan and 1-by-4 pine in quadrant sections bolted together—was rolled in through the 30-foot stage left steel doors. Unlike the original, ours rested its steel pipe axle on a wood frame pylon. We had to rig the monster of a wheel to a weighted line set and carefully (all hands on deck) lift it and manipulate it into place.
After discarding various belt and pulley brainstorms to make all the wheels move synchronously, we thought what better way to show the working class angst than to simple have some movement rehearsals: one actor each on ladders behind the small cogs, and two actors on deck (all in half light, but “there”) to rotate the big wheel to its next graphic title. Conducting this orchestration was an actor who appeared onstage with a huge PVC crank, which was inserted into a plated hole about four feet up the main ramp staircase. The audience readily accepted this convention, and even applauded the fact that a diminutive female worker with greasy overalls and a hard hat groaned through her chore to make all this happen.
Living scenic and technical theatre history was our goal, and the results demonstrated a rare glimpse into early notions of the “living tableau” onstage in furthering the educational experience of students and audiences alike.
Director Nick Kelly and his actors readily inhabited this zany playground as if born to it. Tim Poertner’s creative lighting effects on the stage and cyc bathed the endeavor in yet another layer of telling timelessness. Sound, costume and tech support from Drew Matney, Donna Northcott and Dustin Massie followed suit and made “borrowing” the past a truly transformative collaboration.