Film to Stage

by Michael S. Eddy
in Feature
Heather Headley as Rachel Marron and the chorus of The Bodyguard.
Heather Headley as Rachel Marron and the chorus of The Bodyguard.

The hit musical The Bodyguard, now running at London’s Adelphi Theatre, turns the popular 1992 Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner film into a stage musical starring Heather Headley as the superstar singer Rachel Marron and Lloyd Owen as Frank Farmer, the former Secret Service agent turned bodyguard. The fact that the movie featured music including the hit song “I Will Always Love You,” was a bonus for the producers, but the move from film to stage of any story brings its own challenges. For scenic designers, they often need to bring the film’s multiple locations to life on a single stage.

Tim Hatley, set and costume designer for The Bodyguard
Tim Hatley, set and costume designer for The Bodyguard

For The Bodyguard that task fell to Set and Costume Designer Tim Hatley, who worked closely with the rest of the creative team, including Director Thea Sharrock, Lighting Designer Mark Henderson and Video Designer Duncan McLean. Hatley used extensive automation elements, there are upwards of 55 axes of automation, to make the show flow much like a film. “I think it’s always a tricky thing having a film going onto the stage,” comments Hatley. “Couple that with turning it into a musical and it’s quite a challenge. I didn’t want to alienate the audience who’re in love with the film, I didn’t want to just ditch the whole idea of the film; but on the other hand, I didn’t just want to put the film onstage. I’m a great believer in trying to find a theatrical way of telling a story.”

Different Worlds

Tim Hatley’s rendering of Rachel Marron’s living room, a cream and white world defined with varying depths and entrances set by his “irises.”
Tim Hatley’s rendering of Rachel Marron’s living room, a cream and white world defined with varying depths and entrances set by his “irises.”

In breaking down the show, Hatley came up with very specific worlds that the characters inhabit—the rock ‘n’ roll world of her performing; the L.A. mansion where she lives; and the dark world of the stalker—and Hatley became very interested in keeping those three worlds separate. Then there’s the fourth world—the cabin in Oregon where Farmer and Marron visit. Hatley wanted that to feel like it was a completely different show. “We’re going somewhere completely different; escaping all of those other worlds,” he says.

Tim Hatley’s rendering of the set for a concert sequence
Tim Hatley’s rendering of the set for a concert sequence

Hatley then thought about the colors for the different areas. “There’s the black world of the stalker; there’s a sort of cream and white world, which is Marron’s L.A. mansion; and then there’s the rock ‘n’ roll world, which is really down to Mark Henderson’s lighting and the black shiny floor. Within the set, we’ve got colored LEDs so that you can actually change the colors; you can change the colors of the spaces.” The scenery is for the most part black and white with the injection of color from lighting.

“I set myself with the task of trying to move between the three primary areas and the fourth—the cabin—as just a one-off,” the designer continues. “It became all about that. I wanted to have a set that changed tone, changed color, changed—of course—space, but not necessarily with actors having to leave the stage. I want us to be able to go from one scene to the next flowing seamlessly like a film does. Traditional musicals are set up theatrically; there’s time to stay in a scene for a while, there’s time to set up the next scene, it’s all spelled out in the process of writing the piece. But when you’re dealing with something that’s coming from a film, it’s got a different energy. It’s not purposely written for the stage. It was trying to embrace that and make that work. So I became very interested in finding a device that would move from scene to scene very, very quickly.”

Hatley’s solution brings to the stage a standard film editing device. “I came up with the idea of a camera iris scenic device as the main feature of the set,” says Hatley. “It gave us different apertures, different depths and different colors.” The scene changes “iris” in and iris out. Careful planning was extremely important according to Hatley. “I’ve used automation in musicals before, but never quite as exacting as this. It was so finely storyboarded. Each set up was really very, very specific. I was just trying to do as much as I could to prep and think of it like film prep. It was invaluable, because once we got into the theatre we knew what we were asking automation to do; that really, really helped us.”

Hatley built a cardboard model to try and illustrate his plans, but quickly realized that it wasn’t sufficient to get the scenic message across. “The model was actually useless in a way, because you needed to be two octopuses with 16 arms to make all the things move at the same time. Never before have I had a show that’s been quite so automated. I decided quite quickly to put it onto a computer. Once we had it all drawn up, we then extruded it, made it 3D, and were able to time moves on the computer. We were able to look at it from different angles and see what those moves were doing. It was a very useful tool because once we got into the theatre, we had a really, really short tech time; much less than any other musical of this scale that I’ve worked on before.” Hatley worked closely with Model Assistant Paul Tulley and Tim Crowdey, who handled AutoCAD and computer previsualization.

The entire stage-encompassing iris Hatley designed includes a full, cross-stage scenic blade that can rise up through the floor, one that comes down from the flys and a range of four pairs of tracking slider panels from downstage to upstage that can come in from stage left and stage right. The blade that comes up through the floor can go up about 19.5 feet (6m) and there is an elevator in the floor behind that blade so a group of people can be lifted as if they’re standing on the iris as it comes up.

The pair of scenic sliders that are the furthest downstage actually work like bi-fold doors because there’s no wing space at all. Hatley describes, “As they go off—you can’t see it happen—but in the wings they’re actually folding up to save space. When they come on they straighten out and travel straight across. Each of those irises can go all the way across the stage. So you can have a doorway on SL or on SR and then it can track back. The second pair are the same; also bi-folding. This pair doesn’t travel quite as far because there’s never need for it. Then the two sets of iris panels upstage are actually quite cheated, because they’re at the back we can make them a bit shorter. They go all the way across.”

The irises are hard panels that consist of aluminum frames covered in twin wall plastic panels, a corrugated plastic, and then covered in a thin gauze scrim. The gauze was painted by Simon Kenny of Souvenir Scenic Studios, who built the scenery and did all of the finish treatments on the set. “I think that Souvenir Scenic is my dream workshop,” comments Hatley. “They were as fantastic as ever; their attention to detail, their skill, their artistic eye is second to none, and they always bring more to the project.”

Making It Fit

Stage Technologies handled all of the scenic automation and Delstar Engineering handled the mechanical engineering. Both firms worked closely with the show’s production manager, Matt Towell, on preparing the Adelphi for all of the scenic automation equipment. The 55 axes of motion include winches, hydraulics and motors. “The biggest challenge for us was that it was quite a small theatre but it has quite a lot of kit on it: all the hydraulic pumps, the scissor-lifts, all the motors that needed to hide amongst the trusses and things,” explains Richard Willcox, project manager with Stage Technologies. “We had to sit all our winches onto what is normally just a manual flying floor, so we had to get special metal work fitted for all of our winches; luckily some of our winches are quite small, so that helped and we can hide our winches in small spaces. It was a real challenge to just fit quite a big show into quite a small theatre.”

Tim Hatley designed the cabin sequence of the musical to be unlike the rest of his “iris” set, but still used heavy automation to get the large set piece into place. For a video of Production Manager Matt Towell explaining the automation testing and showing the machinery that brings the cabin onstage visit bit.ly/sdbgautomation
Tim Hatley designed the cabin sequence of the musical to be unlike the rest of his “iris” set, but still used heavy automation to get the large set piece into place.

For the one-off cabin set, Hatley designed a two-story log cabin, which Stage Technologies automated. “We had a track and a rotate motor for the massive cabin truck, which rotated as it went downstage,” Willcox comments. “On one side it is the outside front of the cabin with a small porch and then as it moves downstage it rotates around to reveal the inside of the cabin. It was big and it weighed at least two tons. Delstar provided a massive gearbox and slew ring to rotate it around and then we provided the motor.”

There are four traps in the floor and there was quite a lot of flown scenery and lighting involved, which was handled by winches designed and built by Stage Technologies. Willcox continues, “We had to integrate our winches into the theatre’s existing manual counterweight system, so all flying is counterweight-assisted,” he says. “We put in 20-odd assist winches, all with a safe working load of 551 pounds (250kg) There are also two big hydraulic-powered scissor lifts in the middle of the stage, which we used in conjunction with the irises. And then there was a smaller scissor-lift that was in the very front of the stage, which the leading lady goes up on at the end of the final number.”

The Stage Technologies Acrobat console that controls all the automation on The Bodyguard, as seen from the catwalk.
The Stage Technologies Acrobat console that controls all the automation on The Bodyguard, as seen from the catwalk.

All of the automation is controlled with the Stage Technologies’ Acrobat Console running its embedded eChameleon software. Some of the features of this software came in quite handy when dealing with the amount of automation for this show. Willcox explains, “We can do position triggers, so when one piece of scenery gets into a position it will then trigger another piece of scenery to move. That feature got used quite a lot because there was automation in just about every single scene change and it was very busy backstage during those changes. Using that kind of features made it easier to get things done.”

Hatley had only good things to say about Stage Technologies and their automation work on this production. “ I find them very professional; very detailed,” he says. “They took their time; they did a very, very good job. They worked with us in advance a lot, just to know what we were doing. I am very impressed with them.” Drapes and curtains for this production were provided by Ken Creasey, Ltd., and props and set decoration were handled by Lisa Buckley.

“I love doing musicals; they’re such a puzzle for a designer,” notes Hatley. “You think that you’ve solved one thing and then you’ve got the knock-on effect. You have to keep the rhythm going. The challenge was keeping it moving; it had to keep evolving. I storyboarded it time after time after time; it changed constantly. In the end it worked because I had a great team and it was a great experience.” The Bodyguard has been nominated for four Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical and Hatley for Best Set Design.