Closing Time

by Bryan Reesman

John Lee Beatty’s scenic design for Sweat

Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat is currently playing on Broadway at Studio 54, after a sold-out run at the Public Theater. The play was originally co-commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage; it received its world premiere at OSF and then ran at Arena. Sweat, directed by Kate Whoriskey, is a blue-collar drama about factory workers in Reading, PA facing layoffs and in a harsh economic environment. This honest reality of the play is echoed in the work of scenic designer John Lee Beatty, who imbued the stage with realism by emulating a real bar and keeping the vibe as gritty as possible. 

The bar itself, where a majority of the narrative action of Sweat takes place, has a ‘60s vibe though the play takes place mainly in 2000 with scenes also  occurring in 2008. Nottage and Whoriskey brought Beatty pictures of an actual bar from Reading where they thought the story might take place. “They gave me enough pictures that I didn’t even visit the bar,” he recalls. “It definitely has the ambience of the pictures they showed me. For the outside of the bar, I took the image of a bar in my head that I remembered from a working-class town in Southern California.”

Sweat has gone through four incarnations over two years. The new Broadway production features the bar revolving on a scenic turtle so that, as Beatty explains, “It’s traveling and revolving at the same time.” He also wanted to be able to adjust the angle at Studio 54. “Because we’re in a wider, larger space, the machinery allows you to adjust the angle so it’s optimal for the actors. You always try to get them across from each other equally.”

Sweat photo (c)Joan Marcus

The bar unit plays at a 30° angle and the bar itself is 14’ long. Directly underneath where the bartender stands is the pivot point for the turtle. The center bar unit is on the turtle with a major center deck track going up and down the stage; this means the turtle can turn and be travelling up and down stage at the same time, making possible to revolve what is essentially a rectangle. “Most people think they’re seeing a revolve, and they’re not really thinking about how impossible that would be if it didn’t also track. Only revolving, it would swing out over the audience and kill people,” Beatty jokes.

There are a couple of scenes that take place on the stoop at the back entrance to the bar, and the set pivots accordingly, while a scene at the end of the first act takes place behind that structure. “There’s an actuator that pushes out a wall so you feel you’re seeing behind the bar as well,” says Beatty. “That’s an addition for the Broadway version.” That came to pass as the mechanics of the show evolved, “and we found that we liked playing that scene there.”

Sweat photo (c)Joan Marcus

It is certainly a different set up than what he used when the show was initially in repertory at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). As Sweat has moved and evolved, the stage configurations have also changed. At OSF and then the Kreeger Theater at Arena, the show was in semi-thrust venues, so the set had no side walls for the bar, which became a choice that the creative team ended up liking. The Martinson Hall at the Public Theater in New York “is what you call an end stage, a platform at the end of a room,” notes Beatty. “On Broadway, it’s more or less a proscenium stage. It also has a deluge curtain. There is no fire curtain, but we respect the fire line.”

He explains that the first venue in Oregon had a positive revolve. “The bar platform had a pin that went down through the floor and was turned from below.” They used a variation on that scheme at Arena Stage, then at the Public they employed a turtle “because the unit had to do some dodging to get around the columns in the Martinson. The set was 28’ wide and the Martinson was something like 27’-6”. All Hell broke loose; you couldn’t revolve anything.”

Beatty recalls his “most strenuous day” was coping with the dimensional challenges of the Martinson. He spent 6 to 8 hours locked in his office to work out the geometry necessary to make the revolving bar work. “I wasn’t sure I could do it,” he admits. “Steve Beers was the technical supervisor, and he was very helpful. I kept calling him to discuss whether I should do a revolve or continue with the turtle. We were talking about it every day for a week. Finally, the turtle was the way to go. I like working with people on solutions. It’s a lot of work when you have scenery that moves and has to be detailed and painted properly and be in a couple of different building styles. There’s a lot of ‘us’ involved.”

Given the wide proscenium stage of Studio 54, Beatty built huge steel walls on either side to cut down the space from side to side in the auditorium. “I tried to emphasize the parts of the ambiance of Studio 54 that reminded you of a deserted factory.” In fact, Beatty integrated elements reflecting different venues into the show, like cinderblocks for the Kreeger and a dusty environment in the Martinson, which Beatty notes, “It’s wonderful, but falling apart.”

The scenic designer also admits to a clever cheat that most people will not notice. For one important scene where a union rep is baring her soul to the bartender, the unit slides up three feet closer to the audience. “They’re speaking in almost arias, and I thought, wouldn’t it be better if it were in close-up?” says Beatty.

The other key scenic element in the show are the “gates” used at the top of each act, upon which some images are projected. The grey wall with a door on either side is used as a parole office through which a parole officer goes back and forth in time between appointments, and it also doubles as the two apartments for two men and their mothers, who live under similar circumstances but share different worldviews. After those scenes, the wall separates into two, and each part slides off into the wings.

“It was once two doors and a white wall, and as the play evolved and when we got down to the Public, we separated [it] and came up with the scheme of the gates that opened out of the metallic world there,” explains Beatty. “I thought that clarified it even more because as you watch the play you realize there’s a big duality here. There are two mothers and two sons, and there’s always a left-right thing with those boys and their mothers. We wanted to emphasize the duality more and more.”

The apartment units have decks “that have been hiding in plain sight that pin onto the unit,” says Beatty. “They have wheels hidden in the furniture, so the gate units swing out into the wings. They’re detached and are parked there. When you’re doing Broadway, you are always thinking about crew and how many people it takes and making it sustain itself over a long run. Wear and tear and all that. It’s much heavier duty machinery on Broadway than it ever was, even though we did turtle it down at the Public Theatre as well.” 

The gate concept came about when projection designer Jeff Sugg remarked that the original wall moving aside was like “a gate opening to the past,” which solidified the concept in Beatty’s mind. What seems to start off as a prison drama goes into flashback mode as the gates part to reveal scenes eight years earlier in a bar that looks decades older.

The prop pieces (pictures, beer signs, watercolor painting), leatherette booths, and tchotchkes were mainly procured out in Oregon—and pulled apart and reworked for later productions—through the guidance of prop master Jim Clark. Beatty was surprised how much they found at swap meets and junk stores. People love collecting stuff from bars.

An atypical aspect to the set is the fact that the tables are attached to the booths by bent steel shafts that are welded in and are bolted into the floor.  While not a typical bar set up, it has been done before. “They used to do it that way so you could mop the floor more easily,” notes Beatty. “But I don’t think anybody realizes just how sturdy those things need to be for a humongous fight in the second act. Those guys throw each other on them and people need to sit on the tables. The prop shop in Oregon did a very good job of building them.”

Beyond the scenic shops on site at OSF and Arena, the metal walls and off-stage pieces in New York were built by Gotham Scenic and the main scenery and automation was handled by Shomotion. They all played a part in the evolution of the show, which has culminated in an edgy, high energy production now on Broadway. “I’m grateful for all four shops that have contributed,” declares Beatty. “For Broadway it had to be sturdiest and it didn’t have to travel anymore, so it was built to last.”  Hopefully the show’s run will too. It is a sturdy drama that resonates strongly at this time.  

Be sure to read about how director Kate Whoriskey artfully depicts Sweat's human story in SD's article Art Meets Humanity.