Thoughts on an Out of Town Residency

by Howard Sherman

Lorenzo Savoini, the Young Family Director of Design and a Resident Artist at Soulpepper reflects on the NYC residency

Seven trucks with costumes, props, musical instruments and scenery. Sound and lighting equipment rented locally. 65 artists, with staff and crew on top of that. The logistics for a Broadway touring production? No. That’s a sense of the scale of what Soulpepper Theatre Company undertook in bringing their work to the US for the first time, with their July residency at Signature Theatre company. Describing the logistics of the company’s visit, Lorenzo Savoini, the Young Family Director of Design and a Resident Artist at Soulpepper, said, “It’s almost like a military operation, what our production staff and producing staff have done. It's sort of like landing a 747 onto a front lawn, and it takes an enormous amount of logistics and pre-planning. I think they did it so well, I don't have to knock on wood anymore, but it couldn't have gone smoother."

Diego Matamoros, Lorenzo Savoini, and Richard Feren discuss how they co-created Cage.

“I was really concerned with the design perspective. I was really concerned about how tight the timeline was to pick up the show. A lot of our shows, even when we remount a show that we did a year ago, we give at least nine days of tech time to allow that show to get to feet again and remember where it's at, get the lighting in, sound in. [In New York], we had like three days. It was very tight. You always want more time, but we were absolutely able to get it up and running in the time imagined.  It just required a lot of pre-planning, a lot of putting it all on paper first.”

Because the shows hadn’t necessarily been produced originally to tour, the sets weren’t built for a long trek. But Savoini noted that that didn’t pose a particular problem. “Most of them I think were built for rep, we're a repertory theater company, so we have at least two shows running on a stage at the same time. They're built to come apart and get put off stage in, you know, two hours.”

That said, Savoini points out that the productions had to be remounted in Toronto to accommodate changes necessitated by the theatre capabilities at Signature. “Of Human Bondage at Soulpepper had an elevator in the show and Signature Theatre's stage does not allow for it. It's too shallow, it doesn't have a pit, so we had to cut the elevator and we restaged at least two, if not three, key moments in the show. We couldn't just show up and wing that. We had to run it in Toronto first.”

However, with the many productions sharing spaces, some with only a handful of performances, how much of the tech plot was rep and how much was set up for each show?

“Full hang, strikes,” said Savoini. “In every case, where we tried to do the best we could was to piggyback. Alligator Pie, for example, happened in the Diamond Theater with Of Human Bondage, but it didn't happen until later in the month. But we hung it right away on the same day we hung Bondage, of course. And then focused it way early. We focused it while I was focusing Bondage so that was two birds with one stone. Those instruments that went to that show would just live there and they would be used later on in the month.

Given how expensive accommodations can be in New York, the company had a particular challenge in housing the many artists they brought. But Savoini said that Soulpepper found an ideal solution. “They got very lucky and were able to put us all up in a residence at City College, up in Harlem. The majority of us stayed there and even some of us brought our families. My wife is an actor in the company and she was on stage during eight shows a week. I was designing shows, so we brought our son, 4-year old, and there's another two actors in the company doing eight shows a week who brought their daughter, who's five. We had them put together with nanny that took care of them for the month and it was just really a family atmosphere. There was a few of us that had to transplant families for the month. Logistically, that's challenging.”

Aside from one moving light that proved so problematic, one performance had to be canceled, Savoini felt that otherwise, it was a smooth transition to New York from Toronto. “We all hit our marks timing wise, scheduling wise and even didn't feel rushed somehow. Now the one thing, interestingly, is that I was blown away by their crews down there. Their focusers and the whole crew that we hired locally were very fast. And I asked them, ‘Why are you guys so good?’ Off-Broadway is non-union and they said, ‘It's just so competitive. You have to be. Everybody needs the gig.’ And because you're not union it's not like you're going down the seniority list pecking order. So, your name is everything and everybody excels. We're unionized in our building up here and sometimes it really is hit and miss who takes a call and what you're gonna get. So, I was really, really impressed with the speed and the accuracy of their crews down there.”

With so many people and pieces, one has to wonder whether putting together the residency was ultimately a big puzzle to be solved. “A giant puzzle,” responded Savoini, “much of which was in Albert Schultz’s brain. There's this insane chart It looks so chaotic and it's almost a piece of art in itself. But there's this really big chart that they made, probably eight feet wide, four feet high, a crazy sort of visual chart of what the month would look like, what would play, what would then move in, and what would leave. And the amount of planning that was done before was just extraordinary. Just that alone, to plan to go to New York, is a 60 hour a week job, but we're putting on 14 shows a year here plus concerts, so we're all year round in Toronto. We're keeping an entire season going while we're planning this massive sort of invasion. I have no idea how we did it all.”

Also read Howard Sherman's feature article about Soulpepper in NYC in the September issue of Stage Directions: A Maple Leaf In The Big Apple