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Revolving in a Straight Line

Michael S. Eddy • Sets, Scenery and Rigging • March 1, 2009

Left to right: Brian d’Arcy as Shrek, Daniel Breaker as Donkey and Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona

Tim Hatley's complex automated floorplan for Shrek

 When Tony Award-winning Scenic Designer Tim Hatley joined the creative team for Shrek The Musical the show itself was still being shaped. Based on the DreamWorks Animation motion picture and the book by William Steig, the production, with a score by Jeanine Tesori and a book and lyrics by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay- Abaire, is directed by Jason Moore. Hatley took on sets, costumes and puppetry design working with lighting designer Hugh Vanstone and sound designer Peter Hylenski. Shrek’s scenes and songs were moving targets as the show took form, but Hatley knew that to meet schedules for building and installing the set he would have to be designing with an eye towards flexibility and the inevitable rewrites of a new work. He also needed the set to work for both the initial run at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre and the currently well-received run on Broadway.

“I knew I wanted the design to respect the character of Shrek—we knew he wasn’t going to now be a furry orange color—but I also didn’t want to just visually copy the movie,” explains Hatley. “I wanted to do something that was conducive to telling the story in the theatre space.”

Associate Scenic Designer Paul Weimer points out, “One of the main ideas of Shrek is that life is a journey—a road trip as Donkey says—so I think Tim wanted the movement of the locations that a turntable—or in this case three—could provide but not necessarily the look of a circular movement.” Hatley wanted linear delivery of the scenery but at the same time he didn’t want tracks all over the stage. “We had to find a way to get the revolve concept to work so that scenery can move left to right or go up to downstage,” says Hatley.

The solution was a design that calls for three different-sized revolves built within each other, laid out concentrically. “For me it is more about the revolve inside the revolve,” explains Hatley. “We don’t really use it as a whole floor that turns around, rather it is more the delivery device. Another huge thing for me is that I didn’t want people to see it. If you look down on it, the floor design is a giant camouflage, and that was a deliberate thing to take away from the circle inside the circle so that when it stops it fades into the floor design.”

– The Shrek turntable assembly at the PRG Scenic Technologies shop in New Windsor, NY. Left to right: Forrest Hoffnar, lead technical engineer on the project, Tory Atkinson, project manager, and Fred Gallo, president of PRG Scenic Technologies.

Getting It Built

Hatley turned to PRG Scenic Technologies, a division of Production Resource Group in New Windsor, N.Y., to engineer and construct the automated floor. Hatley had not worked previously with PRG but after visiting them, “I felt safe in their hands. I couldn’t believe the size of their shop, it is like an aircraft building plant and they were a joy to work with throughout.” Troy Atkinson, project manager for PRG Scenic Technologies, describes the engineering behind this clever design. “Being that it is three separate turntables that are set offaxis from each other, you can actually take an actor from upstage center and without that actor ever moving, have them travel downstage 27 feet. You can rotate all three turntables in a way that keeps them facing downstage towards the audience and allows them to move up and downstage within that parameter.” Weimer adds, “Not only do we have our three turntables, but we have five elevators built into the largest turntable, like large stair steps, and the smallest turntable is also an elevator, so the set can provide acting levels for certain scenes.”

The need to have elevators that can rise out of the deck level to 5 feet above the stage floor meant that PRG needed to build down.

Assistant Lighting Designer Anthony Pearson on Fiona’s tower checking the moving light focus.

“The whole turntable assembly is 10 feet tall. It isn’t just a turntable that is up 10 feet in the air, it is a 10-foot-tall turntable,” describes Atkinson. “The largest diameter turntable (A) is 27 feet; then they are all set slightly off-center from each other. The next one (B) is approximately 17 feet, and then (C) is 8 feet in diameter. The eight-foot diameter turntable also lifts up out of the deck five feet. The mountains are five separate lifts that rise out of turntable A.” The top of the turntable unit is the show floor, so most of the 10 feet is below the stage and the same unit needed to be installed in two different theatres. “It was built for the New York theatre but we knew it would need to accommodate the Seattle run,” explains Atkinson. “For installation, we opened up a 30-foot-by-30-foot hole in the stage floor. In Seattle the basement floor is about 15 feet deep, but the turntable is only 10 feet deep, and with the show deck being another 6 inches, and everything else that added up, we had to actually create a platform in Seattle that was six-feet off the basement floor in order for this turntable to sit on. The turntable itself weighs 40,000 pounds.”

Left to right: Leah Greenhaus, Sutton Foster, Marissa O’Donnell as Fionas of various ages on her tower during the song “I Know It’s Today.”

The complex engineering of the automation itself included figuring out that each turntable would be a different drive style. “Turntable A is a grommet-drive turntable with a cable around the outside. Turntable B is a chain-drive turntable where you place a chain around the outside instead of a cable,” continues Atkinson. “Turntable C is a pinion-gear turntable, which is rotated from the perimeter as well. We went with all perimeter-drives for these turntables to get precision positioning, which was critical.” PRG’s Stage Command system is used to control all of the deck automation systems.

Bit by Bit

Weimer particularly liked Hatley’s solution to mask the setting of props and scenery on the turntables. “The downside of turntables—as anyone knows who has used them—is how to get set pieces from the wings onto the turntable without being seen,” Weimer says. “You are always trying to create some downstage element to hide the stagehands wheeling out the next set piece and placing it on the turntable. For Shrek, Tim was adamant that we have as few ‘in-one drop’ moments as possible.”

Weimer used a system of portal legs on automated traveler tracks, which could move onto the turntable to reshape the onstage space and allow for setting the next set piece without closing off the upstage sky cyc. One of the important elements in the Shrek story is the time of day, since the heroine turns into an ogress at night— seeing the sky as much as possible is important in telling the story.

“Another element of the set that provides masking,” states Weimer, “are the show borders, most of which are the size of full stage drops and are made from strips of fabric mounted onto bobbinet, so they can appear solid when front-lit and scrim-like when back-lit. They sometimes fly into the deck to act as a drop, or, as in the ‘red forest’ scenes, fly halfway in to suggest foliage. Each scene was planned as a combination of set pieces, turntables, portal positions and border trims.”

From the very beginning Hatley knew that the set would have to be a combination of moving elements. “There are so many locations and you have to keep things fluid,” he says. “With a set like we have that takes time to engineer and build, we had to make a lot of decisions before there was a final show. I really worked to design something that was fluid and could adapt, so that if they decided to move one swamp scene into another location we could accommodate that. The drops were very much part of the visual language. All the elements really come together well and help move the show along.”

Sutton Foster as Fiona and the cast of Shrek in the song “Morning Person”

Hatley and Weimer brought more than just the scenery together; the massive scenic show required them to use multiple shops to construct all the pieces. Besides the turntable/elevator assembly and the portal tracks provided by PRG Scenic Technologies; Scenic Art Studios, Hudson Scenic Studio and the Seattle Rep scene shop all worked on key elements of the set. There are two different automation systems on the show with Hudson Scenic handling the fly automation, which is everything coming in from above, and PRG handling the deck automation.

For Hatley, the collaboration of the different shops was an extension of how he most enjoys working. “I am a great believer that theatre is a team effort. I like to have people around me and we talk about things and exchange ideas, I find better work comes out of that. Paul is a fantastic contributor and Technical Supervisor Gene O’Donovan has done everything I have done in N.Y. We all have quite a collaborative relationship and it leads to such good work.”

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