Building the box
by Andrew Wilson
Building the Wall began its run on May 2. Over the past months, we checked in with key members of the team that have been putting the production together.
Designer Sarah Beaton with her 1/25-scale model of the set of Building the Wall.
14 March. Six weeks till opening night, and Jez Bond is pumped. “This production marks a number of firsts,” he says when I catch him between meetings.
Although there have already been over 70 separate productions in the US, this is the European premiere of a play written by Tony Award-winning author Robert Schenkkan in a week of “white-hot fury” after Donald Trump’s election in November 2016.
It is the first time Park Theatre audiences will see actors Trevor White and Angela Griffin in the Park200. He plays Rick, a prisoner recently convicted of a massive crime against humanity; she plays Gloria, a historian to whom Rick has granted his only interview.
It is also Park Theatre’s first project with the designer Sarah Beaton. It has been only seven years since Sarah won the Linbury prize, but she has been amazingly prolific. Vanity Fair magazine recently included her in an article covering some of Britain’s best young theatre talents.
Full-scale: Sarah inside the box after the panels have been raise, Sunday 29 April.
|Which is real, and which the reflection? Sarah and assistant technical director Neal Gray.|
In October last year, Jez saw Theatre 503’s In Event of Moone Disaster which Sarah designed, and suggested they meet.
“I was impressed by her ingenuity,” he says, “putting multiple locations on a postage-stamp stage – including a visit to the moon!” Female designers are prominent this year at Park Theatre, reflecting its policy of achieving gender balance behind the scenes as well as onstage. (The lighting designer for the show is Sally Ferguson.)
He sent Sarah the script, and she replied with some ideas and sketches. They found themselves on the same creative wavelength, centred around the idea of separating the actors from the audience by a glass barrier.
Essentially, Jez says, Building the Wall is “two people onstage in glass box for 80 minutes, with no interval, no scene changes, all in real time. There is literally and metaphorically no escape.”
The concept is simple. Building the set and staging it brings with a host of challenges, and several more firsts for Park Theatre. That glass box, for instance...
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16 March. Sarah Beaton slips into the quiet Park200 carrying what looks like an elongated hatbox – actually a scale model of the set she has designed for Building the Wall. A softly spoken Scot, Sarah sets the model on the stage, which is still dressed for A Passage for India.
The model includes the 200’s stalls and circle seats, the brick back wall, and on stage a perspex box, with a table and chairs and a back window. Stark, a prison interview room, in 1/25th of real size.
The clock is ticking. In a few weeks, the theatre will take delivery of six glass panels, each three metres high and two wide, weighing upwards of 150kg each. Literally, a tonne of glass, supplied by the specialist firm Express Toughening.
Tammy Rose and Tim Highman of the Scenery Shop, the company that is going to build the set, stare intently at the box. Rounding out this first production meeting are Jez and the theatre’s Technical Manager Sacha Queiroz.
Sacha and Jez have a lot of questions. What will keep the panels together? How will the actors get enough air to breathe, and what will keep the heat down? How will the audience hear them speak their lines from inside the box? And how will the heavy glass panels get to the stage in the first place, given that the theatre’s only entrance is through the front door on Clifton Terrace and down the stairs from the Café Bar?
Tammy and Tim don’t have all the answers yet. There is talk of transparent polycarbonate nuts and bolts, and LED lights that give off little heat, and cunningly hidden grills for air.
Microphones are briefly mentioned, but details will have to wait for sound designer Theo Holloway, who Jez gravely refers to as “the Dark Wizard of the Sound World.” Sarah reviews the sightlines, ensuring that people in the top Circle seats don’t miss any of the action on stage.
Tim sums up: “Essentially, we just need to respect the design while observing the laws of physics.”
So that’s all right then.
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26 March. From her office above the Scenery Shop in an East London industrial estate, Tammy discusses the complementary roles she and Tim play in the company.
“My job is to ensure the set arrives on time and fits in the space; Tim’s is to make sure it doesn’t fall down.” They came to the business from very different directions – Tim via the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow and a succession of jobs as carpenter, rigger and production manager, and Tammy via an MA in medieval history seasoned by work with her uni theatre club. The company was established in 2010, and works extensively in UK theatre and television. The collapsing bunk bed they built for Peter Pan Goes Wrong made millions laugh when the show aired on BBC1. Park Theatre audiences have seen their work before in Toast and The Roundabout.
The Scenery Shop employs people with a wide set of skills, from carpentry and metal work to painting and “texturing” (giving surfaces a feel as well as colour). Tammy laughs when she mentions the painters: “We had to move them to an entirely separate building – I’ve never seen a group of people make so much of a mess in my life. They get phenomenal results, but it is incredibly messy how they get there.”
Tim Highman during the build.
Lighting designer Sally Ferguson handles a winch in the grid above the stage.
|Easy does it! Jez Bond (white teeshirt) helps lower the top of the box into place.|
In constructing the set for Building the Wall, however, paint is the least of her worries. Tammy doesn’t exactly sound daunted by this assignment, but allows that the glass provides “interesting” challenges. Anchoring the panels in a raised onstage platform and in the header piece is critical, but there are other issues – for instance, at this scale, the flexibility of glass has to be taken into account (glass is flexible? Who knew?). “And yes, we’re still working on how to actually get it into the theatre,” she adds.
She agrees with Sacha’s contention that theatre “tech” is essentially about problem solving. Some designers take part in the problem solving, while others simply leave it to the production people to turn the design into a working set. “It can be smooth or a bit of a nightmare,” she says. Rehearsals often reveal the need for small alterations; occasionally major problems are discovered while the set is being built.
At least one of Building the Wall’s design challenge has already been simplified. The original brief called for the glass box to be door-less, with the actors suddenly appearing after a blackout at the beginning. After discussions with the playwright, it was decided that a door was thematically necessary.
Tammy seems relieved. Boxes onstage are not in themselves unusual, and her team has built secret entrances before. But a secret entrance in a glass box – that’s one problem she’s glad not to have to solve.
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6 April. Designer Sarah Beaton’s first impression on reading the script of Building the Wall was one of intensity.
“It seemed like the stage wanted to be contained somehow, very literally... Like zooming in on something in a microscopic way...” She pauses, and starts again. “The audience is listening in like voyeurs on an interview where they really shouldn’t be listening. And they’ll be doing it through Gloria’s dictaphone, in a hyper-surreal way.”
A new venue is always exciting, she says, not just the quirks and unexpected beauties of a theatre – she loves Park200’s brick back wall, for instance – but because of what she calls the “conversation” to be had with a new audience. She thinks of designers as dramaturgs who work in a language of shapes and colours and textures rather than words.
New materials to work with are similarly exciting, not just their physical properties but also their “politics.” Asked to explain, she recounts that the first project she designed professionally was built of water bottles. It turned out that there was a huge amount to learn about such bottles: “The different types and who owns them, which you can use and which you can’t, which are structurally useable... Objects have so much history that you’re oblivious to until you start using them. It’s very often frustrating but also interesting.”
About the box in Building the Wall, Sarah says she was initiallly terrified by the idea of working with glass, but also excited. “You build up confidence as you get to know the material, and you can carry that over to the next show, with confidence that you know what works. But changing materials pushes you creatively.”
Even with the homework she does about materials and processes, she is quick to credit the expertise of others. “I very heavily rely on practical and technical people to realize and work out and problem-solve how a design vision can be achieved – without defying gravity, and that’s safe, and practical, and can be used night after night.
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9 April. In the light-filled Morris Space on the theatre’s third floor, Sarah presents the model to the two actors prior to the first read-through of the play. The box now has a door, and an office water cooler stands in an upstage corner. Jez relates his transatlantic conversation with the playwright, and explains that the presence of the door will emphasize that at any moment, Gloria can walk out or that guards can come for Rick.
The actors give the box a good look. Angela Griffin is warm, spontaneous, with a mischievous smile. Trevor White, a Canadian long resident in the UK, seems slightly warier as he inspects the model.
“Is that an operational water cooler?” he asks.
“Great,” he says neutrally.
“Great?” cracks Angela. “When there’s no way to go for a wee?” Everyone cracks up and Trevor gives her a high-five.
The actors want to know how much they will be able to hear and see of the audience (less than in most productions) and whether one or both may have to be on stage when the audience enters the theatre – what Trevor calls “the dreaded pre-set.” That hasn’t been decided yet, says Jez: a lot of the staging will be worked out as rehearsals progress.
Assistant stage manager Geraldine Donaldson produces two tiny radio mics that will make it possible for the audience to hear the actors. Almost invisible in the actors’ hair or clothes, the mics will be essential to ensure the dialogue is heard outside the box, and allow the sound designer to work his magic on the voices and ambient sounds.
It’s time for the reading. The actors and “creatives” (that odd catch-all term for technical, design and directorial folk) gather their chairs in a circle, and Jez reads out the first stage direction, cueing the actors. Leeds-born Angela’s accent miraculously morphs to that of an American academic, while Trevor’s voice alters more subtly, taking on the flat vowels of someone who grew up as a self-described US “military brat”...
Some 90 minutes later, when the final, shattering speech is delivered, time seems to have passed extraordinarily quickly. The tough, engrossing story line is expertly structured and paced, as the academic coaxes the story out of her interviewee and he – savvy, intermittently combative – pushes back.
But the question remains: how is this all going to play out with a glass box that both separates the actors from the audience and confines them to a few square metres on stage?
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The set was built between April 29 and 30.