Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Building a World

It takes a lot of work to make a world come to life.  With the Discworld it is possibly even more challenging as you are building a world that is like ours, but different.  A world that exists for a lot of people only in their imagination and fan art and you are trying to make that world a reality.  You also need to build a world that will work within the context of the play, that will allow the actors the right amount of space to move around, will provide workable, practical pieces of set for them to interact with and climb on and will also allow them to get on and off the stage.  You need to marry the concept of the Director with the reality of what is possible and what is practical.

As a group of Players we are incredibly fortunate to have a set designer and builder as talented as Derek is.
He is a stalwart member of the group who has been with the Company in its various guises for over 50 years, who churns out set after set after set for our productions, and who also happens to be our President.  Each set takes months to build and is then transported in pieces to the theatre a couple of days before the play opens when the build starts.  It's not just the large pieces you see in the pictures that he is responsible for, he also builds the key props as well, such as, in the case of this particular production, the demon barrel (made out of plywood attached to a water butt which required a last minute edit to allow Sinead to actually get into it!), the large Cauldron (paper mache around a frame) and the stocks (wooden boards with a moveable mechanism).  I have seen Derek build working sinks with real water running out of taps, build a frontier shop that revolves and turns into a bedroom and make a giant, slightly obscene, Greek statue for a mansion. 
Discworld therefore was just another challenge for him.  The concept that RV gave Derek was relatively simple - a world supported by the great turtle A'Tuin with a cartoon like quality.  A castle on one side, the forest on the other.  Ramparts for actors to walk on and sit on and elevate themselves.  The Disc itself covering the stage (at one point this was going to be a rotating disc but that idea got shelved pretty quickly).  A Halloween Pantomime set.

By the weekend of Get In Derek had completed the majority of the work; all that was left was to transport it to the theatre and put it together.  

Get In involves as many hands on deck as possible.  A bunch of us met at the Warehouse for the load (humming the tune from Tetris as we tried to work out how on earth everything would fit into the van) and then more people met us at the theatre to unload.

Derek quickly marked the outline of the disc on the stage in chalk and then the flats were unloaded and carefully carried through (although scuffs and rips were inevitable) and pieces were laid out on the stage as we awaited instructions about how we were supposed to put things together.
We had two hours on the Sunday to get as much of the set together as possible - the large flats that required bracing at the back went up first as this was the day we had the most number of people around.  Braces and weights were provided by the theatre so we just needed to get the pieces up, screw them together, make sure that they were in the right place and brace them.  Easier said than done as flats are huge - each one took a good 2-3 people to support it.
Sometimes a ladder just isn't high enough to reach key elements either.  This is when the tower comes out to play (often only after someone realises that they need it and have managed to block it off stage.)  I once forgot about the tower being onstage at the Playhouse and ended up needing to move bits of set that had been fixed into place in order to roll it into the wings.   Towers also have all the cooperating ability of a supermarket trolley, just a supermarket trolley that is 20 foot high and has a habit of getting stuck on curtains.

People with a good head for heights were sent up the tower to hang key set pieces, hopefully straight, and then the boys got to play with power tools, fixing flats together.
Gradually the bare bones of the set started to take shape and you hoped that you had put things in the right place!  You see those ramparts below?  Yep they moved quite a lot which meant that people standing on them to secure the battlements had to be very, very careful!  We didn't fix them in place for another 2 days as we needed to be able to paint the disc around them.  The middle of the steps also needed additional bracing as you had the distinct impression that if you stepped on them in the wrong place you would go straight through.
Get In is fulled by a steady supply of tea, coffee and sugary snacks.  Play week isn't exactly conducive to a balanced diet in general - meals are often skipped, dinner becomes a pastry and a coke if you remember and you grab sandwiches when you get a moment.  You ride play week on a sugar high and crash at the end. I finished play week and immediately ate a plate of vegetables and other people have similar stories (one of my friends confessed to me that she got in after a performance, cooked a pan of peas and ate it before going to bed as she was so desperate for vitamins!). Being in the Gulbenkian we did have the advantage of the cafe next to the theatre (you didn't even need to step outdoors to get food) but this isn't always the case at other venues!
Over the next couple of days the few of us who had taken annual leave came into the theatre to help Derek get the set together.  One of the biggest and most time consuming of the jobs was the Disc on the floor.  It started with a base layer of blue paint, carefully edged around and then was left to dry for a couple of hours.  Land masses are marked on in dark browns, forests are stippled in and water pools outlined in green.  The volcano was marked on the central island and then the water effects completed.  This was the time consuming bit.  We first stippled white all around the edge of the disc and also used it to define the coves of the islands.  We then added layers of blues and greens to break up the white and give the waterfall effect around the rim of the disc.  On top of the blue in the centre went the swirls for the cloud effects and then the boards were fastened to link the turtle to the disc. These were painted blue, allowed to dry and the waterfall effect was continued up and over the boards. The whole process took two days and destroyed my nails which are now stained blue as we gave up with brushes, getting a better effect from using our fingers to swirl the paint.

The idea is to get something which looks subtle but has depth and interest to it under the lights.
Of course when you are spending a week in the theatre you have to behave yourself.  There is absolutely no tom foolery allowed - it's a very serious business!  At no point at all did we re-enact Titanic or play stupid games with the Turtle and the barrel.
As the set went up and the paint went down there was also work taking place on the technical aspects of the show.  This was the opportunity to rig lights, work on the lighting design and ensure that the sound is cued correctly.  This bit was a challenge, especially when we ended up loosing our sound engineer on the day of the tech rehearsal as he could no longer get there until the first performance.  One panic later we had a replacement engineer who had never worked in the Gulb FX and LX box before but knew his way around a board.  The only issue was the fact that he couldn't get there until the dress rehearsal, which meant that the tech would be run with lighting changes only, not sound.  This worried both RV and myself immensely but there was absolutely nothing we could do about it.
Instead we focused on getting the lights right.  This play had to convey a multitude of different settings, from a cottage in the forest to a sun dappled meadow to a damp, dark dungeon.  There was even a sequence with supernatural forces and of course the casting of spells (which we had wanted flash bangs for but they were too expensive).  To help with this process key set pieces were left in their positions on the stage to make sure that they are being lit correctly and people working on the set often get yelled at from the box with the request 'Could you just move and stand there so we can see how you look?  Cheers!'.  Lights often needed moving as well to get them in the right position, such as lighting the stairs through the auditorium which meant that for sections of the build workers were asked to vacate the stage so that the tower could be rolled on and allow people access to the rigs.  When the lights were right markers went down on the stage to ensure that when set changes occured the moveable pieces were always set back in the same position time and time again.
At the end of the first day we moved into the tech rehearsal, jumping cue to cue to ensure that all of the technical aspects of the show were actually working properly.  Tech is a long, often stressful process which requires infinite patience from the actors as they walk on and off the stage time and time again.

The second day we were back in the theatre, putting the finishing touches to the world, covering up errors and seams with masking tape and painting over the top (again a time consuming process as you continue the brick structure to make the pieces appear seamless), fixing the barrel to the truck that will allow the demon to be rolled on and off the stage and painting it to look like floor boards, strengthening the ramparts as people needed to be able to run up and down them, supporting the turtles head, fixing the holes in the turtle, painting and cleaning props and painting the boards that mask the struts.  Basically we were frantically trying to get the stage ready for the dress rehearsal.
We made it though and after 20 hours in the theatre painting and building we were just about ready to go.  Dress rehearsal is run as a real rehearsal, as though you have an audience in and we were able to do that as RV had spent all day getting the sound right ready for the engineer to come in that evening.
Regardless of how frustrating, lengthy and time consuming the Get In process can be, it's one of my favourite parts of putting together a show.  It is the time when you really feel the show come to life and you get a real rush of pleasure hearing the excitement in the actors voices when they see it for the first time.  There is a reason I dedicate an entire week of my annual leave to play week and Get In is integral to that.

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