By Erin Crandell
The stage at the Sidney Harman Hall is currently covered in sand. About 5 tonnes of sand, with half of a ship’s hull perched on top. The sand itself is the kind that you used in elementary school to make sand art. Even under the fluorescent work lights the dunes shimmer prettily, and give the stage an otherworldly vibe. The color and consistency of the dunes recall picture perfect Mediterranean beaches (the result of a color ratio of 3 parts grey, 1 part latte, 1 part white) and the sand is arranged in piles against the front of the stage, as though blown there by a tropical gale.
Which, of course, is exactly what happened in The Tempest. Director Ethan McSweeny and Scenic Designer Lee Savage are no strangers to Shakespeare’s more mystical works, and have created a set where the magical Prospero could believably harness the powers of the sea.
“I specifically asked him to do The Tempest because he has the ability to create a magical world on stage, combining theatricality with a real attention to the language,” Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) Artistic Director Michael Kahn said of McSweeny.
While McSweeny and Savage can envision sand creeping into the corners of an abandoned palace, but in reality sand is a stage crew’s worst nightmare. It never stays in the pretty dune shapes that you want it to, it falls through the cracks of the floor, gets into lights and costumes, and you end up with thin tracks all over the backstage and the house. It requires extensive preventative planning, and a good stage crew to constantly sweep the sand back onto the stage.
The stage is currently covered with a large plastic tarp that stretches into the backstage area. It is then covered with wooden slats made to look like a ships deck, foam ridges to simulate dunes, pieces of carpet, and then finally the sand. If that sounds more complicated than it should be, that is because the alternative is worse.
“I think the last time we used sand was for Persians at the Lansburgh [Theatre]. The sand was red and it ended up staining the floor,” Mark Prey, STC’s Technical Director, told me. “There were tracks all the way down to the dressing room.”
This time, Prey’s biggest worry is sand getting into the gears and motor that rotate the broken ship. That would be an expensive thing to break, and would have repercussions for the entire show. Lighting designs would have to change, blocking would have to be reworked, resulting in major delays and a lot more work for him and his crew. With the show opening in a week, Prey and his crew did not have time to replace a motor. Some of the work can be done far in advance, like the ship’s hull which was built in the carpentry shop months ahead of time, but most of the details have to be done in the last two to three weeks of the build.
When I arrived the week before the show, there were about ten people working on the stage at any given moment. Prey excused himself to supervise the two carpenters that were testing a dining room table that would be lowered from the ceiling, and then fall through the floor after the dinner scene. There were people wrapping the corners of objects with foam and tape (also known as “actor proofing”), showers of sparks coming down from the second level of the set, scenic artists cutting styrofoam into peaks to make sand dunes, and a spirited discussion at the front of the stage on the best way to adhere the LED strip lights to the stage floor. Predictably, the sand was getting in the way of the adhesive.
The surface of the palace walls at the front of the stage is flaking and pockmarked, as if the sand has been slowly eating away the exterior. To achieve this aesthetic, scenic artists tore strategic chunks out of the walls with any tool they could get their hands on (including “Lancelot”, a chainsaw blade jerry-rigged to a hand grinder). Part of the distressing is also made possible by extensive painting, led by Sally Glass, the scenic charge artist.
Glass and the other technical crew got a model of the set, which made making a realistic-looking shipwreck much easier. Set painting and dressing is an inexact science; the commonly cited measurement of error is whether or not it looks acceptable twenty feet away on a galloping horse. In other, more applicable words, the paint job must look realistic to an audience member under complicated stage lights. Most of the texture on the walls is a combination of joint compound and paint, but sometimes the painters have to get creative so that the texturing looks just right.
“We actually used a kind of roof coating, which they’ve started marketing towards thespians,” said Glass, pointing at a particularly pebbled portion of the wall.
Of course, the designers (Savage, Christopher Akirlend the Lighting Designer, or any number of other parties involved) and McSweeny have the final say. The technical crew’s job is to take their vision and make it a reality; whether that is using roof coating to get the textures just right, finding the best way to manage the five tonnes of sand that will get shifted and blown out of place night after night, or figuring out just how to make the dinner table (safely) disappear through the stage floor. There is a level of pride in finding creative solutions, and a special kind of comradery that forms between the different crews when things work out.
The dining room table successfully falls through the floor, and the crew at the front of the stage nods in awe.
“That’s kind of scary from right here.”
“Oh, it’s terrifying from upstage too,” said an electrician. “The whole theatre box shakes.”