There’s no other way to describe it, Synetic Theater is wet. There are reams of plastic covering the first few rows (welcome to the splash zone), towels are delicately draped over chair after chair and water shoes are the most important topic of the day.
Drunk on a heady combination of homage, ingenuity and madness, the theater has transformed their stage into a 1,200 square foot pool filled with about 3,000 gallons of water. The result is a four inch deep pond with enough space for Synetic’s performers to splash, dance and jump around, which they do with a childlike exuberance. The logistics might be a nightmare, but they’re not going to let that get in the way of good fun.
To explain why, and how, Synetic’s normally very dry stage has been transformed into a shallow swimming pool, you have to go back to the year 2010 and then make a short pitstop in the year 2013. While Synetic is known for its physical (read: no dialogue) interpretations of Shakespeare, in 2010 they branched off from the Bard and took a deep dive into the world of Arthurian legend.
In order to push boundaries and try something new, they took the stories of King Arthur and decided to set them in a pool, playing with its themes of enchanting waters and ladies of the lake. As founder Paata Tsikurishvili explains it, their goal was and is to make, “theater from the future.” Trying new things (like turning King Richard III into a cyborg named Richard 3.0) is part of the job.
Technical director Phil Charlwood remembers that King Arthur production differently. Dealing with the pool was a pain in the neck he didn’t think was worth the hassle… until he saw Synetic’s performers rise up from the water. The pool they’d built was only a few inches deep, but in that moment Charlwood swears, “You would have thought it was 10 feet of water.” That was it. They dealt with the mold, the floods and freezing actors, and then pulled out the pond again for 2013’s production of The Tempest.
After six long years, they’ve brought the pool (and the production of The Tempest) back again, but with a few key changes. The first big project (besides the eight day process of building the pool) was finding a heater powerful enough to keep the water warm for the performers without blowing a fuse. “Getting the water temperature up is a make or break,” says Charlwood, adding, “Trying to figure out heating for this isn’t really in the pool book.”
Next, there were conversations about the water depth. “An inch of difference really changes things, it changes how you move,” explained Charlwood. For the actors, an inch can mean the difference between confidently landing an impressive jump or feeling weighed down by the water whenever they move. Of course, you also want enough water to be able to use it as a special effect, to see an arc of water fly off of an actor’s arm or watch a chaotic splash when a performer falls to the ground. For this performance of The Tempest, they settled on four inches.
And those aren’t the only changes. After a knee surgery shook up the original casting, Paata Tsikurishvili decided to mix things up, and cast founding choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili as Prospera, a gender bent version of The Tempest‘s protagonist Prospero. “It’s Synetic’s classic, but it’s another experience,” says Paata Tsikurishvili, adding that 80% of the cast of this Tempest is new and that many of the scenes from 2013 have been restaged. “It’s different and it’s powerful.”
Tsikurishvili and Charlwood are in the middle of a long rehearsal. While Charlwood deals with a finicky heater, Tsikurishvili focuses on timing, movement and music. He gives performers specific notes between scenes, showing them how to make the most of the pool and its dramatic capabilities. The sound of rushing, moving water is nonstop. Actors drying off in the first few rows (the front stage has become the backstage while they rehearse) compare water shoe brands, trying to figure out which is the most stable and comfortable. Everyone is various degrees of damp.
Regardless of the work and the logistics, Tsikurishvili and Charlwood are of one mind about the pool that has replaced Synetic’s stage. “The water has character, it has become a character,” Tsikurishvili explains, “It has its own magic.” In his own way, Charlwood agrees, “I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone,” he says. “The problem is, it’s a gorgeous show.”
The Tempest is at Synetic Theater from September 25 through October 20, 2019.