We have a good relationship with the Kennedy Center. We appreciate the work they do in D.C. We love that they bring incredible ballet performances, breathtaking opera and skateboarding music festivals to our city. We like writing about them, taking pictures of their performances and going behind the scenes of their shows. So when they offered me an all expenses paid trip to the fiery bowls of hell, I didn’t think twice. I packed my bags and descended below the crust of the earth to spend a cool, casual Wednesday with the devil.
And by the “devil” I mean their incredibly lovely and hardworking technical experts. And by “hell” I mean the understage. And by “all expenses paid trip” I mean we hopped on their brand new rented elevator / stage lift. Allow me to explain. The Washington National Opera is in the middle of preparing for Faust, an opera based on a German legend that involves a successful man who sells his soul to the devil for even more success and also a pretty woman. For a while, Faust enjoys his new found powers and his burgeoning friendship with his demon pal Mephistopheles. That is, until the devil decides to collect on his debt and Faust is pulled into the molten hot chasms of hell for the rest of eternity. Can you imagine anything more heavy metal?
When I showed up at the Kennedy Center to ride that magical elevator just like Faust, my head was filled with visions of 80s hair metal music videos. I pictured something over the top, ostentatious and aggressively metal. And I was right. Kind of. The reality is that Faust combines the best of old school and new school stage sets. There are your classic painted backdrops, foam props and all the other set pieces you’d expect.
“Most of the set is very old technology, it’s snow bags and painted drops and foam scenery,” explained associate technical director Christy Blackham, “The paint is really the star of the show because there’s all kinds of hidden gems in it. There are faces you’re not expecting in the foliage and in the flames.”
But there’s also that snappy new elevator that makes you disappear from the stage at the drop of a hat, some sick red lighting and all of the dry ice you could ever need.
“It’s sort of the most interesting way to have Faust go to hell,” says Blackham. “Not every theater can do it… What we have is floorspace and the traps are laid out in such a way that we can put one anywhere we want to, which is a really lucky thing.”
While a portal to hell is certainly interesting, it’s not the wildest thing that has touched the stage of the Kennedy Center. As I waited for my chance to ride the elevator, Paul Taylor (technical director) and Shane Angus (WNO head carpenter) regaled me with stories about their favorite tech set ups, which included reinforcing beams so they could park Willie Nelson’s tour bus on stage, the flying harpies and ring of fire used during Wagner’s Ring Cycle and watching Beyoncé squeeze into a much smaller stage lift for the Kennedy Center Honors.
Finally, it was my time to ride down into the eternal flames. Lighting supervisor Andrew Guban had the dry ice cranking and after checking with the elevator operator and confirming with me that I was good to go… They dropped me down.
And it felt great. I never knew the ride to hell would be so safe, cool and easy. I get what Faust is all about now. If you’re working with a team as great as the Kennedy Center’s, going to hell isn’t an insult. It’s a pleasure.