By Glenn Perlman, Technical Director
Children’s theatre often means spectacle — and special effects. Our kids’ shows need to be exciting and visually interesting, since we’ve learned that children are a very honest audience — they’ll yell right out if they don’t get something; or start squirming in their seats if they get bored. We get to be very creative sometimes, like building little dog cars for Go, Dog. Go! Or building a giant draw-bridge stage that turns into a crocodile to eat Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Or make slimy green snot to throw at the wall in The Stinky Cheese Man.
The Borrowers has plenty of cool, fun stuff too. Like a ten-foot-long boot and a spool of thread big enough to use as a table. Our small but dedicated team of artisans and technicians take on these challenges with a smile… its about as great as a job gets. But this show brought a new challenge for us: An almost full-stage change of scenery from Act I to Act II.
Before I came to the Arden, I was the Master Carpenter at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. That is a very large, very well-staffed company that produces over 18 shows a year in “Rep.” That’s short for “Repertory Theatre” meaning theatre that repeats shows, in rotation, from one night to the next. In other words, you could see Hamlet on Friday night, and then come back Saturday night for Romeo and Juliet and on Sunday afternoon catch King Lear. All in the same theatre, on the same stage, but with completely different sets. Opera companies often work in the same way. After each performance, a whole crew of technicians comes in and switches the sets from one show to the next. Its called a “change-over” and often takes a crew of ten or more an hour or more, depending on the complexity.
In a rep set-up, all of the sets are designed together, with each other in mind. Sometimes they share elements, like a floor surface or a backdrop. Other times they are completely different. Often they have dual-purpose components, such as pieces that are double-sided and simply spin around from one show to the next.
In The Borrowers, Act I takes place in the house and under the floorboards. The backdrop is used as a projection surface to create giant shadows, to show how small the borrowers are. But in Act II, Arriety and her family go out into the great wide world, experiencing the vastness of nature for the first time ever. If you stay in your seat at intermission, you can watch as the small but mighty stage crew, led by Arden Apprentice assistant stage managers Andrew and Tara, change-over the set from the Clock family’s home to the grassy fields. Only the main portion of the stage and the backdrop and frames appear in both acts.
The secret is casters (small wheels that help big, heavy scenery move easily) and hinges with loose pins. All of the sets are built up on these wheels, and they lock together by lining up two parts of a hinge and then sliding the pin in to hold it. There are also lots of electrical connections that have to be connected or disconnected, for the lights that are on the set, and fog machines, and other things. And lights that are on the floor that have to be shifted and re-focused from act to act. There are five different little steps that have to be moved around so the actors can get on and off the stage depending on which act it is. And when the Act I set is on stage, all the Act II stuff is tucked in backstage, out of view — and vice-versa. In fact, during Act II, the actors and crew need to step up and walk through the Clock’s apartment set to get to their places backstage.
Everything has to be done in a specific order. Everything has to be done exactly the same way each time. Some of the pieces of scenery have only two inches of clearance while moving past other pieces. During rehearsals the first time we changed from Act I to Act II it took an hour. By the time of our first preview, it was down to about twenty minutes (still too long for a fifteen minute intermission!) By Opening Night, Andrew and Tara got it down to about eight minutes. And now, I bet they can do it in six-and-a-half, without even looking at their notes.
There’s science to it, like a surgical operation. But there’s also art to it, like a well-choreographed ballet. Intermission is actually my favorite part of the show… but that’s just me.
So, if you haven’t seen The Borrowers yet, you might want to stay in the theatre at intermission and watch the secret ballet. And if you already saw it and wondered how it all changed while you were in the bathroom, then you should come back again and this time wait until after the show to have that cup of coffee!