The Impossible Scene Change
By Zach Trebino, Arden Professional Apprentice
What do you do when you’re confronted with the task of converting a home from its 1950s splendor to its state in 2009 – derelict after numerous decades of disrepair – in less than fifteen minutes? Do you, >diagnosis quite literally, attack it with a sledgehammer, spray paint, and just vandalize the hell out of it? Albeit an über-exciting means of achieving this goal, the problem rests in the fact that this change – adding nearly five decades of wear and tear – must be reproducible. In fact, it needs to be accomplished over eighty times.
Of course, I’m not talking about a real house out on the streets of Philadelphia, but 406 Clybourne Street – the home erected from James Kronzer’s designs on our Arcadia stage as the set for Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park.
For the uninitiated, the first act of Clybourne Park is set in Bev and Russ Stoller’s home in the Clybourne neighborhood of Chicago in 1959. The Stoller’s are moving out of their home (due to some dramatic and traumatic reasons that you’ll just have to see the play to learn about…), and the Younger family from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun have purchased their home. This first act pre-empts the White Flight out of this Chicago area and the influx of black families. Now, fast-forward 50 years for Act Two. Set in the same house (though its been unoccupied for several decades), a white couple has now purchased this same home and is met with bitter resistance when their proposed renovations are publicized to the community, perceived as an unwanted move toward gentrification. Tensions of race, class, and gender are ubiquitous; they pervade both acts and, ostensibly, both eras.
So, back to crux: the passage of time utterly necessitates a radical change to the same set. And unlike the Metropolitan Opera, our Arcadia stage is not equipped with full stage elevators that would permit us to simply insert a new set for Act Two. Thus, the primary challenge of this piece – well, speaking merely technically as Norris’s superbly written (it’s almost too realistic, I daresay) dialogue poses its own set of challenges to the actors – is accomplishing this intermission changeover with as little impact and damage to the existing set and scenic dressings as possible. Here’s a quick tally of everything that needs to be removed from the stage (feel free to skip down if you’re not a fan of long lists): all the furniture [dining room table, four chairs, china cabinet, shelves, side table, telephone table, arm chair, a bench, and love seat], three rugs, moldings, the door frames, the window frames, seven columns, thirty-four moving boxes, the kitchen door, and the stair railing. Then, we need to bring out work lights, two sawhorses, a toilet, a lawn chair, a sink, a milk crate, a paint bucket, and a whole lot of trash. Yes, all of that. In less than fifteen minutes.
No doubt a daunting challenge, but one I’m proud to say (as evidenced in the video below) we’ve managed to deftly accomplish. Just watch the video below to see us at work. You might think the video is sped up, but I swear we’re really THAT fast.
How did we do that, you might ask? Well, a crew of three of us set about devising tactics to accomplish this – strategizing as though we were simultaneously running a relay, playing Tetris, and entering battle. This crew consists of Kate Hanley (stage manager extraordinaire), Austen Brown (John Cage has nothing on this sound operator), and I (assistant stage manager). Ultimately though, our scheming and planning proved to be in vain, for the second we actually set foot on stage to attempt the changeover, we abandoned our pragmatic planning and followed our get-it-done instincts. Certainly, we’ve now assumed routine duties, but the first few times it was a free-for-all.
In our first attempt, guided by the inimitable Glenn Perlman, it took us nearly forty minutes, yet somehow our second attempt took only seventeen. After that, we’ve continuously decreased our time (our lowest was nine minutes and twenty seconds, though we average around ten and a half minutes). It was simply amazing for me to watch how the three of us worked; there was some real synergism happening on that stage. We all sensed each other’s movements, stayed out of each other’s ways, and knew what needed to get done. As though we had the same thought process, Austen and I always turn to each other to carry out the two-man tasks at the same time. I imagine with a less adroit and proprioceptive team, every step of this intermission change would’ve needed to be planned, choreographed, and rehearsed, but, miraculously, ours just fell into place.
However, I’d most assuredly be doing an injustice if I didn’t mention that the rather ingenious technical innovations of Glenn (the Arden’s technical director) facilitated the facile removal of every piece of molding, every door casing, and every column. Simple and elegant solutions prevailed here. Some simple solutions to create the second act’s shabby appearance include a crack in the wall (obscured by the china cabinet), floor sections sans the hardwood everywhere else (covered by rugs) and lighter paint beneath the columns and moldings, making the paint on the walls (that looked resplendent in Act One) look dirty and stained by comparison. I must say, though, that the cleverest invention of Glenn’s is for the removal of the stair railing. The entire stage-left (that’s the right side if you’re looking at the from the audience) edge of the stair unit is removable, attached by two hinges and seated in a recess in the floor. Another unit, the same shape but without the banister and railing, fits into this gap and attaches using these same hinges. Watch for this moment in the video (it happens around 22 seconds in). Oh, and then there’s the kitchen door too (and the kitchen wall!)… Suffice it to say, they’re quite clever solutions as well.
So, hey, if you ever need a crew to move you out of your house at hyper-speed, give us a call; we’ve got some serious credentials now. I promise we won’t charge too much.
After reading about the Broadway bound Clybourne Park, I decided to make it a treat for my overworked husband. It did not disappoint! What a moving, smart, funny, creative play!
We are African American, and could not help but wish there had been a stronger presence of Black theatre goers in the audience – these are the kinds of provocative forums that foster meaningful discussion about race.
We will certainly watch for future opportunities to enjoy the Arden – it was a great experience.
By the way – the set change (WOW) was as exciting as the show – we were fascinated by the expertise, speed, and sudden transformation.