What took you so long? This house doesn’t even have walls.

October 11, 2011

By Glenn Perlman, >buy the Arden’s Technical Director

Building the set for August: Osage County — on stage through October 30 — presented some real challenges. Some came from the award-winning author,  Tracy Letts, and some came from Director Terry Nolen and Scenic Designer Dan Conway. The playwright prescribes a three-story house occupied by thirteen characters including a forty-minute dinner scene. And Terry and Dan wanted the audience to feel included in the action. That meant we would stage August in the thrust, where the audience gets a sense of itself, and where watching other audience members watch the play adds to the overall experience — the shared experience that is the essence of live theatre.

With lines like “there’s an Indian in my attic,” there’s no way to do this show without an attic. So the challenge becomes how to create a house, large enough to fill the space and accommodate all the actors, physically solid enough to actually support second and third levels that are real acting areas, and yet open enough for every one of our 365 audience members to see and hear what’s going on.

The solution:  get rid of all those pesky walls.

The set of August: Osage County. Photo by Mark Garvin

The design is a house with a layout that is not far off from one that may really exist. The kitchen’s right off the dining room. One step down to the sunken living room. One step up to the first-floor study. A stairway to the second floor with a hallway off to some bedrooms and four steps up to a split-level attic. Dan looked at images of dozens of Oklahoma farm houses, pulling out the little details like doghouse dormers and bead board walls. Then he stripped down the whole house to the essence — just a “skeleton” of the roof lines. A couple of doors and windows.

The audience feels like they are peeking into the house.

We built this house over the summer, taking advantage of our time between seasons. Our small but mighty staff (read:  me and another guy) framed the levels with 2×8 joists in the space, just like you’d build a real floor of a house — not like scenery. Of course there is some extra engineering involved (a little hidden steel support to compensate for where load-bearing walls would normally be, sections that are suspended by steel cable from the catwalks above, and some hidden bracing to keep the entire structure from swaying when people move around on it) but generally it’s built just like a real house. Just minus the walls.

We could have built a real house as easily.

The Arden takes great pride in strong physical production values, and we endeavor to always make effective and efficient use of our resources. Building this set in the space over the summer was key in our ability to create what this particular play needed. Once it was populated with furnishings, the incredible cast and fleshed-out with lights, sound, and costumes, the play comes to life in an amazing way.

I hope you enjoy peeking into our little Oklahoma farm house.

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