Savage’s ‘Tempest’ set reflects fantasy, unknown

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Members of Chautauqua Theater Company build the set for The Tempest in Bratton Theater Sunday.

At the beginning of Chautauqua Theater Company’s initial production meetings, the company crowds around a tiny replica of Bratton Theater.

Inside, a blank world awaits.

When the production opens, that world will have been translated from a quixotic vision to a realized set, one ready to host a cast of actors. CTC’s The Tempest, which opens Saturday, incorporates spilling sand dunes, a floating rock and a shipwreck — all within the confines of Bratton Theater.

Set designer Lee Savage said designers and Tempest director Jade King Carroll, “wanted to infuse the space with an element of the surreal or magical.” CTC’s production is set on an unnamed island in period with Shakespeare’s work. Though the sound designer has done three previous productions of The Tempest and the lighting designer two, the complexity and ambition of the set design made this production an especially challenging one for the team.

Initial conversations between Savage and King Carroll focused on inspiration drawn from surrealist artists like René Magritte and photographs of houses flooded with sand.

“We explored different ways to make the inside feel like the outside was invading it,” Savage said. “I was interested in the paradox of sand and water and how sand — when it collects and when you see it in its natural environment — it looks like it could be water. It undulates and has an organic movement to it.”

It was also important to the two that the island remained anonymous, to perpetuate themes of the unknown prevalent in the play.

“This island isn’t ever named,” King Carroll said. “I thought that was really interesting and somehow makes it extremely universal and almost timeless.”

From there, Savage designed the set, presenting it to the company at the production’s first rehearsal. Previous conversations allowed construction to begin, as carpenters, scenic and other designers transformed the set into reality.

“At first sight — when you see the model for the show — as a technical director, your brain just starts racing as to how are we actually going to achieve this onstage,” said technical director Roy Howington.

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
A scale model of the set.

The possibility of creating a set emulating several tons of sand piled onstage was especially daunting for designers. But, after copious research, the set was constructed using wooden platforms and sand dunes sloped using polystyrene. Small, rubber granules used to make running tracks form the sand.

“We’re still struggling with the logistics of putting it altogether,” said scenic charge Charlotte Vosseler. “We knew what we wanted it to look like … but getting there has been a really interesting problem.”

Sand could not be used in the theater because of its dustiness and high cost. But, as Vosseler said, “there’s not a lot that can look like sand other than sand.”

“Finding the right product to use for the sand was a big challenge because, obviously, cost is a concern, but also ensuring actors’ safety and environmental health safety,” Howington said. “There are a lot of non-traditional forms of scenery in this show.”

Binding particles of the rubber with a specific polymer, constructing multiple levels and covering the walls with reflective Mylar is meant to transport the audience to The Tempest’s world along with actors. Vosseler, Howington and the rest of the scene shop will continue to tweak the Bratton set after load-in to ensure it creates the effects imagined by Savage.

“It’s going to require a lot of hard work and it’s going to require a lot of ingenuity on everyone’s part, and spirit and stamina,” said assistant technical director Rebecca Key. “Every single step we’ve taken the time to troubleshoot so that we don’t run into problems when we go to load-in.”

During the production, costume, lighting and sound will layer on top of the set in attempts to build an ambience reflecting the wondrous and unknown.

“There’s something about Tempest that needs a level of fantasy and surprise that keeps pushing you to find new material at every turn,” said sound designer Peter John Still.

Still said he arrived prepared for a production with an array of musical selections. A soundscape for The Tempest can be built off anything from classic insect sounds to drone music.

“We’ll probably end up hearing more water and more ocean and less of the vegetation than we usually do in Tempest, and we might hear a few more weird, musical sounds,” Still said.

This could include ambient Susumu Yokota or Taiko drumming. Sound design will be finalized in tech rehearsal, where Still said it’s important to allow the process to shape the production.

“A lot of modern artists, and a lot of modern theater artists — especially in the design world — consciously know that part of what they’re doing, part of the taste that they like is in the taste of serendipity happening,” Still said. “Part of the technique is about allowing it to happen and then keeping it for the show.”

Lighting designer Jane Cox agreed that creating a feeling of fantasy will play into design decisions. She said lighting will elucidate the connections between the magical and the real.

“There’s one thing about simplicity and complexity in this play that shows up in the design choices even when they’re expressed differently,” Cox said. “There’s something in there about fantasy and reality and complexity and simplicity in that design I’m really excited about bringing out with light.”

But the reflective Mylar sheeting, pale walls and floor will also present design challenges.

“It’s going to be really hard to control what’s seen and what’s not seen, I think that’s probably going to be the hardest thing,” Cox said.

Walking into Bratton Theater for each production, audiences are presented with an individualized world. But the challenges presented by land, sea and air in The Tempest have created an ambitious set that designers hope will evoke the otherworldly.

“They’ve had to really put their heads together to figure out some of these elements that we want to put into the show,” said Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy. “I can’t believe all of the different things we’re able to do in [Bratton] and how we can transform it.”

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