A Stage Takes Form

As is often the case in theatre, the design of a stage for a theatre production begins months ahead of time as an idea in the heads of the director and the production designer. They must consider all the action that will occur, what areas will be used for what purposes, and what will be needed to accommodate the action and yet allow the audience to see and hear what is going on.

A model of the BLT stage for the rock opera Tommy as presented by director Steve Cooper - Dec. 17, 2011

A model of the BLT stage for the rock opera Tommy as presented by director Steve Cooper - Dec. 17, 2011

Image credit: All photos by Craig Orsinger for Burien Little Theatre, unless otherwise noted

In the case of The Who’s Tommy, this is what the early concept looked like, as director and production designer Steve Cooper attempted to define a space that would allow large dance numbers and a myriad of scenes in many different locations. He also had to define a place where the band could play, preferably far enough from the action that they weren’t in the way, but close enough to hear and be heard by the actors as well as the audience.

Steve showed this model at a designers’ meeting in mid-December. This gave the designers, choreographers, and stage managers an early look at what to expect, and to voice concerns they might have. Since stage construction could not begin until after the Highliners’ show was finished a month later, this visual aid was especially important.

Another consideration that added complexity in this production was the use of audio visual equipment to tell part of the story.

As this shot from a prior show demonstrates, the first step in construction is an empty stage:

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol cast members Hannah Schnabel and Stephen Scheide are hanging lights, and John Flynn and Albie Clementi are working on the set - Nov. 22, 2008

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol cast members Hannah Schnabel and Stephen Scheide are hanging lights, and John Flynn and Albie Clementi are working on the set - Nov. 22, 2008

The Tommy stage design is an unusual one. Steve decided to split the audience sections in two, then put a raised platform in between them. This is where most of the action of the show takes place. The auditorium stage itself was to be the domain of the band. It would also function as the storage area for all the stage dressing, props, and costumes that are carried, pushed, and wheeled on and offstage to suggest the different locations in the play.

Most of the action, including scenes and dance numbers, takes place on the central platform between the two audience sections. This platform was built out of the 4×8 foot platforms BLT uses in many of its productions. Here is a photo from the construction of the bedroom/office set for Frankenstein, with legs that make them about six inches higher than the main stage:

Stage construction for BLT production of Frankenstein

BLT stage with the teaser curtain in its new location, Sept. 18, 2011

We reused that platform for BLT’s Inspecting Carol, for the theatre set on stage right (which, of course, is to the left side of the photo):

The cast of BLT's Inspecting Carol rehearse in costume during tech rehearsal - Nov. 21, 2011

The cast of BLT's Inspecting Carol rehearse in costume during tech rehearsal - Nov. 21, 2011

We also reused the platform on stage right, which was Frankenstein’s study and Inspecting Carol’s tech booth. Thanks to those productions, very few new platforms had to be brought in from the storage space or constructed.

When I say “we”, of course, I really mostly mean Steve Cooper, Russ Kay, Eric Dickman, and Eric Rhineholder. I helped out here and there, as did other volunteers, but those four guys do the lion’s share of set construction. Even with the platforms already available, there was quite a bit of work to do, including some crawling around under the platforms to clamp them together – a task I can honestly say I’m glad I missed out on.

This time, the platforms’ legs put the platforms at the same height as the main stage. Here is how they looked after they were in place in late January:

The stage platforms for BLT's production of The Who's Tommy - Jan. 25, 2012

The stage platforms for BLT's production of The Who's Tommy - Jan. 25, 2012

Image credit: Photo by Eric Dickman for Burien Little Theatre

Here is a view of the stage from near the stage left seats, with Tommy cast members looking it over:

Tommy cast members look over the newly constructed stage platform. Jan. 25, 2012

Tommy cast members look over the newly constructed stage platform. Jan. 25, 2012

Image credit: Photo by Eric Dickman for Burien Little Theatre

Not only did the cast members have to get used to the stage, but some of the designers did as well. Lighting designer Dave Baldwin had to hang a truss under one of the auditorium’s center beams to light the end of the platform that was farthest from the stage. As Steve Cooper mentioned in his director’s notes, this is the biggest show BLT has put on, by a considerable measure. It is also by far the farthest any BLT production has played out in the auditorium itself, and Dave and the crew had to put up a number of new light pipes so he could position lights out where the actors would be. Here, Dave is adding a pipe to the truss:

Theatre manager Maggie Larrick and lighting designer Dave Baldwin discuss production issues as he constructs a temporary lighting grid for The Who's Tommy - Feb. 3, 2012

Theatre manager Maggie Larrick and lighting designer Dave Baldwin discuss production issues as he constructs a temporary lighting grid for The Who's Tommy - Feb. 3, 2012

Dave would later hang lights on that pipe, and the others that he installed. A day later, this is what they looked like, complete with our old friends the Color Faders:

Two of the front lights installed on the temporary lighting grid by lighting designer Dave Baldwin for The Who's Tommy - Feb. 4, 2012

Two of the front lights installed on the temporary lighting grid by lighting designer Dave Baldwin for The Who's Tommy - Feb. 4, 2012

In this photo, taken the same day, we see that the band’s part of the stage looks pretty much like it did on the model. The steps and the triangular sections they connect to weren’t in the model, so that was something of an improvisation. Another improvisation was the semi-circular platform in front of the band’s space. This served as a platform for the chorus in a couple of numbers, and as a separate space for young Tommy to be in at other moments. We will also note that there’s one major thing missing here – color. Maggie and Eric have painted much of the platform and flats black, but the stage is meant to look like a pinball machine. Having looked at a lot of images of pinball machines in the last few weeks, I can tell you that very few, if any, are all black.

Theatre manager Maggie Larrick works on the stage for The Who's Tommy, with the band's set in the background - Feb. 4, 2012

Theatre manager Maggie Larrick works on the stage for The Who's Tommy, with the band's set in the background - Feb. 4, 2012

That’s where Stevie VanBronkhorst came in. Stevie does quite a bit of the art you see at BLT, including many of the posters. Here, she, her brother Alex, and Jeanette Nuss painted the platform and the flats behind the band to resemble the Tommy pinball game. Here are Stevie and Alex, painting the flats:

Art designer Stevie VanBronkhorst (right) paints a flat for the set of The Who's Tommy, with some help from her brother Alex - Feb. 13, 2012

Art designer Stevie VanBronkhorst (right) paints a flat for the set of The Who's Tommy, with some help from her brother Alex - Feb. 13, 2012

Even with the three of them, it took several nights to finish painting this monster of a stage. Here’s what it looked on February 12, as seen from the tech booth:

Director Steve Cooper and theatre manager Maggie Larrick sit on the partially-painted stage set for The Who's Tommy - Feb. 12, 2012

Director Steve Cooper and theatre manager Maggie Larrick sit on the partially-painted stage set for The Who's Tommy - Feb. 12, 2012

Here’s how it looked after being finished three days later, with all the remaining painting and a layer of splatter:

Doctors Michelle Flowers and Lance Zielinski give Tommy (Bobby Barnts) and his parents (Justin Carrel, Roxanne DeVito) the bad news at the dress rehearsal for BLT's production of The Who's Tommy - Feb. 16, 2012

Doctors Michelle Flowers and Lance Zielinski give Tommy (Bobby Barnts) and his parents (Justin Carrel, Roxanne DeVito) the bad news at the dress rehearsal for BLT's production of The Who's Tommy - Feb. 16, 2012

In the background on the left, one of the screens for the audio-visual presentation is just barely visible. They are placed in such a way that each one will be visible in the background for the audience across the stage.

This has certainly become a long article, but this was a long process, and a lot of work. Nearly every available night for three weeks, people were in the auditorium doing some manner of construction or decorating work. Much of that time, there were people also working on some technical aspects of the show, like lighting, sound, and effects. It’s a big production. I suppose it deserves a lengthy article.

Let’s see, a stage, paint, lights, actors, and a band. Looks like we’re ready to put on a musical.

About craig

I've been involved in BLT productions in one way or another since 1981. Over the years, I've done just about every job here except directing and costume design. These days, I mostly function as the theatre handyman.
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One Response to A Stage Takes Form

  1. Pingback: Stage-Building Madness | En Tequila Es Verdad

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