September 8, 2009

Professional designers know what it is to come up with effects that work in confined spaces. But usually, when the wings are tight, you can fly pieces, or when there’s no fly space, you can make innovative use of doors, traps or turntables. One space where design is at a premium, but space is practically non-extant, is the Victorian-era opera house on the banks of the Connecticut River, home of Goodspeed Musicals.

Built in the year of America’s centennial (not bicentennial - centennial, as in 1876) and restored in 1963 as a house for revivals and new musicals, the 398-seat playhouse is on the fourth floor of a historic structure, placing significant constraints on what can and cannot be done. In the restoration of the 1960s, the stage was expanded, incorporating what had been audience boxes downstage right and left. Three permanent motorized winch tracks were set in a stage floor raked at 3/16” per foot. Because of its historic status, it wouldn’t have been acceptable to expand the building’s exterior or, for that matter, to add so much as an external door to the stage house.

James Noone, who has designed musicals at Goodspeed from time to time since 1990, says that “standing on the empty stage and seeing just how little space there is can give you a heart attack. Sometimes we have to get directors to come see the space before they believe what we say about the constraints.” He said he thought the stage right wing was 4’ and found it difficult to believe it was actually eight.

Bradley Spachman, who has stage managed at Goodspeed for the last 14 years, confirms that the stage right wing is a full 8’ but points out that stage left wing is even more commodious: “It’s a full 8’1”!”

What is more, there’s no upstage cross-over. Noone recalls one show when they had a “rather large actor” that the director wanted to enter stage right. “But the access door on stage right is only about 2’ wide, and he just couldn’t fit through. I had to go to the director and ask that he find a tactful way to re-block the scene’s entrance.”

The stage floor doesn’t have a turntable so, “whenever we have to have a revolve, it means building a deck over the stage as we did for Finian’s Rainbow in 1997,” says Spachman. They made the turntable a mound where Finian buried the pot of cold.

They also built a show deck for Singin’ In The Rain in 2007 which Noone designed. Under the deck was a waterproof membrane and catch channels for the famous dance in the rain. Unlike many other productions which build a sled for the sloshing scene, they had to shower the main set. “It’s a good thing that number ends the first act,” says Spachman. “Intermission was spent squeegee-ing and buffing the floor for the act two ballet. It was a big safety concern but I learned one thing: you can get grip tape in different colors so we could mark safe walkways.”

Most of the time, when the footprint of the stagehouse doesn’t provide a lot of wing space, you can roll set pieces off into adjoining rooms such as halls, storage rooms or scene shops, but not at Goodspeed. “Even if there was a door in the back wall, since we’re four stories over the bank of the river, shoving a set piece out wouldn’t work,” says Spachman. Noone adds that he recalls one particularly difficult load in session when part of the set for his first show at Goodspeed — Bells are Ringing — did, in fact, end up in the Connecticut River.

At other times they had to use the shaft for the elevator off stage left for storage of a large set piece to free space on stage. For Pippin, they had a 15’ steel structure that had to track up and down stage as well as right to left. Spachman says, “We unknifed it from the tracks, collapsed it to fit the 2’3”x12’ space and shoved it into the shaft to clear stage space for the finale.”

Complicating the challenge, especially for lighting designers, is the fact that the flyless grid above the stage is confined by the mansards of the roof so that, while the stage may well be 18’ across, the grid above is only 14’ at some spots. That confined space must be shared with rolled drops and suspensions, and the line-of-sight for some lighting effects can be more than just a little challenging.

Spachman says that many of these space constraints can be found in many houses. “When I started freelancing, I thought Goodspeed was unique, but I’ve learned there are many others with some of the same constraints. It’s just that, at Goodspeed, you get them all in the same house. Once you’ve worked here, you find you can shrug off the constraints elsewhere. It’s all part of the game,” he says. 


Goodspeed’s Space Constraints Bring Out The Inventiveness In Designers