Moving Greece From Britain to America In Phédre

October 26, 2009

There are times when, as the lights go down and the curtain goes up, you sit in the audience and say, “Now, how did they get that up there?” Some sets just look either terribly permanent or amazingly un-stagey. When you are watching a production that you know moved from one theatre to another, the question naturally occurs: “How did they move it?” But then, maybe they started from scratch and built a duplicate. Which was it?

Such an “oh-wow” moment greeted the audiences in the new home of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC, the Sydney Harman Hall, when the National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of Racine’s Phédre starring Helen Mirren opened a two-week visit. Bob Crowley’s set, featuring a 12’-high boulder in the midst of a polished marble palace patio, seemed the peak of a thrusting Greek island silhouetted against an endless blue sky.

Knowing that the production had originated some 3,600 miles away in London, the audience first gasped and then applauded. For Katrina Gilroy, the production manager from London, it was the payoff for months of work by her team including a very quick load in. The set had crossed the Atlantic in three sea containers. Unloading began on Sunday, Monday was an assembly day, and Tuesday was devoted to lighting. Full tech on Wednesday was followed by the first preview that night.

In a way, however, the project was almost routine. The National’s production of the show was part of a rotating repertory in the first place, so the set was designed to be removable and replaceable. “It never sat on a stage more than four days at a time,” she says. For the crew at the Harman, it was just another load in.

But planning started long before the first London performance. “We knew we were going to take the show to the Harman early,” says Gilroy. “I came to Washington before we began the build and spent three days with our colleagues at the Harman.”

The Harman is designed to assume one of four configurations, depending on the production demands. In this case, it was the proscenium-style configuration which has a smaller footprint than the production’s home in London. “We had to reduce the breadth of the set by a full two meters (over 6’), but the boulder maintained its size and prominence,” she says.

That boulder was constructed in typical stage single-sided structure but would be too tall to ship intact. Thus, it was built in two segments, with each just tall enough to fit into a sea container.

The three sea containers were scheduled for a 14-day cross-Atlantic voyage. “Actually, the shipping time was just 11 days dock to dock,” adds Gilroy. 

I asked about working with customs officials since the schedule wouldn’t have worked if one or more of the containers had been selected for a random check in today’s heightened security procedures. “We photographed everything as it was loaded and documented the entire thing just in case we were asked.”

Gilroy brought a team of five with her for the load in: two from set construction, two from the lighting crew, a sound engineer, and the sound designer. They used the house lighting instruments and sound system, but since the lighting plot was so involved in the visual impact of the show (the blue sky, hot sun, and sharp shadow lines giving the Mediterranean feel to Crowley’s structure), coordination and collaboration were at a premium. Therefore, the Harman had sent a representative of their light shop to London to familiarize himself with the plot.

No project of this magnitude comes off without surprises, of course. Gilroy says the biggest surprise of this project was the fact that the Harman didn’t have a “front cloth.” It is a new house that has only been open for two years and has had only a few shows in the proscenium configuration, each of which had its own show curtain. They had to come up with an extension and bring side masking from London to provide the clean, clear lines for the first reveal—that “wow moment” that drew such a reaction from the sell-out audiences.