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Whipping Up The Whipping Man

October, 2013


From California to Vermont, Washington, D.C. to Washington state, and points in between, scenic designers have been finding different ways to stage Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man. One of the most produced plays in the country at the moment, Whipping Man premiered at New Jersey’s Luna Stage in 2006 and was revised before it took off in a series of productions at the Penumbra Theatre Company in Minnesota (2009), the Old Globe in San Diego (2010) and at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2011. John Lee Beatty earned the 2011 Henry Hewes Design Award from the American Theatre Wing for his work on that production.

The play tells the story of a defeated and injured Confederate soldier who returns home to Richmond to find two of his family’s former slaves living in the ruined hulk of his family’s mansion. Part of the play’s attractiveness for theatres across the country may well be that it is essentially a unit set piece with a cast of three, involving just one time period.

That period is established as the end of the Civil War, specifically Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the day that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. With the ever-increasing popularity of the images of Matthew Brady and his successors that time was also the beginning of the era of photography. Amanda Embry, who designed Luna Stage’s world premiere, says she delved into photos of war-ravaged cities in order to compose the piles of rubble from cannon fire that bordered the playing area of her set. And Debra Booth, who designed the show for Vermont’s Dorset Theatre Festival this past summer, also talked about the need for research into “a period that you don’t see many plays in today.”

“We sort of had to make up a story for the house itself,” says Booth. “Part of that was the idea that a cannonball had come through the ceiling and impacted at the side of the staircase, taking out a newel post. We had a whole scenario for the damage which the entire artistic team used.”

Not all the sources of realism come from research. Seattle’s Taproot Theatre Company’s Design Director Mark Lund said his director, Scott Nolte, “is a very visual director and he wanted a very realistic, not suggestive setting. We envisioned it as the safe part of the house to live in after the main part of the house had burned down. We had a fire next door to our building three years ago and suffered a lot of smoke and water damage so we knew a lot about how that looks and what it feels like.”

Luna Stage’s Embry was so successful creating the look of a burned-out building, he ran into problems with the fire marshall. “We wanted to use live candles so we asked the fire marshall to come approve it. He sent someone who didn’t know the [burnt-out building look] was an intentional set effect and wanted to shut the place down as unsafe. We had to ask the fire marshall to come back so we could show him how the areas that looked burned were really painted. He let us use live votive candles.”

Breaking the Unit

One challenge that Embry didn’t face that her successors did was staging a scene that doesn’t occur in the world of that unit set. That scene wasn’t in the script when it premiered in New Jersey. Written later the scene is currently the Act II opener and comprises a monologue in which the Confederate soldier reads from a letter he wrote while incarcerated in a Union Army prisoner of war camp.

In his design for the Portland Center Stage, Cisek put this scene “downstage on the thrust, isolated entirely by light” because, as he says, “the scene really takes place in (the character’s) head, not in a specific place.”

Alternately, Kat Conley, who designed a co-production for the Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk and the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, Calif., said that her director, Jason Minadakis, “really wanted it to be a real place, a location distinct from the main set. It worked out better as a reveal in order to create a strong sense of isolation and giving it an ‘Edward Gorey’ feel helped do what Jason wanted.”

Conley points out that the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, where she is the charge scenic artist, produced the play as well, so she found herself finishing the painting of their set, which was designed by Jason Sherwood. There, she says, “The actor was in a down light, very clean, looking very much like a photograph of a soldier of the time.”

At the Old Globe in 2010 and again at the Cleveland Play House in 2012, Robert Mark Morgan placed the monologue front and center, but used a gobo to project the text of the letter he is reciting onto the floor surrounding the actor. The two houses required very different set designs, however, because the Old Globe’s production was in the round but the Cleveland Play House has a thrust stage.

“The Old Globe has two voms and we devoted one to the dilapidated staircase and the other was the exit to the kitchen,” says Morgan. Since both houses had raked audiences looking down on the playing space, Morgan and his director of both productions, Giovanna Sardelli, staged the amputation scene with the actor on the set’s floor. “The real horror of that scene is in the description of what is going to happen,” says Morgan. The scene ends with the start of the procedure but Morgan says “We had people passing out … one actor had to make an entrance over a passed out lady.”

While Morgan used what he termed “about a gallon of blood” in the amputation scene, Taproot’s Mark Lund took the opposite tack with no liquid at all. Instead, a bloody patch was painted on the floor of the set and was covered by a blanket until after the amputation.

Come Again Another Day

Another challenge the play presents is the near constant presence of rain. Some designers chose to use real water, either in rain curtains behind the set so the rain would be visible through the door and windows, or dripping water from overhead into buckets as if through a leaky roof. Others, either by choice or because experience during tech or previews revealed that the water effects weren’t registering on the audience, used lighting and sound effects.

At the Portland Center Stage, Cisek had a 35-foot water curtain for the outside rainfall and also rigged about half a dozen drips into onstage pots. “But there was no way the audience was going to register that as rain, so we just used pots and sound,” says Cisek. He added a flow coming down the wall behind the staircase, which he said was “a challenge to light so the audience would see it as rainwater. Figuring out how to get water flowing is easy compared to how to light it.”

Morgan didn’t use any water in his first production at the Old Globe but he said “we had a really nice rain curtain behind the windows at the Cleveland Play House. In fact, we had a problem with the sound of the water—it was so loud. We found a product, a plastic air filter, that softened the sound of the impact of the falling water.”

Both Conley and Lund spoke of rigging rain effects only to find the audience wouldn’t recognize it as rain, and so the effects were cut before opening. Lund, who designed both the set and the sound for the production, said he ended up using three different rain sound loops through speakers in the house and some on stage and back stage, running off Stage Research’s SFX playback software. “We kept some rain sound on throughout—sort of a white noise that you only notice during silences,” adds Lund. “But we in Seattle know that sound, and would notice its absence.”

Jennifer Nelson, who directed the show at Washington D.C.’s Theater J, also said they “relied a lot on sound effects.” She added that “when characters made entrances, they would have a wet umbrella to shake off or a wet coat. But we presumed that the front door (of the house) would have had a portico over it which shielded it from the rain.”

All the designers interviewed for this piece expressed great affection for this particular play, saying that its success was gratifying and they all seemed to have genuinely enjoyed the blending of period research and artistic expression—though it did present a funny coincidence for Debra Booth: “I don’t know that I’m related to the assassin—but, hey, my name is Booth!”