March 15,, 2010

At least one patron returned to Denver this month just to see, as he put it, “how in the world they could stage this thing.” 

He’d attended last year’s New Play Festival at the Denver Center Theatre Company and saw the un-staged reading of When Tang Met Laika. This year, the company gave the new play by Rogelio Martinez a fully staged world premiere.

On second thought, however, the patron said, “Well, maybe ‘how in the world’ isn’t the best terminology.” For, you see, When Tang Met Laika opens not on Earth but in orbit when a visiting American astronaut boards the Soviet space station, Mir, and is attracted to a pretty Russian cosmonaut. Other scenes take place on the International Space Station currently orbiting 185 miles above earth.

Denver may be a “mile high,” but it is hardly in orbit where gravity is countered by centrifugal force to create a zero-gravity environment. The challenge, then, was how to stage weightlessness down here on the surface of the earth.

When the play received its reading in 2009, it was directed by the producing artistic director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company, Terrance J. Nolan. Ian Merrill Peakes, who portrayed the American Astronaut in both the staged reading and in this year’s full production, recalls that, during rehearsals for the reading, the cast asked Nolan how to simulate weightlessness. His reply was, “Not my job! This is just a reading; someone else can worry about it when they stage the piece.”

It turned out to be his job after all, because he was brought back to direct Peakes, Jessica Love as the cosmonaut, and a cast of five others in the full production. 

He brought along Washington DC-based scenic designer James Kronzer with whom he has often worked. They wanted to come up with a design solution which would obviate the necessity of miming zero-gravity, what Kronzer calls “a bad ballet version of weightlessness,” and they didn’t want to use wires to have things (or people) floating around the stage in Denver’s appropriately titled Space Theatre, a 260-seat venue in the round, because, as Kronzer says, “people would stop listening at the first sight of a wire.”

Kronzer came up with a triple revolve design that let the turntable motors give some illusion of the potentially disorienting effect of weightlessness. In the center was a 4’-diameter revolvable lift that could rise up, disappear down or stay at stage level but rotate. Surrounding it was a 14’ 4” doughnut shaped turntable which was, itself, surrounded by another 20’5” doughnut shaped turntable. All three were capable of rotating independently and in opposite directions.

Remembering the meeting at which he laid out the requirement for the Denver Center Theatre Company staff, Kronzer says, “Technical director Dan McNeil and production manager Ed Lapine paused a bit but then said, ‘Yeah, we could do that.’ They were fabulous.” He points to one moment when two cast members, one on each doughnut, are in conversation and very close together, face to face. But their doughnuts were counter-rotating and they began to “float” apart while continuing their intense personal connection. “It just felt like weightlessness” he says.

With such potentially disorienting movement of the stage, the actors had to work especially hard at finding ways to hit their marks. With entrances and exits from the five voms of the hall (they had a blue light above one vom and a white light above another as a reference), they spent the first rehearsal day on the stage just working on the blocking of the space scenes.

Not all the action takes place in space, however. To accommodate the scenes on Earth, Kronzer asked for three wagons that would bring furniture on and off from the voms without interrupting the flow of the show. Then he had five compartments built into each of the two doughnuts for such things as stowed sleeping gear for an in-space dream sequence.

To bring it all together, Nolan and Kronzer turned to the company’s resident multi-media specialist. Yes, the Denver Center Theatre Company has someone in that position, Charlie I. Miller, a recent graduate from Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. Kronzer designed projection screens to be placed on the fronts of the five small (five-seat) balconies surrounding the stage with a white 22’ 5 1/2” ring to be suspended above the stage to house projectors.

Miller turned to NASA for footage of scenes in space. “One great thing about NASA is that all their stuff is in the public domain,” he says, adding “and they were great about getting me what I needed.” None of the views of such things as the docking in space or the views of earth from orbit were simply cut in without adjustment, however. Miller created montages and composite views and then produced five slightly different angles of each so that the view from each of the five balcony screens would be in relationship to the relative position with the stage.

For the Earth-bound scenes, Miller worked out upward views. For example, for the scenes in a forest in Russia, only the tops of trees were seen on the screens. “We wanted always to be showing the sky...but that meant that, on Earth the sky is clouds and blue while in Space the sky is black with stars,” says Miller.

Nolan, Kronzer, and Miller (along with a hard working cast and crew) gave the patron who wondered how “on Earth” they would do it quite a show. “Elegant,” he said afterwards. 

Weightlessness Without Wires
Jim Kronzer and Charlie I. Miller Design 
Orbital Scenes