CHAPEL HILL — In the performance arts business it’s understood that, during a live production, a hundred things can go sideways and several usually do.
Introduce an ambitious new design element – a 15-ton swimming pool in the middle of your stage, say – and the potential for surprises expands exponentially.
But so does the potential for big creative payoffs, and that’s what’s happening over at PlayMakers Repertory Company these days with the company’s audacious stagings of “The Tempest” and “Metamorphoses,” in rotating performances through Dec. 8.
Both plays have water as a central element. “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s final work, takes place on a storm-swept island with magical, elemental forces at play. “Metamorphoses,” steeped in classical poetry and myth, is specifically designed to be staged with a centrally-placed pool of water.
PlayMakers producing artistic director Joseph Haj, who co-directs both productions with guest artist Dominique Serrand, said he’s wanted to incorporate the pool of water idea for years. Practical considerations made such a production impossible until the Paul Green Theater’s 25-year-old festival deck stage was removed earlier this year.
“We chose these two plays to perform in and around a pool of water, because both plays take water as their central metaphor,” Haj said. “It’s such an aesthetic delight to be in that room with all that water, and to create these stories.”
The task of installing the pool, which is heated and chlorinated, fell to the company’s design team, headed up by scenic and costume co-designers McKay Coble and Jan Chambers. The first thing the team had to do was determine if the theater could even accommodate such a set-up.
“I was surprised at how much water weighs,” Coble said. “A cubic foot weighs 65 pounds. We had to shore up the floor with steel beams. One of the things we teach here is structure – we get into a little bit of structural engineering. So our teachers and our students were able to calculate the weight and the support it would need.”
Coble and Chambers, both faculty members with UNC’s Department of Dramatic Art, also had to think about how the chlorinated water would affect props, costuming, makeup and virtually every other aspect of the production.
“We had to do tests on every single fabric and item that was going to go into that pool,” McKay said. “We also had to think about safety issues. The stage surface around the pool can get slippery, so we were working on the surfaces and textures there.”
The pool and the various water elements in both shows – piping in the catwalks above the stage produces rain effects – posed unique challenges in all aspects of design. But the water elements also presented creative opportunities.
Earth and water
PlayMakers repertory performer Jeffrey Blair Cornell, also on faculty with the UNC drama department, plays Caliban in “The Tempest.” In the story, Caliban is a kind of half-man/half-fish elemental creature, born of earth and water.
“He’s one of the first beings on the island, he has some fish-like appendages and scales, so he’s at home in the water,” Cornell said. “There’s a timeless element to it.”
Cornell also plays roles in the ensemble cast of “Metamorphoses.” At a tech rehearsal in the week before opening, Cornell was working out choreography and blocking with directors Haj and Serrand. The scene depicts the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus descends to the Underworld to reclaim his bride.
In one particularly deft bit of stagecraft, a thin sheet of fabric is stretched over the surface of the onstage pool. Cornell, as a spirit of the Underworld, rises from underneath the fabric, twisting and writhing as the waterlogged cloth clings to his body. It’s an eerie, ghostlike image that could only have been achieved with the pool.
“Once the fabric becomes wet, it becomes a membrane of the underworld and the spirits are trapped under there,” Cornell said. “Visually, it’s pretty startling.”
Co-director Haj said that specific moment was an instance where artistic vision and practical stagecraft came together to produce a singular theatrical effect.
“That’s one where, you know, you dream it and then you hope and pray that – on the other end – it looks like what you hoped it might look like,” he said.
Both “The Tempest” and “Metamorphoses” feature live music, composed and performed by Ari Picker and Emma Nadeau of the critically acclaimed Chapel Hill band Lost in the Trees. Characters from the narrative sometimes appear in the balcony space where Picker and Nadeau perform, and contribute to the soundscape.
In the opening performance of “The Tempest,” the sprite Ariel, played by Maren Searle, flitted between the stage and musical balcony and back again. Down by the pool, one central character literally made his entrance from underneath the water of the pool, prompting gasps from the audience.
“Having the water in the room allows you some artistic opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise,” Haj said. “It’s been such a great experience for our company. With the added element of the water, it changes our process.”