Set Pieces

I shall carry the images to my grave. In one of the two shows I’ve written and directed for presentation at Wimbledon College of Art this week (previewed here), the designers proposed a set, described in the playlet text here, the walls of which were built to be leaped through. Large, thin, rectangular sheets of polystyrene were papered with wallpaper then mounted in frames between a series of doors. The walls thus formed looked entirely solid. The audience had no clue as to their fragility. Two minutes from the end of the show, which had featured a great deal of farce-style dashing in and out of six doors, the actors played a scene behind the set, not visible to the audience, who could only hear their voices. A dangerous situation requiring instant escape arises…

But first, the prototyping. In a rehearsal and building process which compresses two weeks’ work into three days, it became necessary to see just what might happen when an actor took a run and jump at a wall. We ran a scene back to the top so that the designated jumper, Jude Barrington, could arrive at the wall with the full weight of the drama behind her. The production team stood back to watch the test. At the appropriate moment, Jude dove through, from frontstage to back. With a satisfying crack, the wall gave, leaving a gaping hole through which one could see an actress slowing down. All present cheered and clapped.

By the following day it had been decided that rather than jumping through the wall away from the audience, the actors would jump towards the audience. Michael Pavelka, supervising the designers, had suggested loading the backs of the exploding panels with cement powder, which would hang cloudily in the air as the wall exploded. In the dress rehearsal the office scene is enacted and a dangerous situation requiring instant escape arises. The air is rent with twin explosions and the empty fore stage is suddenly littered with chunks and graced with the spectacle of two figures dancing fiercely to the pounding strains of Novaspace’s mix of ‘Beds Are Burning‘. The actresses have gone through. A second later the centre panel blasts apart, sundered by the flying body of Chris Newland, who, as soon as his feet hit the ground, starts dancing. Fade to black.

Not bad – could be better. The panel on audience right has not shattered because Katie Roberts – who didn’t get a test dive because we were low on polystyrene – ran at it without putting her arms up, thereby pushing it aside rather than wrecking it. This is discussed and arm positions are demonstrated. The crew has twenty minutes to install fresh, pre-papered panels.

Two hours later ‘In the Bosom of Roy‘ is under way with a packed house rammed right up to the very edge of the stage. A dangerous situation requiring instant escape arises. A deafening and utterly startling explosion delivers, almost into the laps of the front row, two actresses, hazed around with dust, dancing in front of two gaping, Tom and Jerry-style black holes. To the further astonishment of the audience, Chris hurtles out a moment later and the cast dances dementedly in the debris of the formerly pristine set.