Friday, February 17, 2012
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes at the San Diego Opera to talk with set designer Robert Brill.
The opera "Moby-Dick" kicks off it's west coast premiere on February 18. I went backstage to talk with UCSD and Sledgehammer alumni Robert Brill to find out how one brings a whaling ship into the San Diego Civic Theater. You can listen to my radio feature or watch my TV feature... But spoiler alert: there are some reveals.
A little backstory on Robert Brill first. He went to UCSD and was part of the groundbreaking and experimental Sledgehammer Theater. At Sledgehammer he learned to work with very little money and few resources so he had to depend instead on ingenuity, inspiration, and a DIY attitude. The results were often spectacular.
"That was a really important time for me," Brill explains, "because you had to be very resourceful and I think you were also thinking about how can you achieve this. So you were dreaming big but at the same time in the end making a lot of it yourself. But I think the work and the way that we were challenging ourselves and I hope challenging the audience, I think to this day some of that work is still the most interesting work in my portfolio and it's the kind of work that I think it speaks from a different place and it flexes different muscles and I think that it's where, when you start on certain projects that are ambitious, like Moby Dick, and you are thinking how do you approach something like that, I think that you have to be open to a lot of different ways of like what is that design what kind of tools do you use and it's not going to be conventional it's going to be something that you want the audience to be surprised. And I think that that's a lot of the work that we did at Sledgehammer."
Brill also did the production design for the San Diego cult films "The Killer Tomatoes Strike Back" and "Killer Tomatoes Eat France," which is when I met him since I was working as an editor on those films. But even on those silly Killer Tomatoes films, Brill displayed creativity and cleverness.
Ten days ago I went to the Civic Theater to check out the empty stage so I would have a point of comparison for Brill's final set design. The theater was abuzz with activity.
"It's controlled mayhem," says San Diego Opera's. director of production Ron Allen, "We are putting together the set for "Moby Dick" on the main stage. There are flying ladders that come in and track on and off; we have a trap that comes up during the thing; we have projections at the same time so there's quite a bit going on."
Allen and his crew are essentially bringing novelist Herman Melville's famous whaling ship the Pequod into the theater so audiences can join Captain Ahab in his mad pursuit of Moby-DIck.
"It's a big canvas on stage," says Brill, "But it's a canvas that has to hold actors, that they climb on, that they climb 40 feet into the air... and the staging of it I think make it a really ambitious design to install."
More than 50 people unloaded 5 trucks and worked on the set. That's almost twice as many people as one would find would find on a real whaling ship. The opera crew worked from 8am to midnight for 3 days to get the massive set up and working.
"The curved wall is 45 feet tall it goes back about 42 feet and it's about 75 feet wide so it will fill out that whole stage pretty much," says Allen.
Those massive walls are versatile elements in Brill's clever set design. He and director Leonard Foglia did consider doing something on a less grand scale.
:Could we streamline this, could it be smaller? And at the end of the day you think you're doing 'Moby-Dick,'" says Brill.
Brill's challenge was to bring more than just the Pequod on stage.
"What does it mean to put the universe on stage, what does it mean to put the entire ocean on stage?" Brill found himself asking, "A lot of ideas come up, where you are just throwing crazy ideas out like should the stage be covered in water, oh no that's a bad idea, let's not do water because that's what's the most expected."
That's why Brill is so good at what he does. He doesn't reject the notion of covering the stage in water because it's difficult or unreasonable but rather because it's what's expected. That's an attitude he fostered while working here in San Diego at the experimental Sledgehammer Theater. So Brill delivers the unexpected.
"Eventually we arrived at the idea of this floor surface that was both floor and wall that could be traversed by the chorus and the supers and that could be many things," states Brill.
It could be the deck of the ship or serve as a screen for projected images of the ocean and of a 3D, computer rendered image of the ship, a ship that feels like it's coming right into your lap. The set proves to be simple, elegant, and at times breathtaking. It smartly mixes the abstract and the real as it takes audience members on both an adventure and a philosophical journey.
"I think we're just giving enough to take them on that journey and they really have to go the rest of the way with it," he explains.
Unlike a movie where CGI can create anything in vivid detail, Brill asks audiences to fill in details with their own imaginations, which makes them active participants in the production. Brill's set also incorporates a spider web of rigging for the chorus to climb and interact with. It not only gives them something to do but it helps create the illusion of being on a ship.
"Lenny and I would have this conversation a lot about how much is too much and so the rigging of the ship seemed to be the thing that if we used it in the right way could be the most beautiful thing to look at," says Brill.
The set design plays beautifully into the lighting and the costumes and most importantly the performances. And there are moments when everything comes together in a perfect harmony.
"I think that the whale boat scene," Brill says, "because in many ways it is so literal, yet on stage it's such a simple and kind of abstract idea, and it's a very beautiful moment where I think all the departments are working together where you see both projections and scenery and costumes and lighting and all of that comes together."
The set proves to be simple, elegant, and at times breathtaking. It also incorporates a spider web of rigging for the chorus to climb and interact with. It not only gives them something to do but it helps create the illusion of being on a ship.
"So the rigging of the ship seemed to be the thing that if we used it in the right way could be the most beautiful to look at," states Brill, "but it was a question of how much rigging and what parts of the rigging to eliminate and that it was graphically interesting without being absolutely accurate. For instance, when we were looking at the rigging on the ship there are usually lines vertical lines and horizontal lines, and we said when we had all the horizontal lines in, it feels like we're doing Gilbert and Sullivan, it feels like now we want to see the rest of the ship. But when we used just the vertical lines it enhanced the vertical lines of the ship."
There's also a moment when the ship opens up to reveal where they render blubber into oil because Brill says, "The moment in the opera when they're rendering this big piece of blubber we needed finally to see something."
Unlike a movie where CGI can create anything in vivid detail, Brill asks audiences to fill in details with their own imaginations.
"I think we're just giving enough to take them on that journey and they really have to go the rest of the way with it," states Brill.
But productions like this are expensive and couldn't be done without companies across the country working together.
"The production itself costs $1.1 million," says Ron Allen, "that was divided amongst the five different companies so our portion of it was 233,000. And then we added about another 2 million dollars of our own costs to put the show up that's hiring the cast, the orchestra, the chorus, all the stage hands."
But it's a small price to pay when you are in pursuit of that elusive great white whale Moby-Dick.