Wait Until Dark: Building a Realistic Set
The entirety of the visible action for Wait Until Dark takes place in a Greenwich village apartment in the 1960s. Consequently this production, conceived and directed by NEYT artistic director Stephen Stearns, has been among the most literal and realistic of the sets produced by NEYT to date. In addition, the action of the play created challenges requiring a long list of special effects that furthered the impression of realism established by the design of the set. The technical crew, a larger group than the cast, entered new territory with the running of this show, which required precision in both communication and execution. Not only did this group help to create the set and learn to operate the most complex series of preset props and special effects, they did it using state of the art equipment, following the protocols of a professionally managed theater production. This was accomplished with the help of North Carolina School of the Arts graduate Adam Woolley, the coordinating stage manager. There were 5 assistant stage managers in the show, each with individual responsibilities, plus two student sound- and- lighting technicians.
Rick Barron, our Technical Director, and set designer Larry Lawlor, essentially built the bare bones of a real apartment, even including some plumbing and electricity. More than one adult on seeing the set for the first time commented that this was an apartment they had once lived in.
Prop master Sandy Klein, and Assistant Stage Manager Rosa Palmeri (responsible, additionally, for overseeing the presetting of the set each night) spent hours appointing the rooms with 60’s style furnishings, as well as filling out the kitchen counters, cabinets, and even the refrigerator with the items necessary to create a realistic impression of a small apartment kitchen of the time.
Several students and staff were involved in the painting of the set, from the faux bricks and linoleum, to both simple and complex painting of cabinets, and the raw wood grain of the living room settee with a special technique called “graining”. Sam Grubinger was the painter and sculptor of Roat’s special knife as well as the settee. Noted book illustrator John Gurney painted the brownstones of a city street (seen, just barely, through the windows of the kitchen) over a Guys and Dolls panel. He used photographs of real brownstones scenic designer Larry Lawlor shot in a visit to 87th and 1st Ave. NYC.
In the opening scene and throughout the play we see, through the windows, that it is raining outside. Each of the characters, therefore, gets misted with water before entering. Using a complex recycling of water, in a closed fountain type system, the windows also appear to drip with rain. The water leaks through a PVC pipe pierced with holes, and runs down into a slanted trough that goes to a barrel from whence the water is pumped back up to the pipe.
In the second scene of the play a fire starts in the ashtray. Set off by a wireless remote control signal, this special effect was one of the most difficult to adjust so that it would be convincing to the audience. The signal sets off the burning by sending an electric charge through a copper wire which ignites a bit of smoke powder. In the beginning there was too much smoke powder and it created a mini explosion of smoke like a genie emerging from a bottle, instead of the slow wafting of smoke from a cigarette catching paper on fire. The first night the audience actually laughed hilariously, which spoiled the serious atmosphere of the scene. After that it was adjusted and worked as intended. An important cue, that motivates the action onstage, it had to be re-set carefully by one of the stage managers after each run of the show.
Since Sam, the husband in the play, is a photographer, a completely convincing darkroom had to be set up in the room: pans, chemicals, an enlarger and actual photographs to be dipped in the “developing fluid” each show. Deb Lazar printed the photos on waterproof canvas so they could be reused.
Even the hall and the bedroom, seen only when the doors are open, had to be furnished and lit.
There was an old fashioned turntable in the room that really played during the show, as well as an old rotary phone that rang on cue—one of the most vital of cues to the plot.
At one point the young character Gloria has to smash all the light bulbs in the hall. To create the sound of breaking bulbs, Max Peyton had to break real bulbs on cue, that is, at the direction of Eliza Rosen. Eliza, connected by five recently purchased headsets to all the tech crew, initiated or “called” all of the cues of the play: Max and Jack backstage, Isaiah in the sound booth and Daphne at the lighting panel. “ Cue 23, Go!...Cue 24… Go!, etc.
The most difficult cue to time comes at the end of the play when Roat throws his knife at Susy. Since he can’t really, in the dark, throw a knife at her, he fakes the throw and then at the right moment another knife, spring- loaded in the wall, thuds realistically- if the timing is right- out of a photograph. This, and all of the other special effects, were designed, built and rigged by our Managing Director and Resident Lighting Designer, Jerry Stockman.
The wall sconces, overhead lights, the gooseneck lamp in the darkroom and especially the light in the refrigerator were important cues in the plotline. There were 48 circuits wired into the stage area plus three extra portable dimmer packs to cover the extra lights. Each lighting instrument had to be selected then hung, cabled, plugged into dimmers, assigned to channels, fitted with appropriate colored filters, and focused (aimed at its target). Much of the lighting design was motivated by the fixtures on the set: wall sconces, bedroom light, etc. Other lights were positioned to create ambient light so as to cover the action evenly. In addition, there was special effect lighting: the enlarger, the refrigerator, and the street lights outside the windows. In all of this the designer had to consider the emotional values imparted by the different colors and intensities of light.
The complexity of this show meant that four dress rehearsals were needed to work through many of the possible mistakes in cueing the special effects.
Each of the assistant stage managers had a long list of presets to accomplish, check and recheck out of the wreck the stage was in at the end of the show.
Truly, the success of this show was due in large measure to the dedication of its technical crew.
The Technical Team
Rick Barron - Technical Director
Larry Lawlor - Set Designer
Adam Woolley - Stage Manager
Sandy Klein - Costumer and Prop Master
Jerry Stockman - Special Effects Designer
Sylvianne Shurman - Costumer
Rosa Palmeri - Assistant Stage Manager
Hayden Bunker - Assistant Stage Manager
Eliza Rosen - Assistant Stage Manager
Isaiah Palmeri - Sound Technician and assistant designer
Daphne Kinney-Landis - Sound Technician
Jack Maples - Assistant Stage Manager
Max Peyton - Assistant Stage Manager
Sam Grubinger - Prop Assistant