Here’s what happens when your stage is a pool,
which is how it is with playwright Mary Zimmerman’s famous
In the theater, patrons get wet.
Audiences in the first few “splash zone” rows may find towels in their seats at Arena Stage, where Zimmerman and
her longtime team of designers and performers have brought their singular play. “We go though 50 or 60 towels a night,”
says stage manager Cynthia Cahill. That’s towels for audiences, actors, and mop-up duty by the crew, because:
Backstage, everything gets wet.
Zimmerman says, “The backstage life is a colossal, frenzied, sopping wet, ripping-clothes-on-and-off nightmare.”
Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” based on Ovid’s myths, has been an unusually fabled and durable phenomenon on the recent theatrical landscape, especially for a non-musical. Zimmerman started it at Northwestern University in 1996, where she was (and still is) teaching. Two years later it was produced professionally by Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre and Zimmerman was a MacArthur “genius” grant winner.
By 2002 the show was on Broadway. Its tales of transformation featured such familiar figures as Poseidon and Narcissus, and the themes of love, suffering, loss and redemption were particularly moving in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The water was spectacular, but also a fluid metaphor for change; Zimmerman won a Tony for her direction.
Last fall it was revived as part of the 25th anniversary season at Lookingglass, where Zimmerman is a company member. That show — the same one now playing at Arena — features all the designers and many of the actors who have been with “Metamorphoses” since the early days in Chicago. Yet water issues persist as everyone adjusts to the vast rectangle of Arena’s Fichandler space.
“I don’t know that I’d say it’s a well-oiled machine,” says set designer Daniel Ostling. “But we have a clearer sense of what works and what doesn’t.”
Costume designer Mara Blumenfeld says, “Because the water places so many demands on the technical elements, it’s never just a simple remount. There is a lot of wizardry behind the curtain.”
Here, then, are some of the liquid’s lessons, or the Tao of the Pool:
Arena will feature the biggest “Metamorphoses” pool yet, and the first that’s not resting on a floor. Beneath the Fichandler stage, a forest of iron poles holds up the pool’s structure. That’s also where you’ll find the drainage buckets that catch water sloshing onto the pool deck, plus the pump and two water heaters.
The actors’ contract calls for the water temperature to be 99 degrees or above. During the show, the pump and heaters are turned off to eliminate sound and the vibrations that can ripple the water’s surface. The water cools considerably, but the show is only 90 minutes long. When the pool’s not in use, the crew uses a standard cover (a material similar to bubble wrap that floats on the surface) and an additional tarp to preserve heat.
“That helps a lot,” says stage manager Cynthia Cahill, who worked on last fall’s Lookingglass production.
Back in 1996 at Northwestern, there were no heaters or pumps. The pool was drained each night and refilled each day — which is what Synetic Theater is doing in Crystal City for its current watery staging of “The Tempest.” In 1998 with Lookingglass, everything backstage stayed moist: When the crew dismantled the set after eight months, they found mushrooms and hay growing under the stage. (One character chews a piece of straw during the show, and some seeds fell out.)
Now the backstage systems are designed to capture water, thanks mainly to a pathway of troughs. The troughs feature webbed rubber mats so sopping actors don’t slip as they dash on and off.
For soundproofing, the hallways backstage are carpeted. Each theater brings its own arsenal of challenges for water management, and carpeting is a new one for the “Metamorphoses” team.
To protect the carpet, a plastic tarp covers the floor and runs about four inches up the walls. As the cast rehearses, Cahill eyes the tarp warily.
“I hope this doesn’t turn into a Slip ’N Slide when it gets wet,” she frets.
“The audience needs to see the water,” Ostling says, and in that respect the Fichandler is ideal. The seating is steeply raked and rises above the stage, although that creates its own issues of lighting and reflection, since Ostling and Zimmerman don’t always want you to see to the pool’s bottom.
It’s the first time this production has been in the round, but that doesn’t mean major changes for the set, which is largely pool and deck. For traction, the deck is lightly gritted and sealed, though on this Sunday the sealant is mysteriously coming up in spots. Waiting for a scene to begin, an actor peels up a fat strip of sealant like a kid peeling dried skin.
“That was a mistake,” Cahill murmurs.
The deck usually needs re-gritting every two or three weeks, but the sealant shouldn’t be coming up already. They will re-apply it Monday. It will take 13 hours to cure.
The deck can play havoc with:
“It basically acts as a cheese grater,” Blumenfeld says of the gritted floor.
The primary challenge, though, is the water, which Zimmerman says makes costuming “super, super hard. There are so many fabrics you can’t use.”
Colored fabrics have to be synthetic, because natural fibers bleed. Blumenfeld has seen disasters: a black brocade skirt that leaked its inky color into the water. A red velvet dress not meant for the pool, but which bled anyway when a drippy actor brushed against it.
Even wash tests can’t guarantee how a fabric will react in the pool’s chemicals. “Sometimes they go rogue on you,” Blumenfeld says.
But time and progress have made certain things easier, like the skirt for the character Isis. It lights up, and originally that was done with battery operated Christmas lights. Now the effect is created with smaller, brighter, more delicate LEDs.
“The execution is more elegant and refined,” Blumenfeld says. “The spirit is the same, but we’re older and wiser. And we have more money and technology at our disposal.”
Indeed, Louise Lamson remembers the days of ignorance and youth, trying to keep warm between scenes by draping a wet costume on top of electric space heaters before putting it back on.
“It was still wet,” Lamson says. “But at least it was warm-wet.”
Now the actors often have doubles of the same costume, sometimes even triples and quadruples to cope with two-show days. And, critically, they have “hot boxes”: small changing rooms warmed by portable radiators.
After running through a notably splashy scene, Chris Kipiniak and Ashleigh Lathrop take turns practicing the backstage costume changes in one of the Fichandler’s four temporary hot boxes, smoothly transforming from wet to dry. Cahill, watching, notes that Arena’s wardrobe assistants may eventually choose to wear bathing suits as they peel damp duds from actors, as some of the Lookingglass crew did last fall.
Other basics: Obviously, lotion is verboten (it makes the pool greasy), and makeup must be waterproof. But Lamson — like Kipiniak, a veteran from her student days at Northwestern — reports that even weather can be a factor for the aquatic actor. The Chicago cold, for instance, can dry a body out, and “We have to take care of our skin in a different way.”
Have the comfort issues all been solved in 16 years? Kipiniak says, “When you’re a college student, comfort means a different thing.” In other words, then they didn’t much care, and now it’s all so sophisticated that there’s a “bible” on water management and even a show mantra: “The water always wins.”
written and directed by Mary Zimmerman. Through March 17 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. www.arenastage.org