Pocket-size epics are the house specialty at Constellation Theatre Company, a troupe that has put everything from the water-filled pool of “Metamorphoses” to the dinosaur-packed New Jersey home of “The Skin of Our Teeth” inside the 100-seat Source theater. A.J. Guban has created most of the designs in the troupe’s 10 years, and it turns out he has a bigger canvas in his other job as lighting supervisor with the Washington National Opera.
“I get to play with the big toys over there, then see how they can work over here,” Guban says.
“It’s always, ‘At the opera . . .’ ” artistic director Allison Arkell Stockman teases.
They’re sitting on Guban’s nearly built set for Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” which brings a new twist to their collaborations. The stage is not so much in-the-round as immersive, with seating in at least five separate areas. Platforms and runways slash through the audience in every direction.
“We both liked the idea of in-the-round,” Guban says of Brecht’s political parable, which involves a land dispute and a custody tug-of-war over a child. “But it’s an adventure story,” he adds. That led to creating as much acting space as possible for journeys and action, and for the cast’s 14 actors to play 60 characters.
Guban counts 10 distinct acting areas, plus a musicians’ pit for live percussion. To keep things flowing, actors will sometimes cross backstage in narrow corridors behind the set’s walls. Quick costume changes will sometimes happen out of sight in very tight quarters.
The effect will be the sort of sweep Stockman has courted with her repertoire of high-style fables; from the debut show “The Arabian Nights” to the 2016 “Journey to the West,” Mary Zimmerman adaptations have been staples. Musicals have taken wing, too: Stockman’s only half joking when she says Constellation might still be selling tickets to their 2015 hit “Avenue Q” if they had a theater available for an extended run. (Source has several arts constituents sharing the space.)
Guban and Stockman met as teachers, and they bonded a decade ago as Constellation took root after Source was saved from commercial redevelopment. Very early, Guban pitched in by handling the website. By the second season, he took on managing-director duties.
“I had no idea I would have a leadership partner,” Stockman says.
Guban is apparently wired to enjoy lights: as a kid, “I tinkered a lot with electricity in the basement,” he says. He was on track to become an English teacher but changed his mind at the end of college. He came to the University of Maryland from his native Ohio for a graduate degree in lighting design; of Constellation’s 38 shows, he has created lights for 33 productions and sets for 35.
The company has a “creative headquarters” in Silver Spring that lets them mount sets in a rehearsal space. “I can’t imagine doing this in a flat room,” Stockman says of orchestrating the action across Guban’s jigsaw of ramps and steps. At Source, Guban’s set takes on a blasted, black-and-gray texture of grass and dirt. The ingredients are AstroTurf and rubber mulch, melted with a heat gun and finished with a product called Sculpt or Coat, which will dry hard for a bleak, scorched, post-apocalyptic look.
“Kelsey will introduce the color,” Guban says of costume designer Kelsey Hunt.
Ask about the dimensions at Source, and Guban has the numbers: 11 feet 3 inches from the floor to the bottom of the ceiling’s exposed I-beams and an area of 34 feet by 55 feet. “It’s tricky to design,” he says, pointing out matters like plumbing descending from the second floor and a major air handler in a corner.
Having created a unique look for “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” the company will keep none of the set’s elements. Guban explains, “We will probably never do this exact setup again.”
Source, 1835 14th St. NW. 202-204-7741. constellationtheatre.org.
Dates: Through May 13.