What an honor and inspiration it was to work with Ron Holgate on this brilliant musical. For those who may not know, Mr. Holgate won the Tony Award for his portrayal of Richard Henry Lee in the original Broadway run, later reprising the role in the film.
Designer Statement: It can be hard designing a show like this. I was in love with the musical from the start, having seen it on its original national tour. Every aspect of the show is so well crafted. The public script is even replete with copious historical footnotes! It was all perfectly presented in all aspects. Of course the settings were by the great Jo Meilziner and they were astonishing, not just in their beauty, but in the way they served as visual poetry, capturing the essence with as little material encomberance as possible. I would have loved to have explored setting along his lines. I soon discovered however that that original approach does not work as well in venues of more limited spacial dimensions. In the original, it was the expanse of space that did half of the communicating, especially in the way it supported the lighting as an integral part in creating the world of the play. While impressionistic scenery can work well in smaller spaces, the play's epic quality makes this approach less effective in a less than epic surrounding.
While the space seemed less ideal for an epic approach, it did strike me as of an accurate architectural scale. In keeping the environment in the realm of accurate architecture, the setting could serve as a means of grounding the production. One remarkable thing about the script is how well it is grounded in historical fact even while seeming to be comical and satyrical. In fact the annotated published script appendix includes a section of events that were deemed too strange to have included in the production. The authors felt no one would believe such events. In fact I feel a weakness of the film version was its inclusion of one such unbelievable (but true) events; the entry of Ben Franklin via sedan chair ported by Native Americans with Oxford accents!
There were other advantages in going with a rather realistic approach. The birth of American Democracy has its parallel in the architecture of the period, with its bow to the Greek classical forms. It also afforded me an opportunity to do with the architecture what Meilziner did with his beams of light - juxtapose the interior space within the larger context of the exterior. Indeed I placed empahsis on the solid interior VS the collage of exterior classical architectural elements. There was an energy about Philadelphia of the period. Finally, the approach allowed me to pay hommage to Jefferson whose many talents and professions included architecture.
Challenges: I did not want to break up the exquisit flow of movement with lots of levels. Yet tables always present a barrier to both blocking and sightlines. We worked towards the minimum of tables that would keep within the logic while maintaining maximum freedom of space. The floor was then raked to help mitigate the sightline issues while helping to pay homage to the perspectives of the signature painting of the signing of the Declaration.
I initially looked at the actual room but found it to be somewhat lacking in theatricality. It was somewhat sterile to me. I added more nooks and crannies to my space and made the emphasis towards a corner, off axis while still maintaining internal symetry. This borrowed from Meilziner's approach and afforded a groundplan familiar to the Director from his time working on the original.
The whole set was designed in perspective, not only inspired by Meilziner's approach, but also from the stagecraft of the period itself. The perspective also allowed an expansion of the physical space. While I have used perspective scenery many times, this particular design introduced two unique challenges. The windows looked great, but caused an Escher moment as each was opened as the perspective of the mullions and muttons of the bottom segment no longer matched perspective when moved up! This challenge was never fully solved but was subtle enough as to not be noticed by many in the audience. A similar challenge was posed in the tally board. Had the slider segments been built in the perspective, the sliding names would have fallen out at the wide end. In this case I had to work hard to keep the periphery in perspective in a way that would not clash with the tracks that had to be devoid of perspective.
With the limited space, locating the various additional scenes became a challenge. The peripheral architectural areas did allow for some of these scenes to be placed in clever ways including the upstairs of Jefferson's apartment. As you can see from the production photos, we were also able to provide a midstage scrim in fullness which allowed for various scenes to be presented downstage while the Congress could be seen through in misty tableau. The effect was very striking, especially in the way it could mitigate the edge of realism at just the appropriate moments. We did keep the additional scrim image of the Declaration for the end of the show. That is too powerful a moment to pass up in my opinion. Both scrims were placed in a way that the audience had no idea they were there till they were used.