American Enterprise originated at The Organic Theatre in Chicago, but The New York State Theatre Institute was selected to develop the work further for it's New York City premiere Off-Broadway. Both the musical director as well as the playwright (Jeffrey Sweet) of the original production were in residence with us for the New York debut edition. This marked my second collaboration with Patricia Birch and my third collaboration with noted lighting designer, John McLain
The setting had to work equally well in two very different environments. This edition of the production was to originate in the Schacht Auditorium on the campus of Russell Sage College, before moving to Saint Clements Theatre on an Off-Broadway contract. The Schacht Auditorium is a traditional barn of a proscenium house, while St. Clements is an intimate end-room space featuring an environment of raw
warehouse style brick with windows along both sides of the theatre space. The windows could be blacked out but the architecture of them remained to be hidden, or integrated into the design. While St. Clements is a prestigious venue (Julie Taymour produced Juan Darien there earlier), the needs of the church itself had to be accommodated within our setting.
The play tells a true story steeped in the history of Chicago. It was interesting that the director and playwright both had Chicago roots. I too grew up in Chicago!
The setting consists of a series of disconnected, but not disjointed images in both two and three dimensions. These images create a stage environment reflective of two simultaneous but opposing worlds. The public face of Chicago's 1892 Columbian exposition is reflected in the images as is America's first planned worker's community, the town of Pullman. Within this idealized environment though, there are hints of the underbelly of the industrial age.
The set is on two levels with a third intermediary level and connections via stairways and ramps, including a circular stairway, down right. On the intermediate level sits the working
Corlis engine so prominent in the imagery of the script. The upper level sits above a series of doors which reflect the workers quarters at Pullman. The doors can play in a myriad of positions.
Overhead are a number of images drawn from posters of Pullman creations and locations central to the script. Cutting through these are trusses suggesting both the central train image, as well as the association of Chicago with its elevated train lines.
At the rear of the stage is a facade of buildings which could depict the Pullman train yards or generic factory/urban environments. The facade is both built in three dimensions and at a smaller than life scale so as to heighten perspective. The windows could all light up.
The building at the rear as well as the color tones of the posters were design to integrate with the brick and architecture of St. Clements' space.
American Enterprise is the story of the George Pullman empire in Chicago during the height of the industrial revolution. In that period, Pullman built a utopian workers' community outside of Chicago
named .... Pullman. This was the first such planned workers' communities in the United States and it marked a very great improvement in the working and living conditions in American industry.
But then simultaneously, in 1894 history saw two competing forces in Chicago (and by extrapolation the rest of the country). The Columbian Exposition, one of the world's best world's fairs opened in Chicago displaying a wealth of technological innovation. The promise of the expo was a future where American Industry would literally reshape the human condition for the better. This was a time of high ideals where anything was thought possible.
This was also the time when the bubble of idealism burst. While we think of the depression of 1929 as "THE" depression, there were others before that were perhaps as devastating. Key among these was the depression of 1894 where the bottom dropped out of the markets, largely because of over extension in The Railway Industry. Overnight, Pullman's attitudes changed and he became a despot. The community was so planned that Pullman even owned the town's church. That was fine when he was a benevolent dictator but with the change in fortunes the very social order itself disintegrated. The depth to which circumstances descended is evidenced by this being the first time in American history that US military troops were called out to fight American citizens. This was a very dark chapter in American history.
The juxtaposition of elements and symbols intertwined within Jeffery Sweet's script made for excellent drama.. In a sense Sweet sets up "Exhibit A" (etc) of Pullman's life, as though his life and subsequent events were themselves part of the exposition in Chicago. This is not far from reality actually. As a former citizen of Chicago I knew that the ultimate demise of the fair came with a fire. I was never told that this was likely a direct result of the Pullman riots of the period. Pullman built an era, which he then largely destroyed.
Using many of the images directly inherent in the script, I worked within the setting, at reinforcing the images and structures of the script. I placed the action within a Chicago idealized within the context of the fair. It was an environment of hope, of possibilities, of bigger than life leaders. The set makes reference to the elevated trains, of the dawn of electric lighting on a mass scale. The way that Chicago literally rose above the river on the back of Pullman engineering (literally) is also referenced in the bi-level nature of the setting.
A featured centerpiece of the set is the great Corlis engine which was also a centerpiece of the fair. Sweet calls for this in his script. It is a metaphor of the machine of industry, moving forward in progress but also in cold destruction of anything in its path. The Organic Theatre of Chicago, originated the production and they too had the engine but used it in a non-active passive role. In our edition, I used the engine to drive a Meyerhold sensibility. I worked at making this set a "machine for action". The giant wheel of our engine was motorized and we used industrial belts to expand the energy of the wheel to a secondary wheel. The motion of this machine was used to punctuate the dramatic action and pace of production to it's height and then ultimate breakdown.
The script is authentic in its details, and specific. The hotel in the script is not a generic hotel but the Florence Hotel named for Pullman's daughter. To reinforce the fact that real people, real events, real
tragedy of grand scope, were being portrayed, I strove to mimic what Sweet was doing. Within the "exhibition space", I too presented the Florence Hotel and many of the other icons of the town and play and of Pullman's life and career. John McLain, the lighting designer, was then able to pick these visual cues out to help illuminate the historical context to the various scenes.
One thing interesting about this production, was that many of us were from Chicago or lived much of our life there. The Director, Pat Birch was from Chicago, as was Jeffrey Sweet. I grew up in Chicago. My favorite place was The Museum of Science and Industry, carved out of what remained of the Columbian Exposition.
In researching the circumstances of Pullman, it was exciting to be able to visit the actual historical district, where I did a digital architectural inventory (some of whose images are included in this portfolio). I was also able to take great advantage of a very rare un-abridged folio edition (weighing perhaps 70 pounds) full directory and catalog of the Columbian Exposition, which I had purchased a few years earlier.