Engineering meets art: PlayMakers to present ‘Tempest’ and ‘Metamorphoses’

Nov. 01, 2013 @ 10:27 AM

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s rotating repertory productions this fall are about the water – 15 tons of it on stage in a precisely-maintained pool. This pairing of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” also is about collaboration – between co-directors, between musicians and production crew, between art and engineering, and between pragmatism and vision.

For Emma Nadeau, a member of Chapel Hill-based band Lost in the Trees, the two plays “are definitely the biggest production we’ve been involved in with collaboration with other people,” she said. Nadeau and fellow Lost in the Trees musician Ari Picker are writing original music for the plays, which they will perform on stage.
Joseph Haj, PlayMakers artistic director, was familiar with their music. When he and co-director Dominique Serrand started discussing the production, “their sound seemed so right” to that vision, Haj said. “We always dream as directors of having music on stage,” Serrand said.
Creating the soundtrack has come from listening to the directors, and focusing on the presence of the water. Picker said the score has “minimalist hypnotic textures” and uses xylophones, voice, the strings of a piano, and other sounds to draw a connection with water. He and Nadeau mention Philip Glass’ composition “Facades,” Jerry Goldsmith’s “Planet of the Apes” soundtrack, and Michael Andrews’ music to the movie “Donnie Darko” as influences on the sound.
Water is both a literal and symbolic element in both plays, said Haj, who is co-directing the plays with Serrand. He had always wanted to perform the Zimmerman play, and performing it with “The Tempest” presented “an interesting conversation for us,” Haj said during a pre-opening talk last week.
Briefly, in “The Tempest,” the magician Prospero, the rightful duke of Milan, has been exiled to an island with his daughter Miranda by his jealous brother. Prospero raises a storm when he senses that his brother Antonio is near the island, which leads to eventual reconciliation. Zimmerman’s play is based on Roman poet Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” an epic poem based on Greek and Roman mythology.
Zimmerman’s play, which has been performed numerous times at theaters nationally, contains some instructions about the use of the pool, but “we certainly have no mandate,” Haj said. Zimmerman “made this play with a specific company of actors. Part of our work is to make that play make sense for our company,” he said. He has consulted with Zimmerman, who told him he could “do anything you want, but she has teched this show 10 times, so it would be foolish not to take her advice.”
When it comes to the pool and other parts of the set, “a lot of what we are doing is structural engineering,” said McKay Coble, who is co-set and costume designer with Jan Chambers (Coble is this writer’s sister-in-law). The portion of the set outside the pool resembles angular concrete walls, but is made of a plastic material with a rough-textured pattern that the designers invented. During their research for the set, the designers became interested in “abandoned spaces,” and their adaptability, “even though they had definite uses before,” Coble said.
The pool in which the actors will perform also is an engineering project. The pool must be maintained, which means it is chlorinated, but not enough to harm the color of the costumes, Chambers said. The pool also must be kept warm so the actors do not get cold, and the water is filtered. Chambers also worked out a “wet plot” for wardrobe assistants to know which actors need to be dried during changes.
At this pre-rehearsal talk, none of the actors had yet stepped into the pools. “Water is a huge multiplier in many ways … with many unknowns coming into play,” Haj said. Putting water on stage allows PlayMakers to stretch and show what it can do with its resources, he said. He tells guest directors who propose certain projects, “If you can imagine it early enough [in the budgeting process], it will get on stage.”

WHAT: William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” in rotating repertory
WHEN: Performances begin Nov. 2 and continue through Dec. 8
WHERE: Paul Green Theatre, Center for Dramatic Art, UNC Chapel Hill
ADMISSION: Tickets start at $15. To purchase, call 919-962-7529 or visit