Thrusting a Transit Space

by Bryan Reesman
in Inside Theatre
The cast of In Transit both blend in and stand out among the colorful set designed by Donyale Werle and lit by Don Holder. Photo by Joan Marcus
The cast of In Transit both blend in and stand out among the colorful set designed by Donyale Werle and lit by Don Holder. Photo by Joan Marcus

In Transit at Circle in the Square Theatre makes use of a unique scenic design by Donyale Werle

In Transit is Broadway’s first a cappella musical, a cheerful, peppy, and sometimes bittersweet look into the lives of different couples (and couples to be) in NYC. Performing on a bi-level, T-shaped stage at the Circle In The Square Theatre in New York, the 11-person ensemble generates all of the sounds heard with few exceptions. On top of nicely replicating the feeling of the New York subway with a token booth located on the second level, the show features a 71-foot conveyer belt that moves people and scenery around and gives the thrust space a genuine thrust.

Margo Seibert and company of IN TRANSIT, Photo by Joan Marcus, 2016

A Unique Challenge

Circle In The Square is an ideal venue for In Transit. It was designed for theater in the round, and this show qualifies as three quarters, with one side taken up by staging. By having the conveyer belt slice through the theater, it really emulates the feeling of a subway station in a way that a proscenium stage would not. But despite the open space afforded the crew, there was another challenge.

“It’s a really challenging space,” scenic designer Donyale Werle tells PLSN. “Because of its length, it’s easy for actors to get lost in the space. Even though it’s an intimate space and it’s small compared to other shows in other Broadway houses, it’s a tricky place to design for. It’s helpful to have something that grounds you that’s higher in what is traditionally the proscenium area, because it allows the eye to have a perspective that helps you identify the scale of your characters. Actually, putting things that are larger in the space helps with that, for filling up some of the negative space in the theater” and helping keep the actors prominent on stage.

The design process for the show went by quickly. Werle was attached to the show early on, before it even was installed in the Circle In The Square. With Fun Home being a Tony hit, the In Transit team was not sure when or if they would get into the theater. She did an initial design for the show in that space, and then by the time they received the green light on it, the original director and much of the crew was no longer available. Thus Werle met with director Kathleen Marshall, they clicked, and then she had about five weeks to finish a new design. Marshall knew she wanted two levels, two sets of stairs (8 to 9 feet high) and the conveyor belt.

The latter element was one of the first elements that went in. Because of their prior experience with conveyor belts on stage, PRG was hired to build it. “They’re really good at fine-tuning,” says Werle. “I don’t think there’s ever been one this long on Broadway. There are not too many spaces that are 71 feet. It starts from about 12 inches from the back wall of the theater and it goes as far into the vom as it possibly can.”

She explains that they built the deck up approximately 11 inches to accommodate a slight angle in the vom, but that “every square inch down there is being used for the mechanics of the conveyor belt.” Given the tight space in the theatre, there are plenty of unwanted sound reflections, and on top of soundproofing, a lot of testing and fine-tuning was done with regards to the conveyor belt speeds, especially as faster acceleration increased the noise level it produced.

The speed was also a variable in terms of movement. “It can’t slide around on the actors and has to stop exactly where we want it to stop,” explains Werle. “Trying to tech it all out was complicated in terms of exactness. The actors really have a tricky job, because not only do they have all the stuff in their ears and are paying attention to the way their voices sound together, but they’re also moving all the scenery and have to stop exactly at the right moment.”

Jane’s office boss (Moya Angela) cheerfully discourages her from chasing her dreams. Note how the individual subway seats are converted for office use in this scene.Pictured here, Nicholas Ward, David Abeles, Margo Seibert, Moya Angela. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2016

Multipurpose Seats

The subway seats, a half dozen in single person configurations and two accommodating three people, are key pieces of scenery for the musical. With the exceptions of small desks used in an office sequence, the subway seats doubled for office and airplane seats, an apartment couch, a bed and church pews. Rectangular video displays were used in the subway station, as airplane section dividers, and for the church sequence, where they displayed stained glass patterns.

The stage, built by Showman Fabricators in Bayonne, NJ, is primarily made of steel and surfaced with plywood. “The grout marks ended up being naturally that way,” says Werle. “We didn’t add anything to the tiles. There’s a little bit of painting on top, but most of it is the natural glossiness of the material.” Lighting designer Don Holder used LED tape in many places around the set, including the stairs, some areas of the walls and a bar set piece. There are color LED panels installed into the stairs as well. Pipes, colored tiles and signage add to the natural subway feel of the staging.

On the second floor is a replica of a token booth (complete with cranky attendant). The details of that and the station overall are very lifelike, and Werle says that it was easy and fun to use a subway station near her apartment in Brooklyn for research.

“Whenever we wanted details, we would run right over there a quarter block away and measure everything,” she recalls. “The great thing about the project, and it touches on the theme of the show, is there’s a lot of beauty right in front of you, and we don’t really think about it because we’re rushing by it. The subway is such a part of our lives that we don’t look at any of it. We know when it’s wrong, right? You notice something is wrong is because it’s buried in your subconscious. We start paying attention to the tiniest of details -- how big that crack is, how does the silver hand railing come around.”

Werle notes that the engineering of the New York City subway stations is pretty specific, and that they are all the same, “yet every station has quirks and a lot of differences. We understand all the differences, yet we know when something is not right.”

Ali (Erin Mackey) looks to the future after having moved to the city with her now ex-boyfriend. Pictured here, Erin Mackey and company of 'In Transit.' Photo by Joan Marcus, 2016

Beating the Deadlines

She reveals that the stage design for In Transit was originally much bigger, but budgetary cuts forced her to reconsider and re-envision what she was going to do. “That was challenging, but in turn it was much better,” admits Werle. “This one of those circumstances where a limited budget actually made us make better choices.”

There were only five weeks to design the set and a month to build it. The stage was solidly in place after that. “There was very little we did to the set during previews,” says Werle. “We did a lot with the props during previews. We came in really done in advance. We canceled some days of load-in. That part was great. We were very happy with the shops that did the build.”

The final stage is spectacular and eye-catching and, thanks to the second level in the back, feels like a bigger space than it is without dwarfing the presence of the cast, whose vocal prowess certainly adds to their stature on stage. Creating this uncommon T-shape design certainly allowed Werle to glean some new knowledge about her craft.

“I learned a lot about the thrust space and how important it is to think about all the seats,” she says. “We had a very large model for the show. We built the whole theater, and that was so great. I feel like there’s not really a bad seat in the house. Especially in half inch, you can really get your eyeball down there with every single back of head, and you really do get the sense of what everyone is looking at. I learned a lot about the thrust space, which was super helpful. I would never want to do a thrust again without building a full model like that. That’s a really great tool.”