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To ‘Hadestown’ and Back

Bryan Reesman • Inside TheaterJune 2019 • June 16, 2019

Hades and Peresphone rekindle their romantic joy thanks to music from Orpheus (Reeve Carney). Note the turntable in the center and the industrial pipes to the left. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Director Rachel Chavkin loves to push boundaries and usurp expectations on stage. Her new show, Hadestown, is singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s updated musical retelling of the Orpheus myth that clashes a timeless New Orleans setting up against an industrial vision of Hell.

Scenic designer Rachel Hauck and lighting designer Bradley King (both represented among the 14 Tony Award nominations for the show) took on the challenge of helping bring the show to life at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Painting and construction were handled by Hudson Scenic Studio. The result is colorful, visionary, and unlike any other show on Broadway this season.

The story host Hermes (André De Shields ) with some of the musicians lining the wall behind him. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

‡‡         To Edmonton and Back

Hauck came on board for Chavkin’s first production of the show at the New York Theatre Workshop over three years ago. That version was done in the round, but the creative team knew that they needed to find a way to do it on a proscenium stage. The next stop in the musical’s evolutionary process emerged in Edmonton, Canada. “That was a protected space for us to try a whole lot of new ideas.” recalls Hauck. “We learned a lot of things about what doesn’t work for this piece, but we found the roots of what you see on stage. It came out of a combination of those two productions, which look wildly different from each other.”

The ultimate approach to Hadestown came together when the show was performed on the Oliver Theatre stage at the National Theatre in London between November 2018 and January 2019. “The New Orleans vibe comes from the music, of course,” says Hauck. “It’s a great home of music as a city. But, intentionally, we’ve created a world of myth, particularly through the costumes, which quote so many eras. There’s nothing likhing like them.”

The semi-circular Hadestown stage is three-tiered and asymmetrical, with the musicians located on the sides of stage left and right and the drummer housed beneath the balcony where Hades and Persephone occasionally consort. The staircase curving down from the balcony is less than three feet wide.

“It’s basically a Greek amphitheater and Preservation Hall combined,” says Hauck, of the set. “All of those steps, all of those levels, and all of those landings are in direct reference to Greek amphitheaters and New Orleans. It’s a funny hybrid, with a little Lower East Side mixed in there.”

The stage at the Kerr is 24 feet deep with a 43-foot-wide proscenium. There is only 12 feet of wing space, so Hauck and her team built out and under it. “Obviously, the height is what’s so valuable to us in this,” she says. “But we built scenery and exposed all the way up to the jumps, and then built out beyond it so that when this thing opens up [near the end of Act I], it just feels vast and lonely.”

The main floor is made out of Arboron material, painted to look like wood. “It’s incredibly expensive, so some of the upper decks are not made out of it,” Hauck says. “And then all the vertical stuff that looks like wood is wood. They used joint compound to do all that plaster work. There’s an extraordinary lot of texture on the set.” Many of the miles of pipes onstage are real because they hold items like blinder lights. Some pipes are PVC. All of the pipes are treated to look rusted.

Most of Act I takes place above ground in New Orleans, but when Orpheus’ true love Eurydice, fearing for her safety, succumbs to Hades’ persuasion and joins his dehumanized minions toiling in the underworld. The stage splits apart and moves back approximately seven feet, opening up the set to expose lines of rusty pipes that crawl up the back wall. Those cleverly hidden and non-moving pipes help give Hadestown its industrial vibe.

“There’s a very small curtain of pipes that comes down under the drummer to hide the wagon that’s pulled under there,” notes Hauck. “Those are the only pipes that move on their own.” The set transforms into a slightly squarer shape as a result of the big move.

Unlike the two moving wagon units before it, the central staircase section of the set is literally pushed up against the back wall at the start of the show. “The center unit sucks into itself in order to expose the third turntable, and it literally retracts,” explains Hauck. “It goes to a staircase with no landing, which is sort of a remarkable breathing thing when it sucks itself in. There’s a platform that retracts underneath the drummer, when what I call the pipe Venetian blind comes down. It’s a multi-vector automation move. There are three different vectors in automation to do that. The stairs retract, the wagons retract, and then the pipes come down, which don’t totally hide the wagons, but basically stop the eye.”

Another important scenic element is the turntable at the center of the set. It has two outer rings and a center piece that sits atop an elevator. The trap room below the stage was not deep enough, so Hudson Scenic created an elevator that could drop “as low as it can go, and still have enough height in it to come above the deck,” says Hauck. “It’s a masterwork of engineering.” The inner ring of the turntable has a seven-foot diameter, the center is three feet in diameter, and the outer ring adds another 3.75 feet to the overall diameter. The outer ring is partially covered by the two side wagons of the set, so when they push back, the entire ring becomes fully open for performers to use.

The trap door that the actors exit through from the elevator is only 4.5 feet high. “You can’t see it from the mezzanine,” says Hauck. “You can certainly see it from the balcony, but it feels even from the back row of the mezzanine like it is just a steel shaft at the center of the earth or the bottom of someplace terrifying.”

“The dais platform is living on top of an elevator, but the turntable is built into the dais,” adds Hauck. The elevator has mechanics beneath it, and the friction drive turntables “give us an incredible amount of control and are virtually silent.”

Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) being tempted by the Fates with Hades (Patrick Page) lurking in the background. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

‡‡         Transformative Lighting

On top of Hauck’s superb scenic design is Bradley King’s imaginative lighting design. “His work is extraordinary in how he changes the space,” asserts Hauck. “It’s a collaboration across all tiers to make it feel really warm and intimate, and also have the opportunity to be cold and lonely. An enormous amount of the steel wall is in plain sight from the beginning, but we’ve done a couple of things to stop the eye, [like] that circular truss with all of those moving lights. It tells you to dismiss everything beyond this. It’s all very, very smart work from Bradley about when you see what, and how it feels. That’s the trick of the thing — very careful use of smoke and fog and atmosphere of all kinds. The real trick of the design is what we learned in Canada — even though the space gets so vast and cold, it stays intimate.

“It’s a very careful balance of architecture and lighting, and very, very smart direction, to make sure that we don’t lose the characters,” continues Hauck. “But also, if you can’t feel in your gut how scary this place is, it doesn’t have the right impact. The moment where you go from being inside this sweet, small, messed-up bar to suddenly realizing that that thing is just a tiny cog in the great machine that is Hadestown — we rip your chest open when that set comes apart.”

Of the London incarnation, LD Bradley King recalls that, in the Olivier, they had a larger thrust stage, which give them more breathing room. “We pushed that set way further downstage than is normal for that space, because everything is designed off their famous drum revolve,” says King. “We got spoiled with space upstage and got miles of room to put trusses of those four-light blinders that I’m leaning so heavily on. They’re actually embedded into this set in New York now. ”

The LD reports that, while the Olivier stage at the National was bigger, the basic shape of the set stayed the same. “By the time we finished, we had a good sense of where the lighting needed to come from,” says King. “Then I just extrapolated that when we got into New York. It was a tight squeeze overhead, because we had to arrange our various electrics around the giant flying header that takes up a lot of real estate in the air.”

King feels that having to cram things into a tighter space in New York helped Hadestown. “The show fits a lot better in the Kerr,” he says. “It’s a smaller, much more intimate space, and it captures the energy better. In London, we were definitely looking at it from a bit more of a remove, and it diffused it a bit. In New York, the energy is off the charts in how the space captures it, contains it, and keeps it going.”

The Kerr production mainly utilizes a variety of LED sources — 60 Martin MAC Encore Performances (with cold white light sources), 12 MAC Viper DX washes, Chroma-Q Color Force II strip lights, a few Source Four LED Series 2 Lustr fixtures for face lights in certain moments, and 4-lite blinders — old school rock ‘n’ roll lights that really warm up the scenes in the underworld after the set opens up. “When we go down into Hadestown, those get revealed,” says King. “That’s the first time all of the blinder lights light up, and it just continues forever, which is great. They just go up and up and up and up and up.”

There are a few sources of light used by the cast to add a spooky atmosphere to the underworld. Standard tungsten bulbs are used for the lanterns carried by the three Fates and the swinging lamps that fly out during the song, “Wait for Me.” They are used because of the color temperature. The remotely operated headlamps worn by the Hadestown miners are LED color corrected to match those other tungsten lights.

King feels that the scenic and lighting design play together very nicely in Hadestown. “The color palette of the show is pretty constrained. It takes its cues from the constrained colors of the set and mostly lives in tints of white. However, the Act I walls were a fantastic shade of blue/green that picked up color very, very well. So, I use a bit more color on the walls in Act I, especially when Persephone is above ground and it’s summertime.”

Hauck designs sets that give LDs the ability to play with the elements on stage. A case in point: What The Constitution Means To Me, a three-person show also on Broadway now, takes place in an American Legion hall, which Hauck describes as “kind of natural history diorama” that “also changes presence and tone pretty intensely with the lighting.“

The more intricate scenic design of Hadestown works similarly in terms of how King’s lighting draws our attention to different parts of Hauck’s set and different cast members. There is a lot more technology at work as well. “I learned an enormous amount about all kinds of new technology I’d never used before,” notes Hauck, of Hadestown. “Or much more sophisticated versions of things I had done before. The engineering is incredible. This is a project that’s grown over four years. It’s absolutely affected my world in more ways than I can count.”

Naturally, none of this matters without a good story to tell, and Hadestown certainly has that. It has also spawned a cult following over the years, thanks in part to Spotify. The show began life as a regional Vermont production in 2006 and 2007, then creator Anaïs Mitchell released a concept album in 2010 featuring guest musicians Ani DiFranco and Greg Brown, and also Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver). Many of those devout Hadestown disciples roared their approval at the opening week show that PLSN attended. One fan even started sobbing at the tragic event near the end. Chavkin and her designers worked well together to create two distinct places and instigate a large shift in tone by the end of Act I.

“She’s an incredible storyteller,” Hauck says, of the director. “There aren’t any rules — ‘let’s work until we find an idea that will tell this story and what it’s about.’ It took us a really long time to figure out what was going to tell this story the best. But there’s a really boundless imagination there, and it was just very exciting to work with.”

Orpheus (Reeve Carney) and ensemble members in one of the Act I numbers. Photo by Matthew Murphy.


2019 Tony Awards Update: 

Hadestown was honored at the 2019 Tony Awards with eight awards, including Best Musical, Best Scenic Design of a Musical (Rachel Hauck), Best Lighting Design of a Musical (Bradley King) and Best Sound Design of a Musical (Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz.)



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