Notes on the “Jesus Christ Superstar” set

I will take some time to give you an update on the set construction for BLT’s upcoming production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  I posted here before when designing sets for BLT shows.  This show, however, is a different beast altogether.

Sometimes, I get a shape of a stage in my head and think, “I really want to do this for a set someday.”  Of course, the set has to support the play and the director’s concept.  Luckily, when I design shows that I also direct, this is sidestepped neatly.

BLT Stage construction for Jesus Christ Superstar, January 27, 2013

BLT Stage construction for Jesus Christ Superstar, January 27, 2013. The rake (slope) of the stage platforms toward center is clearly visible. Photo by Craig Orsinger for BLT.

For “Jesus Christ Superstar” I imagined a large ¾ circle ramp-way that also had a compound rake.  To “rake” a stage or seating unit means to slope it up or down (incidentally, this is where the theater terms “upstage” and “downstage” come from, as many older stages were raked up and down so audiences could see actors better. So, to go “upstage” literally meant to go up, away from the audience). In the set for “Jesus Christ Superstar” the compound rake means that not only does the ramp slope downwards, but it also slopes into the circle. The builders at BLT thought I had lost my mind. However, they are also always up for a challenge, so off we went. The ramp-way was completed last week. It took longer than I thought it would take. It has been a little easier to build than anticipated, but more tedious. When you design something like this, especially for a musical where actors will be moving and dancing on the surfaces, safety is everything.  An actor has to feel completely safe on the set, or the actors can’t do their jobs and the audiences will notice it.  We have had to support the ramp-way quite a bit more than we usually do. This compound circle means the ramp-way can shift and shear legs off if that shift is too great. I usually spend a good amount of time on sets like this so I can be sure that they will not move once actors get on them.

This time, the band will also be quite a bit higher off the stage than they normally are.  The drummer will be six feet in the air.  This is twice as high as they were in “The Who’s Tommy” produced by BLT last season.  Also, with height comes stability concerns. The higher you get, the more stable the surface should be.  BLT is building the supporting legs with steel instead of wood, as is usually the case.  This is for two reasons: one, steel is stronger than wood and we want to ensure that these platforms are safe; and two, we already had the steel.  BLT didn’t have to purchase more material to make this work.

BLT Stage construction for Jesus Christ Superstar - band platforms, Jan. 27, 2013

BLT Stage construction for Jesus Christ Superstar, Jan. 27, 2013. Russ Kay (far left) and Steve Cooper discuss the platforms as Stevie Van Bronkhurst and other volunteers look over the set. Photo by Craig Orsinger for BLT.

The band has loaded their equipment in; the walls are being painted, and will go up this week.  Things are moving forward at an ever increasing rate of speed, and soon opening night will be here.  I have posted before that one of the nice things about BLT’s playing space is the versatility it offers to set designers.  I could not do the sets I have done with “The Who’s Tommy,” or “Reefer Madness,” or “Jesus Christ Superstar” in most other theater spaces around the region.  Burien and BLT are both very lucky to have this space available to them.

UPDATE (by Craig): Here’s a view of the stage as it is today (Feb. 2), with some set dressing and background flats installed:

BLT stage construction for Jesus Christ Superstar, Feb. 2, 2013

BLT’s stage under construction for the February production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Feb. 2, 2013. Background flats and set dressing on the band platforms are now in place.

Afterword: Article uploaded and edited by Craig Orsinger, which is why it’s about a week behind actual construction.

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