It is a certain kind of person that is dedicated to life in the theater these days. For one thing, it's a perpetually archaic art form that attracts less and less interest in this age of computer animation, reality TV, and Internet downloading. The actors have it hard enough, but they at least are rewarded with nightly adoration. For the people who construct and paint the sets, fabricate and carve the props, run the sound and lighting, create the costumes, sell the tickets, and help run the show from the wings, the sacrifices can be monumental. Money, for instance, cannot be important. In San Diego, nonunion laborers in theater (the majority) must make peace with the fact that they will never own a home, never have a savings account, never have enough money left over from their paycheck to go shopping at Fashion Valley. We all jump into it with the best of intentions, guided by the belief that there is a glory to live theater, that it's important, that it adds meaning and an element of reflection to our society. Most of my coworkers cling to that notion for months or years before walking away; a few hold on to it for a lifetime.
I am the assistant charge scenic artist at the Old Globe Theatre, which is a fancy way of saying I'm a painter. The following is my diary of the making of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
July 5: The announcement that Jack O'Brien would be mounting his new Broadway-bound extravaganza, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, at the Old Globe could not have come at a better time for California's flagship regional theater. Morale in the scene shops has hit an all-time low due to three straight years of no pay increases as a historic streak of SoCal hysteria rocketed San Diego's cost of living into the stratosphere. The recent exit of a half-dozen of the scene shop's most popular and talented employees hasn't exactly raised anybody's spirits either.
The discontent backstage is palpable. The opinion of many employees in the shops was that the Globe's administrative team is running the theater strictly as a revenue-driven business and not as the public charity that it (legally and spiritually) is. The set carpenters, who will face the brunt of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels hurricane, have already been working 60 hours a week, six days a week for six weeks. The new musical Lucky Duck, a major production in itself, is finally going into previews. Now the epic Scoundrels build will demand everyone's full attention.
The designer is David Rockwell, a well-known New York architect who, among other things, designed the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles and several of the high-end W hotels. The word around the shop is that designing scenery is more of a hobby than a vocation for him. (As it turns out, I will never meet Mr. Rockwell, a curious thing since I will personally wind up painting half of his set -- twice.)
The musical takes place on the French Riviera. The set incorporates a double revolving stage, with one revolving platform inside the other. Because the middle revolve is offset, the running crew will be able to make huge scenery appear to be floating right at the audience while other pieces whisk around it. It's a beautiful illusion. Add all of the drops and background pieces that will be flown in or slid onstage with knife and rail setups and it makes for some very complex and dynamic scene changes.
Four staggered portals, each at least 24 feet high and 40 feet wide, make the "wings" of the stage. They are each painted to resemble the ocean, horizon, and sky. The sky planes are the touchiest part of the paint job, because they consist of a gentle color fade from blue to green and back to blue. We call this effect an "hombre." It's accomplished by using "cup guns," which are essentially giant airbrushes. I've done this sort of paint job many times. It is very tricky to pull off on such a large scale; even the tiniest mistake can ruin an entire set piece. The hombre is unforgiving. Still, as I look over Rockwell's renderings I utter three words that I should know better than to say out loud in the beginning stages of a show: "Piece of cake!"
July 6: This is Jack O'Brien's next big show after winning his second consecutive Tony award for directing Henry IV. Scoundrels is not only the biggest production in Old Globe history, it's one of the biggest theatrical productions in the history of San Diego. It is the kind of show that artists in West Coast theater live for, because it gives us the opportunity to prove we are every bit as good as our counterparts in New York.
Scoundrels will be the highest-profile production we've done since O'Brien's Full Monty. That show had a budget in the millions of dollars (the average Globe show runs somewhere from $250,000 to $350,000). Scoundrels will dwarf that. The scenic budget for a typical Globe show averages around $45,000; the Globe's scenic budget alone for Scoundrels tops $750,000.
Months ago it was determined that the show was going to be too big for our scene shop to handle on its own, so a New York company, Showmotion, was hired to construct the majority of the motorized components and lighting rigs. Even then, the Globe shop was too tiny to house the gigantic set pieces we will have to build and paint. An 18,000-square-foot warehouse on Euclid Avenue and Market Street in Lemon Grove was secured to house the work. This meant that the entire scene shop had to be uprooted and moved eight miles down Highway 94 -- table saws, welders, lockers, refrigerators, soda machines, lumber, metal stock and all. This show was already a gigantic undertaking for master carpenter Rusty Jolgren and his crew even before they started building the set. It will also be a major inconvenience to the workers. The prospect of commuting to an industrial warehouse was not a happy one -- but most of us have decided to dig in for the long summer ahead. We will do it for Jack, for the show, for Broadway, and for those future job interviews.