Beowulf Boritt, Tony-Winning Set Designer, in conversation with Paul Meltzer

Disarmingly casual, with sharp eyes, dark, tousled hair, and glasses, Beowulf Boritt calls to mind a youthful high tech exec more than the veteran, venerated designer of some ninety-odd shows. His works spans everything from the ingeniously architectural, revolving, Tony-winning set for Moss Hart’s Act One to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. He is currently represented by two shows currently running on Broadway (Thérèse Raquin and Hand to G-d), others in Japan, Russia, Seattle and Las Vegas, and one in transit somewhere on a cruise ship. He too was running, so we only had a little time to talk as he dashed between things along the street in Manhattan. But he was happy to share a great deal about how the scenic magic is made at Thérèse Raquin.

Thérèse Raquin is an adaptation of an Emile Zola novel in which a young orphaned woman becomes trapped in an adulterous and ultimately murderous triangle. Be forewarned: There are some spoilers in this interview. But if you’re ready to look behind the curtain, read on.

PM: I gather you start your process by having conversations with the director. What concepts about the play in your conversations with director Evan Cabnet were most important to you in discovering the “big idea” in your design for Thérèse Raquin?

BB: We talked the first day we met, and it was honestly a job interview for me. We spent about an hour sitting in a hotel lobby talking about a lot of things in general , and talking about the play. The two things he said that really grabbed me then is that he was interested in playing up the duality between the natural world, which is the country and then most explicitly the riverbank, playing that up versus the compression of the city, as far as being trapped and locked up. And that was really interesting to me and would be an interesting story to tell, specifically how women were put in boxes, like in the second act of the play, and Thérèse Raquin finally lashes out against that with terrible results. So that was one thing he said that grabbed me right away.

The other thing I loved that I thought was really fun to play with as a designer is the climax of the play in terms of what happens to Camille. This has been staged a number of times, and it’s usually done in a theatrical way, with people maybe rolling around on stage, or maybe people take two chairs and pretend that’s a boat, and they deal with it in an abstract way, and that technique can play well. But Evan said “Well, what if we actually drowned him in water?” And although my natural inclination is to be more abstract and theatrical, there was something about using real water in the show. It’s such a potent image in the story, such a strong image in the story, that it really grabbed me. And I thought, well yeah, we better do that.

It creates a host of other problems, putting any sort of water on stage, much less enough water to row a row boat in with three people in it, too! It’s difficult. But it seems like those challenges were all worth it for serving the effect that it can generate.

PM: I was naturally wondering about the whole water aspect. Uta Hagen famously was skeptical about very realistic practical effects on stage because of the feeling that it might take the audience out of the play and make you think “How do they do that?” Is that a concern for you? How do you feel about that?

BB: In general I do worry, not so much that I worry about it taking people out of the play, but I feel cinema does realism very, very well. And theater, when it tries to be as realistic as film, doesn’t usually do so well. I think the great strength of theater is letting the audience use their imagination, to see what isn’t there. In general, as a designer, that’s how I try to approach it, to put just enough on stage that the audience can fill in the blanks and see what the whole picture is, and imagine the whole picture. If I can put a chair on stage, it makes you imagine a whole mansion. And the mansion you imagine is going to be better than the one that I can physically put on stage. So that’s kind of my rule of thumb.

But, in this case, I think we’re playing with a whole different level of theatricality, a different kind of theatricality. Because a lot of the show we’re doing very non-literally. Well, the water is obviously a very literal, realistic thing. I don’t know if we lose people’s attention because they’re worrying about how did we do that. Maybe we do. I don’t tend to worry about that so much. One of Aristotle’s six rules in the Poetics is that spectacle is a part of the drama. And I feel that’s my piece of the puzzle, is to try to put some spectacle in it, whatever that may be. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something thoroughly spectacular, but something exciting, something that really grabs your imagination and your attention. That’s part of my job, to try to put that on stage when I can.

PM: I think a singular aspect of the spectacle in Thérèse Raquin is that you deliver a series of surprises against our expectations. You set up expectations for what the play is going to look like and then defy them again and again. In a way it has more of a series of surprises than the play itself which has a kind of pitiless momentum in one direction.

BB: That was very interesting. We talked about that a lot. The play can be so gruesome, and then the characters, frankly, can easily get so unlikeable, that we wanted to do something to keep shifting it around, even where the play is drifting toward the inevitable finish. There are surprises here and there that keep lifting you. One person that saw the show that I was talking with a couple of weeks ago said that she loved the garret scene, the apartment in the sky with the stars, so much that she kept wishing for it to come back again, because she thought it was so pretty.

PM: It was!

BB: And I said well that’s sort of exactly the point of it, is that it’s the one little moment of happiness Therese ever gets to have, and we set that up as the most beautiful, magical thing they were able to do. So she’s hoping that that will come back, and the audience is also hoping it will come back, and then you never give it back. That’s denial of expectation, and that hopefully allows you to experience to some degree what she’s experiencing. And when that big black apartment comes flying back in every time, it feels more and more leaden and more and more of a trap every time it reappears.

PM: I had the impression there were lots more scene changes, or very much shorter scenes than is usually the case. I don’t know if that’s true or not.

BB: It is absolutely true, yeah. The play is written like a film, which is common enough these days. A lot of plays are written like films. But

Thérèse Raquin, on the page, a lot of those scenes have two-line stage descriptions and some of those scenes don’t even have spoken lines in them.

It’s one of the first things that I talked about as well. I’ve dealt with a fair number of plays that are written that way. It’s sort of how plays are written now, and it’s an interesting challenge. What I often say is that it starts to become less important what I put on stage than where the driving thing for me becomes how do I get from Scene A to Scene B to Scene C. Because if a scene is thirty seconds long, you don’t want to have a thirty-second scene change to get to the next scene. And even if a scene is five minutes long, you don’t want a thirty-second scene change to get to the next scene. You’ve got to pick those very carefully. Sometimes a scene change should be long, if it has a dramatic through line and feels like it’s helping drive the plot forward, it’s okay to take a little time on scene change. But you don’t want to just be sitting there watching scenery change. It’s not narratively interesting, and you lose your audience very quickly when you start doing that.

PM: Yeah, even with short changes, there’s a bit of an energy drop that you risk.

BB: Yeah, absolutely. There always is. Somehow the goal is always to keep the narrative running no matter what’s going on. Sometimes we achieve that more successfully than other times. (Laughs)

PM: So how did you adjust? What was your clever solution to deal with that?

BB: We talked about a lot of different ways of going at it. In fact, the first draft of the set that I did was the turntable idea. I did a play called Act One a couple of years ago that was also written kind of like a movie, and it had a lot of locations in it. And we solved it by doing this enormous turntable. We looked at something along those lines for Therese Raquin. And we moved away from it, because Evan said “Well, I think we can solve it by having actors doing things between scene changes,” which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t work. But what I did try to do was keep the scene changes different enough that, hopefully, well we set up this idea that a simple change of just some windows would suggest an interior, and then later, when suddenly this giant apartment flies in it would be Paris, and then every time it flies out again, it’s going to be something different, and it’s hopefully unexpected, whether it’s the garret in the sky, or the riverbank with stream.

PM: Absolutely. It was really dazzling. One reviewer felt that the windows flying in were like a guillotine. Was that any part of your thought process?

BB: To an extent, yeah. We were trying to do a couple of things. We were trying to get the repeated action of things chopping in from above that creates this gigantic local world.

I sat down and made the river scenes open stage, physically as wide as I could. They were almost right up against the walls of the theater on two sides, with just barely enough room to get an actor on stage. And even stage right, where we have some wing space, there’s not a lot of space. And so, because I had done that, and wanted that to be so large, it didn’t really leave me any space to bring scenery in for anyplace else. It would have to come in from above. That drove the choice to make the apartment fly in from above, and the garret fly in from above. The trees are actually a complicated telescoping thing. They fold up into the grid to get out of the way and they pass through other pieces of scenery as they come down. Unseen by anybody, there’s quite a complicated jigsaw puzzle going on up in the air to make all that stuff fit up there and then still leave a little bit of room for the lighting designer to hang a couple of lights to see with.

PM: Would you mind revealing some of the tricks or hassles involved in all those amazing water effects?

BB: Sure! In a funny way, getting water on stage is not the hard part. Keeping it on stage is the tough part. You turn on a sink and you have water, right? But water is extremely heavy. So they had to do some quick engineering to test to make sure the stage floor could actually hold the amount of water we were putting up there. One of the things I did to make it seem like more than it was, is that actually the floor underneath the water bottom of the river is angled so that, in center stage, where all the action is, where people need to fall in the water, it’s about three feet deep. But it gets shallower as it goes off toward the wings. So by the time you get to E20, it’s only about six inches deep. That cut almost in half the amount of water that we’re putting on stage. And it makes it weigh a lot less. It’s still a lot of water.

Another thing that we had tried to do but we didn’t end up needing to do is I was going to put a black plastic mirror on the bottom of the lake so it reflected back light and you wouldn’t see where the bottom was. I’ve done water quite a number of times, and it’s very disappointing when you deal with a big water effect on stage but, because water is clear, the audience sees right through it and sees that there’s a grey rubber pool liner at the bottom. It kind of ruins the magic of it.

So we had planned to put mirror down this time. But we got into the theater and, quite luckily, discovered that the way that the audience sees, that the angle of sight from the mezzanine is that you actually don’t see the bottom. And I’m sure there’s a specific set relationship to that– I feel like I ought to get in touch with theater departments and learn what it is exactly–I’m sure there’s an angle at which you look through water and it affects the optics but if you look at it through a different angle, it doesn’t. But we seem to have gotten lucky this time. And even from the balcony, where you should be able to see the floor underneath it, you don’t really see it. It saved us a lot of hassle of laying mirror into the floor!

One more thing just about the water that’s purely technical is the tricky thing is keeping it in place and not having it leak. And it can happen fast. You can start with a little hole and suddenly you’ve flooded the whole theater. Hudson Scenic, who built the pool for us, put down a rubber pool liner, and they covered that with a complete layer of sheet metal, and then another rubber pool liner on top of that. So we’re sort of doubly protected. And that will keep the lower liner from getting punctured. And in fact we did a couple of times puncture the top liner. But we were able to get it patched up before it ever got worse than that.

PM: So there was a little more drama than anyone else realized.

BB: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

PM: Do you think it would spoil our appreciation of the magic of Laurent’s attic if you told us some of the difficulties of achieving that, technically?

BB: In a funny way, it might spoil the magic. But let me tell you and you can decide what to print. (Laughs)

I think what’s actually magical about the garret is that it’s so unexpected. In reality, it’s absolutely not the hardest thing we do in the show at all. It’s a piece of scenery that flies in from above. It flies down to the deck level, and Keira and Laurent step on, and they get flown up to the height they play at. There are a couple of guide wires that get stretched by the crew to keep things stable. And at the end of the scene, it just flies back down and they hop off again. It’s quite a simple explanation for how it works, but somehow it doesn’t occur to people when they’re looking at it. They think is there a hidden stairway, or how are they getting up there.

PM: Yeah, exactly! I’m dumbfounded by hearing the obviousness of what you just said. That’s so cool.

BB: And there’s one thing, when Keira enters and leaves and it looks like she’s coming up a flight of stairs, she’s just going into a closet. There’s nothing there. She just sits there until the lights go down. (Laughs) But again, I don’t know if you want to print that or not. That’s sort of a fun little trick.

PM: I’ll weigh that decision! Thank you. It’s been such a treat getting to have this conversation with you.

BB: It was nice talking with you. I’m really happy to get to chat about it a little.