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Teagle F. Bougere in "Invisible Man" at Court Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

Production Notebook: ‘Invisible Man’ at the Court Theatre

An illuminating take on Ralph Ellison’s novel, inspired by visual artists.

Christopher McElroen, DIRECTION: One of the things that makes the novel Invisible Man so enduring is that it’s about the American experience—it transcends race, and it’s about humanity and what it means to exist in the American democracy. The inspiration for our set was a combination of three things: First was the collage work of Romare Bearden, a colleague of Ralph Ellison. Because the play is a memory play, we wanted to create a sense of collage and fracture. The second inspiration was abandoned spaces, which is where the Invisible Man resides. The third was an installation by Jeff Wall, a Canadian-born artist, called After “Invisible Man.” He built a room with 1,369 light bulbs and with artifacts that were mentioned in the novel. That was the jumping-off point for us—the idea that everything onstage is a collection of the Invisible Man’s past. Troy Hourie’s design was supported by the projections of Alex Koch, which acted as an extension of the Invisible Man’s memory. We used projections to pull out the emotional subtext of the scene, delineate time and space, and as a historical reference. It was a big play, given that it was based on this historic novel, and our first and foremost objective was to not fuck it up!

Troy Hourie, SCENIC DESIGN: Christopher and I have worked together for almost 15 years. This was one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever designed. The play began in the Invisible Man’s hole, and as the story progressed, pieces of the set were removed and reconfigured. There were three basic looks to the set: the hole, made up of five scrim walls and the light ceiling; the brick, concrete and corroded metal units of New York City; and the South, with white columns. The light ceiling was the center of the play. We couldn’t create the 1,369 light bulbs that are in the book. We’re slowly trying to build to that with each subsequent production. I think we’re going to hit 900 bulbs by the time we open at the Huntington [Theatre Company]. The light ceiling was made up of 15 light fixtures, on a wood tress system, that could be moved individually. When the Invisible Man jumps into the hole at the end of the play (above photo), we moved the ceiling to 4 feet off the ground, because his memories were oppressing him. When we were finished with each set piece, we left them onstage to remind the audience of where the Invisible Man came from, because your past is always a part of how you live your life.

John Culbert, LIGHTING DESIGN: One of the fun aspects of creating the world of the play was marrying and balancing the projections with the lighting—sometimes they were more imagistic and other times they were more abstract. When the Invisible Man was inside one of his memories, we used colors and projections to help tell the story. When he was in the hole, there were no projections. We had dimmers in each light bulb so we could adjust each one individually. In the photo above, the Invisible Man is working at a paint factory and there’s an explosion that covers him in white paint. A bright light is coming from below to capture the explosion, and the two people next to the Invisible Man are going to paint him with white paint. We abstracted the explosion so it was more theatrical—a flashback isn’t “real,” it’s his memory, and what one remembers is not always accurate.

Invisible Man, adapted by Oren Jacoby from Ralph Ellison, ran at the Court Theatre in Chicago Jan. 12–Feb. 19, 2012, under Christopher McElroen’s direction. The production was reprised at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., Sept. 5–Oct. 21, 2012, and will play at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company Jan. 4–Feb. 3, 2013. The Court production featured scenic design by Troy Hourie, costume design by Jacqueline Firkins, lighting design by John Culbert, sound design by Joshua Horvath, projection design by Alex Koch, dramaturgy by Jocelyn Prince, production stage management by Sara Gammage and stage management by Jonathan Nook.

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