Each month, American Theatre goes behind the scenes of the design process of one particular production, getting into the heads of the creative team. Below: Assassins, the presidential musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, at Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
Mark Clements, DIRECTION: Assassins is a series of vignettes. The expression I use to describe it is “a waiting room to Hell” for these people. We needed a set that was fluid, one that could flow from one element to another. Todd Edward Ivins, Jeff Nellis and I have done two or three shows a year together since 2005 or so. Todd had the idea of putting in an inner revolve inside the stage’s outer revolve, and I’d never seen that before. Our engineers bought the motors and built the revolves from scratch. I’ve been visiting and working in America for 15 or 16 years as a British person; I have a 17-month-old child, and for me the issues of gun control in this country are just terrifying. I wanted to have a conversation with the audience about it via this production. Prior to rehearsals, the Aurora shooting occurred, and during rehearsals, we had the Oak Creek shooting at the Sikh temple, which was just eight miles from us. We as theatremakers are blessed with a voice, and it’s my belief that we should use it more often.
Todd Edward Ivins, SCENIC AND VIDEO PROJECTION DESIGN: Assassins seemed to us as very circular in its construction—these people repeating things across history. Our set, which required a lot of lumber, is a turntable with a ring around it—some people refer to it as a double revolve. It was designed to facilitate different compositions, so you can move the action to different locales. The flag was the punctuation of the show—it is the fractured American dream. It’s made out of Plexiglas, and the structure that holds those pieces together are invisible in the light. We wanted something worthy of a finale, but at the same time we didn’t want to make the audience think we were supporting the actions of the assassins. One moment you don’t see in these photos is the projection of the Zapruder film of JFK being shot—it was shown on a 20-by-20-foot projection silk. The stage went dark, and all of the assassins stared into those images. We ran it at a slow speed. It was a horrifying thing.
Jeff Nellis, LIGHTING DESIGN: Assassins was a relatively low-tech show—we didn’t use a lot of high-tech automatic lighting. What we did use were a lot of light bulbs. The presidents’ portraits around the proscenium were each lit with a gooseneck lamp and a chaser lamp. If the assassin succeeded in killing a president, we would create a carnival moment in which lights around that president would run around, like at a carnival game. For the assassination of McKinley by Leon Czolgosz at the Pan American Exposition, the lighting was very red, white and blue. In the foreground is Czolgosz (Steve French), in murky, shadowy lighting. Upstage, behind the set, was a substantial wall of light. Sometimes it was used in soft glows, sometimes in red, white and blue configurations. At the very end of the play—the assassins all pull out their guns and point them at the audience. And as they shoot, there’s a searing flash of light. This show was about strong images that were not created with a lot of bells and whistles.
Assassins, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, ran Sept. 4–Oct. 7, 2012, at Milwaukee Repertory Theater in Wisconsin. The production, directed by Mark Clements, featured musical direction by Dan Kazemi, additional musical staging by Michael Pink, scenic and video projection design by Todd Edward Ivins, costume design by Alex Tecoma, lighting design by Jeff Nellis, sound design by Jon Weston, dialect coaching by Jill Walmsley Zager, stage management by Briana J. Fahey and assistant direction by Lenny Banovez.