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Carlos Castillo and Natalia Miranda-Guzmán in "The House of the Spirits" at GALA Hispanic Theatre. (Photo by Lonnie Tague)

Portraying Memory in ‘The House of the Spirits’

In the production at GALA Hispanic Theatre, the creative team used projection and portraits to tackle Isabel Allende’s non-linear narrative.

Each month, American Theatre goes behind the scenes of the design process of one particular production, getting into the heads of the creative team. This month’s selection: La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits), adapted by Caridad Svich from Isabel Allende’s novel at GALA Hispanic Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Jose Zayas
Jose Zayas

Jose Zayas, DIRECTION: This show for me is a continuous project. It began at Repertorio Español [in New York in 2009] and then moved to Chile. We did it at Denver Center Theatre Company in 2010. Each time, it has had a different resonance. Adapter Caridad Svich and I decided the most theatrical entryway into the story would be via Alba in jail. The image above is Alba being tortured by her uncle, Esteban García. In that moment of pain, she escapes her body and remembers her grandmother’s notebooks, containing her family’s history. Alba’s grandmother shows her how to enter the diary—to escape the present by going into the past, and thereby figure out how to deal with the future. The play is about Alba observing and coming to terms with her family’s tragedy, which in turn is a Latin American tragedy. I’m from the Caribbean and my family lived under a dictatorship, so I connect to the story. I’m also trying to understand my own parents and grandparents and their history.

Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden
Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden

Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, SET DESIGN: This was my first time working with the script, and it was such a godsend to have José and Alex involved. The story is nonlinear in an interesting way. That gave me the idea of presenting the whole experience as a series of portraits in time, which led to the ornate picture frames [opposite page] that served as projection surfaces. They’re picture-frame moldings and crown moldings, made of wood and foam. One thing that we all agreed on at the start: Everything was a projection surface. We did a straight scrim and a diagonal scrim, made of cheesecloth, which gave it a ghostly and gauzy quality. The theatre walls, scrim panels and stage had text painted on them, reflecting how Alba was the one telling this tale. There were times the characters would step behind the scrim panels and would literally be revealed through the projected and painted text.

Marian Licha, Natalia Miranda-Guzmán and Nelson Landrieu in "The House of the Spirits" at GALA Hispanic Theatre. (Photo by Lonnie Tague)
Marian Licha, Natalia Miranda-Guzmán and Nelson Landrieu in “The House of the Spirits” at GALA Hispanic Theatre. (Photo by Lonnie Tague)
Alex Koch
Alex Koch

Alex Koch, PROJECTION DESIGN: I’ve done this show three times since 2009. There was a decision early on that the projections wouldn’t land anywhere solid and the light would bleed through and onto the actors. The projections themselves were found footage—I spent time at the National Archives in D.C., pulling Chilean newsreels; they have an incredible collection. There were also images that I created in my studios, miniatures we shot for early productions, and things José and I shot when we were in Chile. Our first look in the show [left image] is a scrim that’s covering the entire proscenium, and we were able to land the projections on the scrims behind it as well. We’re using four projectors, all blended together. The projected text moves and spins, creating a vortex around Alba. The other photo is a mix of animation and source photography. It’s very reflective of the aesthetic that José and I have found as we’ve done these plays—that sense of fragmented memories. I constructed the clock in the background. Its animation is abstracted, with the hands going around every few seconds. There’s a theme of aging, of time rushing by. Where have the years gone?

La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits), adapted by Caridad Svich from Isabel Allende’s novel, ran Feb. 7–March 10 at GALA Hispanic Theatre in Washington, D.C., under José Zayas’s direction. The production featured set design by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, lighting design by Joseph Walls, costumes by Ivania Stack, sound design by Jane Shaw, projection design by Alex Koch, puppet design by Ingrid Crepeau, fight choreography by Monalisa Arias, stage management by Cecilia Cackley, production management by Anna Bate and technical direction by Andres Luque.

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