Space for re-invention

One of the things TimeLine audiences often comment on is their appreciation for how our theater is continually re-invented. Our flexible seating system allows us to reconfigure where the playing area is and re-imagine the physical relationship between actor and audience. That flexibility is being showcased again for The Front Page, as the audience completely surrounds the playing space.

We asked some of the The Front Page production team to discuss their approach to the design of the show. We also talked with other TimeLine artists about the joys and challenges of this 100-year-old facility TimeLine has called home since 1999.

A classic example of the “Bowling Alley”: TimeLine’s 2009 production of “The History Boys” placed audience on both sides of the playing area and scenery in the lobby!

How does the configuration of the audience impact a play?

Nick Bowling (TimeLine Associate Artistic Director and Director of The Front Page): Configuring the space is one of the most important elements in creating the world of the play. It can determine the intimacy level of the production, the perspective and the role of the audience members and help evoke a specific setting. In 1994, I directed my first professional Chicago production in this very space—it was the European Repertory Company’s theater at the time—and I fell in love with the space. For that play, Eugène Ionesco’s The Killing Game, we used the “alley” setup, with the audience seated on two sides. Since then, I have staged five TimeLine plays that way (including The Children’s Hour, The Farnsworth Invention and The History Boys), leading some actors and designers to dub that configuration “the Bowling Alley.”

I like it so much because it gives us three separate playing spaces: a proscenium on each end and the “round” in the middle. I have used every possible configuration over the years, including proscenium (Fiorello!, When She Danced and Not Enough Air), thrust (In Darfur, Hauptmann and The Crucible) and in-the-round (This Happy Breed, The Lion in Winter and, now, The Front Page).

Directing in each configuration has its strengths and challenges. For example, the more sides the audience sees from, the more geometry and sightlines come into play. Also, most people will have different experiences seeing a play in-the-round because they are getting only one of the four possible perspectives. Of course, it’s our job to make the experience equal for all audience members, but I still often tell people they should come back and watch the play from another side—it will change in some small, interesting ways.

What appealed to you about staging The Front Page in-the-round?

Nick:  The Front Page is historically a proscenium play. First, there are a lot of characters and it is easier to keep track of people when they are all on one plane and always in your field of vision. Second, there are a few important plot points that some would say require a proscenium, but the proscenium is also limiting in how far we can get inside a play.

TimeLines “The Lion in Winter” was presented in-the-round in 2003.

Colette, the other designers and I really wanted the audience to see this world up close, to be inside it and almost be able to smell it. We wanted to focus on and share all of the details—which is such a TimeLine trait—and we knew we could do that better in-the-round, where you will be sitting inches away from many of the actors. So we are painstakingly staging every moment so no major plot point will be missed, and we are hopefully developing the characters so specifically and memorably you will never confuse them. It will be like seeing a movie in 3D with people whizzing by you—but this production won’t make you sick to your stomach!

Collette Pollard (Scenic Designer): Nick and I agreed that the play read dark, quick and intense, although funny for sure. Being able to see the men up close on phones and read their hands in cards were qualities that informed the feeling of the men inhabiting a pit of a room. The Front Page has a performance history of being played as a farce. Nick and I weren’t attracted to a farce or a proscenium configuration. This text didn’t call for a need to flatten out the space, but to actually make it more dimensional, creating an experience for the audience through the characters’ physical relationship to one another and to the audience, allowing us to hear the text by placing the action of the play in the middle of the room.

How does staging The Front Page in-the-round impact your work as a lighting designer?

Heather Gilbert: I am newly in love with shows in-the-round. I love, love, love the intimacy of that relationship of the actor to the audience. It can be really tricky to do these shows well, however. In a classic proscenium setup you can hide the tricks, bury light offstage; you have a place to put light that the audience won’t see it. We want to make this place feel as real as possible. I have an on-going love affair with the ability of a single light bulb to be a storyteller. So in this show, the entire design team is excited to use actual prop table lamps and overhead lights that people could have in their homes. We want to play with when the characters might turn the lights on, how they feel about the overhead lights being ugly. It’s super exciting for us.

As an actor in The Front Page, how does it affect you having the audience all around you?

Mechelle Moe (Mollie Malloy): For me, as Mollie, the staging helps immensely. Walking into that room full of reporters and being surrounded by them is akin to walking into the middle of a viper’s nest or shark tank. Then to have the audience hovering just beyond really intensifies the whole situation. It certainly keeps you on your toes. There is no room for slacking. It’s all in the details of the character. You have to be specific, as someone is literally only a few inches away, watching your every move.

Terry Hamilton (Walter Burns and TimeLine Associate Artist):  I love working in-the-round. It allows the actor to move in a much more realistic manner. No matter where an actor stands, turns or moves, the audience always can see them and “read” the character’s body language from all sides. The challenge for the actor is to be able to convey emotions with his or her whole body, because at any given moment your back is going to be toward someone in the audience, and they have to know what’s going on in the head and body of the character at all times.

What are the challenges of this 100-year-old space?

Terry: One of the biggest challenges, I think, for a lot of actors working in this space is what we call doing a “cross-around.” Meaning, if an actor exits the set using one of the exits that go directly backstage and you have a quick entrance from the other side of the house (the lobby), you have to hurry down some very old, very creaky, very noisy steps, then run around in the basement of the building, run up the steps leading into the lobby and then try to make a quick entrance through the aisles of the theater onto the stage. It can be quite challenging. God forbid you have a costume change at the same time.

Lou Contey (Director and TimeLine Associate Artist): Outside noise frequently intrudes from the alley behind the theater; there’s no way to mask it. There’s nothing worse than doing a period play like The General from America and hearing a garbage truck backing up or a car alarm going off. Also, the floor creaks everywhere, especially on the back hallway stairs. Any actor who has worked at TimeLine has had to develop a technique for climbing the rear stairs on a “cross-around” during a quiet scene. The exit signs are one of my all-time favorites—they often bleed into blackouts or dimly lit scenes. But all of this is just being picky. Every converted theater space in Chicago has some idiosyncrasies to boast (or complain) of. The greatest challenge is trying to take advantage of all the space’s many possibilities. We can do at least four different audience setups in the space, sometimes with variations.

John Culbert (Scenic Designer for The Farnsworth Invention): One of the main challenges is actually not “in” the space itself but what is, or more accurately, is not, around the space. There is no significant offstage space, outside and surrounding the playing/audience area. Thus there is little space to move things when they are not onstage (scenery, props and even actors).  So, the entire world must be carved out of the one space. Another ramification of this is that characters cannot easily or quickly move from one side or end to another outside of the playing space. So, it is self-contained. Out of challenges rises creativity!

Heather: Oh!!! The electrical power! Such a lovely, old building, so little power. But you just have to be smarter than math to make it work.

What do you love about this space?

William Brown (Director and Co-Playwright for To Master The Art): I think the space has proven to be amazingly versatile. Think where we have gone, flying through time and space. It also houses so many extraordinary theatrical memories. This is a theater that does challenging, smart, generous work. And when I walk into that theater, all the things I’ve seen, all the things I’ve been a part of infuse the room. It’s a house of great theater.

I loved how beautifully Nick Bowling recently used essentially the same setup for In Darfur that we had for To Master The Art and yet created a desperate sparseness a million miles from our Paris-in-the-’50s set. That’s using stagecraft to magically, miraculously even, change the room.

I think the alley setup for The History Boys and The Farnsworth Invention allowed for the kind of breakneck movement those plays required. And the lecture room setup was perfect for Copenhagen.

“To Master the Art” and “In Darfur” both used the same thrust stage configuration, but took audiences to very different worlds.

Collette: I love TimeLine’s theater. It is intimate, constantly changing and able to take on many configurations. Its ability to be modular is my favorite quality. As a set designer, I am grateful to TimeLine’s commitment to and understanding of the audience’s relationship to a piece and how it can change an audience’s experience of the text. TimeLine continually supports its designers’ vision for the space. This support is an undertaking, since it takes just as much, if not more, effort to design and execute the audience experience as it does the set.

Lou: The TimeLine theater space is large enough to treat those of us fortunate enough to work in it with any frequency with many possible seating configurations and staging possibilities. Truly, most theater spaces do not afford any flexibility in audience setup. Nor do they allow the creative team to address the space according to the needs of the play instead of the other way around. We can have the artistic discussion with a certain amount of liberty regarding the actor-to-audience relationship. The TimeLine space allows us to think thoughtfully, artistically, creatively about how to best present the stories we tell in the most imaginative way.

Mechelle: TimeLine feels like home. I love all the nooks and crannies. It’s incredibly versatile, given what could be perceived as immediate drawbacks. I think it’s pretty amazing that it accommodates so many different designs. But mainly I love the space because it has heart and history. It’s a living, breathing space—exactly what actors need to do their work.

Terry:  The intimacy, hands down. The communication between the audience and the actors is immediate. Both parties get an experience that’s very hard to feel in larger spaces. The communication between the audience and the actors is very important in completing the whole theatrical experience, and in this space the feelings an actor gets from the audience is very palpable.

Heather: The HEIGHT!!! Most theaters in Chicago are so short, and that is a huge challenge for a lighting designer. TimeLine has such beautiful height.

John: Character, it has character! And character is the main event in theater. There is an inherent quality of story when one enters the space, from the front stairs right into the theater itself. Its long history of serving various purposes is evident. It has seemingly unexplained oddities and thus suggests and supports humanity. It has its own story to tell and thus sets up anticipation in the audience even before the curtain rises, so to speak. And then, no matter the configuration, it fosters an intimate relationship between the audience and the character: They breathe the same air and thus are able to share experience beyond the norm.

An edited version of this article appears in TimeLine’s Backstory magazine, available at performances of The Front Page.

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Comments (4)

  1. Bernie Holicky

    Seeing the picture of TimeLine’s Nick Bowling’s “The Lion in Winter” 2003 in the round production with David Parkes…talk about regrets. I remember the rave reviews, but I didn’t see it. My first TimeLine play was in 2001, I hadn’t become a TimeLine fanatic. It wasn’t until the re-mount of “Hanna and Martin” with David as Martin Heidegger in 2004 – call it the start of a love affair for what and how TimeLine does it- and I haven’t missed a play since.


  2. John Sterling

    Thanks for this post. There are many, many things about TimeLine that are just beyond great. The flexibility of the space (and the creativity of the designers, directors and other artists in using that flexibility) is definitely one of them. Can’t wait to see the ‘press room’ for The Front Page!

  3. acting classes in new york

    The flexibility of the space (and the creativity of the designers, directors and other artists in using that flexibility) is definitely one of them. Can’t wait to see the ‘press room’ for The Front Page!

  4. John West

    It looks like a great theatre. The ability to put the stage wherever you want is very useful, whether you set it up in the traditional way, or where the audience is all around you. I like the look of the bowling alley example, it seems like a really clever idea that sets up that extra dimension but also adds a challenge for the production team.