APDG member and Tony Award nominee, Peter England, is in conversation with Live Performance Committee Chair, Stephen Curtis, in this fascinating article.
The brilliant work of Australia’s Live Performance designers is acknowledged here every year, through the APDG Awards and at other industry awards events. But it is an extra pleasure when an Australian designer and APDG Member is also acknowledged by the international theatre profession, as Peter England has been with his Tony Award nomination for his spectacular set and projection design for King Kong – Alive on Broadway. This is the musical award equivalent to a Golden Globe or a Lion at Cannes. Peter added projection design to his Tony nomination, and the Tony nominating committee made a formal judgement that it, together with the set design, be considered as a whole by the voters. This is a first on Broadway – until now projection design has been overlooked by the Tonys.
Peter says of his design for King Kong: “At its heart the concept is ‘The Rise and Fall of Empires’. If you distil the locations in King Kong to the simplest groupings, it is essentially a tale of two islands separated by an epic sea voyage. One island, New York City, is a jungle of concrete and steel out of which is rising an empire. The other, Skull Island, is a jungle of vines and webs consuming a crumbling empire…. The vast range of locations in King Kong had a huge impact on the design – the streets of New York City, its waterfront docks, a 3 month boat voyage, the mythical Skull Island, a mountain cave and it’s towering summit, a Broadway theatre, a devastated Times Square, climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and doing battle with a bunch of airplanes at its very apex – we were clearly in need of versatile staging.”
Peter is no stranger to staging the spectacular (or to receiving awards). From some of his earliest set designs with Opera Australia and Bangarra through to major live events such as the arena spectaculars Walking with Dinosaurs and How to Train Your Dragon, Sydney 2000 Olympic Opening Ceremony: Awakenings and production design for three New Year’s Eve Celebrations on and around Sydney Harbour, Peter has combined his instinct for making great staged moments with his personal design conviction for an economy of expression: “I am a strong believer in ‘less is more’ when it comes to stage design”. On King Kong “less” may be a 6 metre tall 1 ton puppet and a massive curved LED screen surrounding the entire stage, but a lot of careful design thinking went into getting the most out of these two design elements, and solving some complex design problems along the way.
“As a physical property, Kong is literally the King of our stage. Pretty well every design choice for every department was affected by this extraordinary creation. Designed essentially as a giant marionette (by the Creature Technology Company in Melbourne), Kong is hung by cables to a 7 ton cluster of winches 17 metres above the stage deck. This winch cluster controls his major vertical movements, can rotate and is able to travel side to side on a steel trolley which spans left to right across stage. The trolley itself can track back and forth on a pair of massive I-Beam tracks fastened to the theater grid that span up and down stage. The result being Kong can literally be placed anywhere on stage. When not on stage, Kong ‘lives’ out of audience sight, high up above the proscenium. As brilliant as all this mechanical engineering is, it does wipe out 90% of the area above the stage for absolutely everything else. A major part of my design work was focused on creating rigging infrastructure to compensate for this necessary void – essentially stuff the audience doesn’t even see – and squeezing the rest of the show on stage around Kong”.
Peter says of the process of redesigning King Kong for Broadway after its Australian season: “At first, the opportunity to design a show for a Broadway stage was a little overwhelming, however after a few deep breaths it quickly became familiar territory – almost like being back home. I say ‘almost’ because whilst the creative ambitions and processes of the challenge were evidently universal and familiar, the more technical procedures were anything but. A Broadway theatre is governed by some 17 separate unions and an entanglement of rules. On the one hand these rules make for a fairer work environment, on the other they can at times feel like obtuse and insane obstructions. For example; an actor is not allowed to open an offstage door to enter a stage. Carpenters (Mechanists in Australian parlance) are the only people on stage who can open an offstage door. On King Kong I had two pairs of doors set in our surround LED screen that actors needed to enter through. Due to the heavy technical workload on the upper mezzanine level for the production’s two Carpenters however, we didn’t have anyone on the deck to open the doors. There were two choices – pay an extra $3000 a week for an extra Carpenter to open the doors, or have them automated. The producers didn’t spend a lot of time pondering this question.
The integration of video content with live action was a major consideration for Peter on the Broadway production. “The concept was to interact and synchronize projected imagery with the physical stage settings such that the projected images provide not just locational clarity, but also motion dynamic and spatial depth to the physical settings. Further to this, that the projections also give our lead character Kong the illusion of a dynamic capacity for exceptional physical movement; running through city streets, leaping through tangled jungles or climbing up the Empire State Building to do battle at the top of the world. The massive LED surround affords a wonderful opportunity to supplement and enhance location specifics and transition dynamics as necessary. The key here is that each of the design elements maintain its rightful place in the stage picture. The LED screen is and always must be background. The physical sets are the middle ground, often interacting with the performers who are, without a doubt, at all times the foreground and focus”.
I was extremely fortunate to be able to work with the Australian Projection company Artists In Motion (AIM) to create the video and projected content for King Kong. I have worked with AIM twice previously on Arena productions, so whilst this was slightly new territory for both of us we did have a strong working dialogue to begin with. Essentially I created a very detailed scene by scene storyboard in Photoshop along with an extensive written plot line with descriptions, timings and cue points. AIM then set about building “Style Frames” for the major locations. Once we established our base aesthetic AIM began building content. It was critical to me that the content not only be a visual extension of the physical scenery, but also that it feel ‘alive’ and not just still pictures. To that end the content was created to have a constant amount of movement in it – even if it was depicting a stationary location. A street scene for example might have tiny wisps of steam rising from pavement vents, slowly drifting clouds and the slightest twinkling of window lights in the distance. Added to this was my goal to make the content look to be hand painted – which we ultimately achieved by employing a variety of active effects layers that provided a constant sense of movement and ‘life’ to the imagery. The result on stage is a content package that is essentially a feature length movie. Some of our content are optical illusions that are quite old-school in their origins – in fact dating back to early movie making techniques from around the time the original King Kong movie was made. Essentially we put an object, like a boat with some fairly simple automated up and down movement, in front of the LED screen which displays some dynamic moving ocean content. The effects are amazing in the theatre and give a compelling sense of ocean travel. We do the same with Kong himself quite a few times. It’s thrilling, and audiences love it!