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Pool for ‘Metamorphoses’ set poses unique challenges for W&M theatre

  • Building a pool:
    Building a pool:  Crews constructed a wood frame first before installing the pond liner inside for the on-stage pool that is the centerpiece of the set for William & Mary theatre's "Metamorphoses."  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Consulting with aquatics management on campus is something that William & Mary theatre rarely, if ever, does. Then again it usually doesn’t have a pool on stage for a show.

But new Technical Director Brian Saxton was on the horn talking chemicals with Associate Director of Campus Recreation for Health and Wellness Bob Gough. It was one of many fact-finding conversations Saxton and cohorts have had while managing the various unique concerns involved with water on stage for “Metamorphoses,” which runs Feb. 22-25 at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall.

“The challenges range from worrying about keeping actors warm enough and healthy throughout rehearsals and performances, to finding ways to have water in other places in the show besides the pool, to considering how the water can help tell the stories without the show becoming about the water,” said Director Elizabeth Wiley, professor of theatre.

That unique element of the show required quite a bit of ingenuity.

“Water is an element that we don’t deal with, especially at this capacity, often,” Saxton said. “So water in itself requires a lot of extra safeguards.”

{{youtube:medium:right|mzx6ThCVO8w, A pool in PBK: Preparing for 'Metamorphoses'}}

The “Metamorphoses” story, written by Mary Zimmerman, is a retelling of Ovid’s classic poem using water both in the set and storytelling. It takes place in a fantastical setting created by lighting and costuming centered around the pool as the set’s main piece, which in this case will be situated in the orchestra pit.

The main concerns for constructing the set were building a structure strong enough to support the weight of 2,000 gallons of water, avoiding leaks and protecting electrical equipment, Saxon said. The pool is constructed out of wood with a pond liner inside of it, and was built by faculty and students. Additional set pieces include platforming, stairs and a set of decking including moving parts as an additional complication.

The theatre department spent a few years considering options for a set for the play, according to Matthew Allar, set designer and associate professor of theatrical design.

“Keeping the water line of the pool just at eye level of our front couple of rows of the audience seems to be the appropriately useful kind of balance for our audience, realizing that 99 percent of the audience sits above that in our space and will start to gain that viewpoint looking progressively down on it,” Allar said.

“The other important thing with this design is that there are elements such as rolling platforms that slide over the water, which create the sense that the characters in the play are traveling across the water.  This idea harkens back to some of the major Greek myths and becomes an important storytelling device. So the threat, or the perception, of the water is almost as important as the water itself.”

Research had to be done on how best to keep the water safely clean and heated, with several options available for each. Saxton and crew decided to treat the pool with chlorine and a portable pump filter, and to heat it with a portable baptistry heater. These decisions were made to avoid cutting additional holes into the pool’s structure for plumbing lines, creating more opportunities for leaks, as well as for cutting costs.

Special attention had to be paid to lighting for the pool to avoid unintended reflections.

Set building was started earlier than for a regular show so that the pool could be filled and tested in advance of actors starting rehearsals on the set. Plans were to fill, drain and refill the pool for a test prior to actors using the set, and possibly doing that again midway through the show’s run, Saxton said.

“It’s not something you want to be racing time with and doing last-minute things,” he added. “You want to have time to set it up.”

The pool adds items to pre-show and post-show checklists for the crew that include checking the chemical levels, removing and replacing the portable elements that clean and heat it, and mopping up water that actors moving in and out have tracked onstage.

Heating of the water is intended to keep actors from losing focus when they enter the water, and the pool itself calls for special considerations in the areas of movement and costuming as well.

W&M Professor of Dance Joan Gavaler, who has a special interest in theatre movement, is serving as movement director.

“The pool of water adds a powerful element for the actors to interact with, including the ability to shift the shape of the pool by moving the three ‘rafts’ that are part of the structure,” Gavaler said. “Actors specialize in imagination, and our actors are currently using that skill in rehearsal to prepare themselves to deal with the various levels in the set as well as the water once the set is completed.

“I expect that when all the movement and set elements come together, including how costumes and lighting interact with the water, we will experience something magical.”

Because the majority of the actors end up in the pool at some point, swimwear was chosen as the basic unit of clothing that everybody would wear, according to costume designer Patricia West, professor of theatre. Added to that will be any outer layers and decorations, taking into account the need for resilience in water, in mostly white clothing and with a heavy reliance on head pieces rather than jewelry because the performers are very active.

Linen pants were made for each of the six male characters, and swim dresses evocative of neo-classical style were purchased and will be altered to fit the six female characters. Because the audience won’t be able to see into the pool, the flowing layers that float on the water often used for this show were eschewed for polyester knits that will survive repeated immersions, according to Wesp.

More than 100 students worked with faculty and staff doing background research and creating the various elements for this unique show with a rare water feature.

“This is kind of the pool show,” Saxton said. “There are probably other shows you can or call for water, but this is the one most people know as the show you have to have a pool.”