How to build a 'Show Boat'

Michael Schweikardt heard the skepticism when he told people he was designing the set for the epic "Show Boat" on the tiny Goodspeed stage.

Theater colleagues, he says, "would go, 'Aaaaaaaaah.' There was this little air of, 'Well, good luck with that. We'll be watching.'"

And then folks got downright funny. Instead of "Show Boat," they said, it'd be "Row Boat." Or "No Boat."

Well, the joke's on them.

Schweikardt has, in fact, created a show boat for Goodspeed Opera House's 27-by-20-foot space.

"It has been the job of a lifetime so far," Schweikardt says. "It's the most interesting, most challenging, and sort of most fun and satisfying thing either I've ever done or I've done in a very, very long time. It's great. It's a lot of show, and it's a lot of scenery."

All that comes with more than a little pressure. The show is named "Show Boat," after all, so the design of the title piece needs to be impressive. Beyond that, a good 3/4 of the musical happens on or around the show boat.

"As a set designer, I feel a little more on the line than I would with other productions," Schweikardt says. "I think the set is always an important part of any show, but you can sort of fade into the background if you want to on a lot of productions. With 'Show Boat,' and particularly 'Show Boat' at the Goodspeed, I think the audience is really waiting to see what happens. The audience is really going to sit back and see how they feel when the curtain goes up on that boat."

Schweikardt loves "Show Boat," and he's quite familiar with it. He figures he saw it 40 times when he was a teen, working as an usher at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. (His father has been a pit musician and orchestra contractor at that theater for about 45 years.)

He hadn't been asked to design "Show Boat" before, so he was intrigued when director Rob Ruggiero broached the idea last July.

"I'm not sure how many companies I would have wanted to take this on with," Schweikardt says. "The fact it was the Goodspeed really sweetened the deal because I trust them. I trust that they were going to deliver what I designed. They've gone to amazing lengths to make it happen."

He describes what he sees when he drops in to look at what is being built at Goodspeed - it's a veritable beehive of energy and work.

"You walk into the scene shop, and there are, like, 16 carpenters, working away on scenery, which is probably four times the amount of staff that's usually in that scene shop," he says. "You go over to the paint shop, and there are a dozen scenic artists painting. There are four drops on the floor and scenery from one end of the building to the other end of the building, laying on the floor. You go into the prop shop, and there are six to eight people working in the prop shop.

"That just doesn't happen all that often. Nowadays, most people rent productions. They don't even bother to build the set. But to see that kind of building and artistry going on, seeing those people employed and building your scenery, it's just so great."

Ultimately, Schweikardt says, the focus wasn't so much the amount of scenery as the amount of detail. The way he approaches his work is storytelling and character first and spectacle second. He was confident that there was a way to design a show boat for Goodspeed - and that he was surrounded by people who could help him figure out how to do it.

The plot in "Show Boat" centers on the performers on a show boat that travels the Mississippi River - their loves and dramas and tragedies. The boat is like a character in the story, Schweikardt says; if the performers form their own family, the boat is almost a member of the family.

When Schweikardt first began designing the boat, the "Show Boat" team had to answer all sorts of questions: What should the boat be? How much room could the boat take up? How could the boat move out of the way when the scene changes to another location in the show? What angle of the boat should the audience see - should they be looking at the stern, the side, the bow?

"It was just a laundry list of questions that we answered one at a time until we came up with a solution of what the boat should look like," Schweikardt says.

What they devised was a boat set that's a two-story structure. The second level is built on sort of a bridge, with huge wooden pillars supporting it on the far left and right. The center span has space underneath.

Two staircases curve up to that center platform - and those staircases can slide back under the second level when the boat needs to make room for a different scene.

Those staircases probably move all of three feet, but Schweikardt notes that, with Goodspeed, you're only dealing with about 12 feet of depth anyway.

"In any other theater, three feet might be nominal, but at Goodspeed, it's 25 percent of the stage," Schweikardt says.

The set design wasn't just about the show boat. The Trocadero nightclub is elaborate, but for short scenes in other locations, Schweikardt uses small pieces to create a sense of place. A Chicago boardinghouse, for instance, is indicated by bringing on furniture - tables, chairs, lingerie chest, folding screen - in front of a drop of Chicago that's based on a turn-of-the-century postcard.

Certain set pieces find a way in, even if they're a challenge to store because of Goodspeed's limited backstage space. (Director Ruggiero says, "We used every inch of onstage space and offstage space. There is not room for, like, another chair.")

For instance, the character of Gaylord Ravenal loses his fortune while gambling at a roulette table. The table's only onstage for perhaps 15 seconds, but it plays an integral part in the story.

"Because there's so little room for storage, the second that roulette table goes offstage, it breaks apart into five individual pieces," Schweikardt says. "There's a crew member who catches it. The doors close, so it's hidden from view (from theatergoers). They just start pulling pins out from all over the place, and they collapse that one table into five individual parts, so it can sort of stack in individual corners and nooks and little areas backstage. It's unbelievable. I can't think of another theater that would go that distance to make something. 'You want a roulette table? We can do a roulette table. It has to break into five pieces.'"

If you go

What: "Show Boat"

Where: Goodspeed Opera House, Route 82, East Haddam

When: Through Sept. 11; performances 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; also, 2 p.m. on select Thursdays and 6:30 p.m. on select Sundays

Tickets: $28-$72

Info: (860) 873-8668 or goodspeed.org

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