Meredith Ries, a set designer currently in her final year at the Yale School of Drama, is writing a multi-part series about her design process for Hamlet at the Yale Repertory Theater, opening in the spring of 2013. In this second installment, she shares photos, stories, and blisters from the model-building process.
Inspired by the Edgar Martins photo of an unfinished McMansion pictured above, my initial plan was to work with stud wall units and essentially construct a space sculpturally: combining and recombining them until I got to a layout I liked. I went through four or five options, and at press time I'm rebuilding the whole thing to make a shiny new model for this week's budgeting meetings. Wish me luck!
Below, a pictorial journey (click any photo to enlarge) through the model-making process.
First, a note about scale. I typically build models in
“quarter inch” scale: a human figure is about 2” tall, and my theater-shaped box is about 17” wide, 17” deep, and 12” high. This picture is
of a chair in scale. Note the palm of my hand. Model pieces are stupid cute.
We are lucky enough, here at Yale, to have a laser cutter.
Basically, it takes computer drafting and cuts flat pieces in scale for you.
While not strictly necessary, it certainly speeds up the process. Here I am
cutting basic stud wall pieces.
Assembling the thousands of pieces kind of took over my life. I was sleepless and covered in ash from the laser cutter, and I went days without seeing the surface of my drafting table.
A first rough model: Stud walls create a lofty space with a couple of staircases suggesting that the house goes in many directions. The back wall is a cut through of a house. I thought it all looked a little like an apartment building. Not so good.
I returned to the research and decided to try replicating
the architecture in the Edgar Martins photograph. This model was made really quickly, so it
feels flat. I kept some of the asymmetry of the first model, but ultimately
this arrangement lacked nuance.
Another new model. This one has a lot more detail and the side walls are angled in. I also “raked” the floor, putting it on a slight angle. This gave a sense of reflection and meant that we could light through the floor — which will be made of clear plexiglass with a tile pattern — during the ghost scenes.
The same model with no back wall for some of the outdoor scenes. By now, the two step units on the upper platform were starting to annoy me. In these scenes, the upper level is barely used, so it wants to kind of disappear in the center. I also decided that the central wall with the arch will fly out for these scenes.
A new, much more asymmetrical version of the set. I basically reversed one of the side arch units to make a series of hallways. This, while visually dynamic, is much harder to stage the play on. Sadly, that’s much more important.
Where we were before the holidays: The level of detail is not totally there, but architecturally it is close to the final space. The central wall with the three arches flies all the way out, and also all the way to the floor. The walls upstage of the central one also fly out.
Finally , a drafting screenshot. I have now moved beyond the “stud wall lego” phase, and am working on very detailed technical drawings of each wall and support system. The final model will be much closer to what the set would look like in real life.
So the set we are landing on is evocative of a grand house or palace, but abstracted such that we only see its bones. In my mind, this reveals the play's concerns about seeing through to the true nature of things: Claudius’ deception and latent resentment; the crazed child behind Ophelia's obedient facade; and, of course, Hamlet's mounting sense of his own weakness and indecision. Seeing through the walls and the floor to the structures beneath can evoke a real house while reminding us of the play's spectral layers. Ideally, the set will suggest a presence beyond the action onstage — of spies, or ghosts, or simply other meanings beneath what is said.
Stay tuned for a look at the final model before budgeting, and find out what happens when we have to make it in real life!
Meredith B. Ries has worked in New York City primarily as a props master. Her props credits include The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night (both at the Public Theater / Shakespeare in the Park), Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (the Public Theater), An Oresteia (Classic Stage Company), Orpheus X, Chair (Theater for a New Audience), and In The Next Room (The Vibrator Play) (assistant props, Lincoln Center Theater). She has also worked with Second Stage Theater, Elevator Repair Service, and Target Margin Theater. Her portfolio can be found here.