Meredith Ries, a set designer in her final year at the Yale School of Drama, is writing about her design process for Hamlet at the Yale Repertory Theater, opening March 21. This week, the crews are loading in: watch as they begin to transform an empty stage into Elsinore.
Here we are! Hamlet is nearing the end of what is called the “load in” period — when the scenery, lighting, and sound equipment are installed the theater. Load in is one of the most wonderful, daunting, and humbling parts of the experience of being a designer. It’s the moment when you can physically stand inside your own work for the first time.
I think the term "load in" actually comes from ancient times when theater was made by touring troupes, the scenery unloaded from their little wagons and into the town square or whatever. Of course, touring productions still exist, though on a much larger scale. Here’s an incredible time-lapse video of the installation of a touring production of Wicked:
What is so neat about this video is that you get a sense of how carefully orchestrated load ins are: the whole thing has to be coordinated to ensure the crews’ hours are maximized. If people are unable to work because something is blocking them during a load in, someone has screwed up. Crews are paid by the hour, so you want to utilize every minute.
I don’t have a time-lapse of Hamlet’s load in (I wish I did), but I do have photos. I like this series because, in addition to showing how the scenery went in, it gives a sense of how careful the technical staff has been about making sure that the install was safe and well orchestrated.
So, not to put to fine a point on it, but the first thing they did for Hamlet was cut a fuck off hole in the floor.
This photo is taken from the back row of the balcony. What you’re seeing is the hole (surrounded by a railing); inside is a drop down into the “trap room” below. You can see a carpenter working on the framing for the floor over that hole (he’s wearing a harness so if he slips he can’t fall far). There are also motors hanging above the hole. These helped raise the I-beams that are used to support the new floor.
So these shots show the hole once it has gotten its “deck” layer: the plexiglass that makes up the floor of the entire set. You can see in the first photo that they covered it with a blue shrink-wrap to protect it form getting too scuffed during the install. I managed to get a shot of it before it got covered up, though.
These two show the floor further along, and also some of the walls going up. If you look closely at the first shot (remember, you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them), you can see that the carpenters installing the floor are wearing little socks over their workboots to protect the plexiglass. Also, you can see that a big black curtain is halfway in. This is basically to protect the audience space from being coated in sawdust. Sidebar: this type of curtain is called either the “asbestos curtain” or the “fire curtain.” It can drop automatically to protect the audience if there's a fire onstage (a bigger problem when candles were used for lighting effects). And no, we don’t make them out of asbestos anymore.
Once that floor got in, the rest of the scenery materialized pretty quickly: you can see in these photos the side towers, the central platform going in, and one of the auxiliary walls that flies in (this is for Act 3, Scene 4, Queen Gertrude’s bedroom).
So, the bones are in the space. The cast will walk onstage tomorrow afternoon and we will start working slowly through the play, setting lighting and sound cues, working with musicians, props, and costumes. The set will continue to evolve in paint treatment and detail over the next two weeks, as we “tech” through the show and then start previews.
Standing on that giant plastic floor and staring up at that scenery makes me incredibly giddy every time I walk into the theater. It is the greatest feeling in the world to imagine an entire space and have it come to life with such accuracy and precision. I am a very lucky girl to be making this show, with these people in this place. It's going to be fantastic.
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.
Credit: the author (all images)
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