by Ashley Ann Woods
"This show is happening in the mall? Like, in the actual mall? That can't be true."
There have been a lot of people who are equal parts baffled and intrigued about the idea of putting The Three Musketeers in a former store. Many simply cannot believe it. But in my experience, creating theatre in an old storefront is just the norm.
I've spent the last near to a decade working primarily in Chicago as a scenic designer and painter. That city is the hub of storefront theatre - nearly every venue I have designed in has a former life as not a theatre. Common challenges: large structural pillars in the middle of the space, concrete floors that cannot be anchored into, loud neighbors (or sometimes neighbors wishing we were less loud), creating clear paths to emergency exits, the emergency exit lights being a glaring red dot in the middle of a blackout, low ceilings, high ceilings, and a general lack of the conventional fixtures that exist in more traditional theater spaces. And yet, when those house lights dim and the actors begin to weave their story before your eyes, you realize the theatre is something more than just the space you are occupying.
Any space can be a theater. And theatre can exist in any space. Let me just open my old Theatre History textbook.....ahem....."Theatre: the area in which something happens." Someone along the path of my education once said, "All you need for theatre to take place is a performer, an audience member, and a light source." By that logic, I imagine that the first people were probably creating theatre around the campfire. Considering these early humans were also fending off large wild predatory animals, turning a store into the world of The Three Musketeers is relatively simple, right?
Turning a former store into a theater is pretty straightforward: lots of black fabric, some seating risers, chairs, plus a lot of hanging light fixtures and speakers. There's a bit of extra consideration that goes into seating configuration - in a traditional theatre you have exactly one option. The chairs are where the chairs are, the stage is where the stage is. When you get to create your own space, you get to decide how the audience experiences the show. The Director (Brandon Bruce) and I decided we wanted to put this show in the round, which means there is audience on ALL the sides of the stage. This is a personal favorite of mine because it's such a dynamic way to see a show - with a cast of 18, there's always something happening and you get a little bit of a different show depending on where you sit.
Where the design really comes to play is in figuring out how to create a world for the show. The Three Musketeers is set in Paris in the 17th Century. Which looked a little something like this:
Also, there are roughly 20 scenes in the show, each in a different location and one scene is actually called the "various locations" scene. Various locations! So we're in a storefront, with no backstage, with a show set in a decadent historic time, with Musketeers crossing continents. Time to get creative.
Whenever I start a process, I attack my research from two angles. One is logistical: time, place, economic status, historical references, etc. The other is much more artistic. What does the show feel like? What does it represent? What do we remember most about it? The Three Musketeers is one of literature's everlasting stories for it's daring heroes, plotting villains, expressive sword-fighting and overall romanticism, all rolled into the symbol of the fleur de lis and those immortal words: "All for One and One for All."
When designing in the round, I always feel Rule #1 is to have an interesting and attractive floor treatment since it is the scenic piece we see the most of. Our stone floor is emblematic of a chess board on which this game of intrigue is played out. The fleur de lis pattern is the symbol for the religious, political, dynastic, and artistic traditions of France. We've four quarter-circle benches that at different times create unity and discord, and the many shapes and structures they form help take us through the various locations of the play. The fabric...well the fabric just felt right. Sometimes you just know, and the Director and I both attached to this idea early in the process. It's not symbolic, it's not specific, but it gives the space life, beauty, a softness that connects to the romanticism of the era and creates an abstract environment that lets us be in all the places our world demands. Add some practical considerations - such as where to store all the needed weaponry - and pathways for actors and audiences and voila!
Of course, I would be completely remiss to not acknowledge the work of my fellow designers. I love to talk about theatrical design in terms of world-building because I truly feel that is what we are doing, and it takes many talented people coming together. Our Lighting Designer, Jess Fialko, is a wizard who transports us through the play with a different look for every single scene. And since the set and lights are living on a very "artsy" level, our Costume Designer, Brittany Dee Bodley, was given the heavy task of creating the historic setting through what the actors wear. These ladies are both incredible artists and my work on this show is only enhanced by their beautiful contributions.
"Theatre: the area in which something happens." Something very special is happening at Brookwood Village right now - I hope you check it out.
THE THREE MUSKETEERS runs July 12th – 29th at Brookwood Village. For more information and to get tickets, click here.
Ashley Ann Woods is the Managing Director of Birmingham Children's Theatre, having recently moved to Alabama after having spent nearly a decade as a freelance scenic designer in the greater Chicago area. You may have seen her work on BCT stages this year in Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Goodnight, Moon. Favorite credits include Miss Holmes (Lifeline Theatre), La Havana Madrid (Teatro Vista), Posh, Invisible Hand (Steep Theatre), Bonnie and Clyde, Heathers: the Musical (Kokandy Productions), Desperate Dolls (Strawdog Theatre), The Rover (20% Theatre Chicago), and Forgotten Future (Collaboraction). Ashley has a BFA in Design & Technical Theatre from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. ashleyannwoods.com