"When I can grab onto the theme of the show and echo that in some way with a physical manifestation, that’s why I do this."

Present in the Past: Reflections on Designing with Water from Beowulf Boritt

What do fire, glitter, and water have in common? They tend to be on a lot of theatre spaces “no fly” lists. The additional cleanup costs and safety precautions are enough to shut the idea down before it even escapes a designer’s mouth, to say nothing of the potentially disastrous impacts they can wreck on the space for months or even years to come. And yet these exciting forbidden fruits sometimes entice designers to grapple with the additional struggles and therefore additional creative and aesthetic rewards that successfully using these elements entails. Water seems to hold a unique symbolic resonance – so crucial to sustaining life on our planet, so beautiful and unique in the known universe and yet, so destructive in the forms of erosion or extreme weather, and so daunting in its vastness. Water has a nasty habit of seeping through or overflowing its container and bringing mold, mildew and rust to structures, many of which – at least in New York – are quite old to begin with. At once mundane and spectacular, it takes great skill to tame it successfully for the stage.

Water has made an appearance in several Roundabout productions, such as the fountain in Nine, where it trickled down the fresco on the back wall before being splashed about in Guido’s frantic film. Two other Roundabout productions that heavily feature water – If there is, I haven’t found it yet by Nick Payne and Thérèse Raquin adapted from the Emile Zola novel by Helen Edmundson – use water in both a literal and symbolic way. If there is... centers on a family with a father so consumed by writing and teaching about the macro-effects our individual behaviors have on climate change that he doesn’t see his own daughter’s descent into dangerous depression. In Thérèse Raquin, the Seine river figures prominently as Therese longs for real love and freedom from her oppressive aunt and cousin. There is also another connection between these two shows: Tony award winning scenic designer Beowulf Boritt. For Roundabout, he has also designed Sondheim on Sondheim, Tin Pan Alley Rag, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, and most recently, Bernhardt/Hamlet. I sat down with him recently to discuss his work on If there is, I haven’t found it yet and Thérèse Raquin, for which he earned a Tony nomination. Below is a portion of our conversation.

JM: What excites you about a design that incorporates water?

BB: “The spectacle of it is what’s exciting to me. The way it moves under light and the shock of seeing it in a play is exciting every time I do it. I saw Metamorphoses years ago and I thought ‘I know what a pain in the ass it was to build that big lake in the middle of the theatre, how difficult and expensive it was. And it’s beautiful.’ It made the show something unique that it would not have been if they tried to do the same story without the water. It defined the experience of the show in a huge, strong visual way. And I thought that has to be a lesson to me to not be so practical but to ask for something extraordinary on Broadway because that, ultimately to me as a set designer, that’s what Broadway is. It’s doing something extraordinary that you can’t do at other theatres.

[In If There is, I haven’t found it yet the] hinge of the play is when the daughter gets into the bathtub and slits her wrists, it’s the moment that the play twists and it also seemed like the perfect moment for a visual manifestation of that twist. Some of the water was getting pumped on to stage through the bathtub, but under the walls of the set there was about an inch and a half gap and we flooded the stage. It was 40,000 gallons of water in tanks backstage that we released and in about thirty seconds the stage was six inches deep in water. The moment the water came rushing at you, it was fast, within a minute it was to its full height and it was an exciting, shocking moment. That’s the kind of design that I really love. When I can grab onto the theme of the show and echo that in some way with a physical manifestation, that’s why I do this. I often say, I don’t actually care what the show looks like, I mean I do, but starting out I don’t care what it looks like or which direction we go in. I want to try to find what that moment is and is there a way I can help put an exclamation point on it. And if I can find that moment, it will start to answer a lot of other questions about what the set ought to look like: to serve that moment and serve that visual story arch we’re trying to peg to the literary story arch.”

JM: Do you have to “design” the water itself at all?

BB: “You have to put heaters in it if actors are going to get in it so that they’re not freezing because room temperature water isn’t very pleasant [to be in]. Another trick with water is, because it’s clear ultimately, depending on the angle you’re looking at it, sometimes you just look right through it and see the rubber at the bottom of the pool or whatever is there, and you don’t really register the water. I did a water set once where we had six or eight inches of water all over the stage and, for some reason, the angle you saw it at from the theatre, you barely knew it was there. And I spent forever wrestling with it trying to figure out how to make it more apparent - we tried getting light on it from different angles, but we just kept being aware of this grey rubber liner at the bottom that wasn’t at all magical. So, when we were doing Therese, I was really worried about it. I had the shop order a lot of black, reflective dance rubber that was mirror-like to put at the bottom of the pool to hopefully make the water feel like it went on forever. But we put the pool in with the normal grey liner that you use, that isn’t very pretty, filled it with water and for whatever reason you couldn’t see through the water. It just looked like it went on forever. I’m sure there is a physics reason for all that, I don’t know what it is! I’d love to be able to pre-calculate what you can and can’t see through. But it’s part of the trick because it’s clear unless you put dye in it, which sometimes we do also and that’s how we solved the other show- we put a lot of black dye in it... I’ve also done fans to get it moving so there’s ripples on it, which then reflect light, so you then see that.”

JM: For If There is, I haven’t found it yet, where did the idea to use water as such a prominent design choice come from?

BB: “I think water and global warming are inherent in the play, but there is nothing that actually called for water onstage. But at some point, we [Michael Longhurst, director,] got to talking about that and wouldn’t it be interesting if by the end of the play they’re sort of slogging around in water and how do we get there. It was a true collaboration, I couldn’t tell you which one of us came up with which part of the idea. I remember an early model I made for him was a mountain of plastic bottles - as if it was an iceberg of Poland Spring bottles that the Earth was dying from. But very quickly when we were talking it somehow turned into the water idea. We kept talking about what would be an interesting way to do it and how relatively little the show required in terms of “things”. It didn’t need very much to make the storytelling clear.”

JM: What about for Therese Raquin?

BB: “When I first met Evan [Cabnet, director] he said ‘Well what if we did it with real water?’ And I fell in love with the guy instantly.”

JM: Therese and If there is... mostly featured bodies of water, but In If there is… was there an additional water feature?

BB: “There was rain at the top of the show- I always called it the act curtain. But there were two reasons, one is there was this three foot trough at the front of the stage and if we wanted to fill the set and that whole trough all the way full it was going to take something like three minutes [which would’ve taken too long], so we needed to start with some water there to begin with to get the full height of the water up to what we wanted it to be. And then I thought, ‘Oh if we’re going to have a trough anyway, let’s have it rain at the start of the show’... people walk in and they see the trough filling up and they won’t question why there’s water there because they’ve seen it arriving. And I’ve never seen rain used as a show curtain before so that seemed interesting and fun. I think we started it at half hour and, again, we figured out how much water needed to be in the trough so that if it rained for half an hour we’d be at the level we wanted to be. And most audience members are there for ten or fifteen minutes so they’re watching that happen for a while and hearing it and it sets up this idea of water as a thematic element in the story.”

JM: What about in Therese? Did the water have a similar kind of thematic or symbolic importance?

BB: “I very seldom put anything on stage more complicated than a chair if it doesn’t have symbolic relevance for me. In Therese- the script that we did was written so that the water and the river and the outdoors and space and freedom were what Therese is always yearning for, so she identifies with the river. About twenty minutes in there’s a scene with Therese and she’s on some rocks in the river talking about how she wants light and freedom and openness. And in that moment, we flew in a house on top of her. They’re moving to Paris, and we flew in the apartment which felt like this big black coffin and it completely obliterated the river, you couldn’t see it anymore. And suddenly, what had been this massive open airy space was totally claustrophobic and small. We were setting up the water as a metaphor of freedom and escape. And then when they drown Camille [Therese’s husband] in it, [the river] suddenly becomes this horrible image. So, what had been this beautiful image of freedom becomes this image of death and murder. Obviously, we were literally using it as a river too and rowing a boat around in it as well. Again, there’s a spectacle to that, I’ve never seen someone row a rowboat across the stage on Broadway. I’ve seen plenty of rowboats with wheels on them get rolled around on stage, and I’ve done plenty of them and that’s also quite effective and obviously easier to do. So, having a real boat and real water and seeming to actually drown the guy in it was all hugely exciting but what was really fun about it was the metaphoric use.”

Thinking about water as Mr. Boritt does - a clear metaphor, symbolically connected to plot and character that is also simply beautiful to behold - is design at its best. It also gets at the heart of how we as audience members should feel empowered to think and discuss design. There isn’t a secret to interpretation or some code that requires advanced study to crack. The elements are all there on stage, waiting for us to connect them in ways that make personal meaning for each of us and enhance the theatrical experience.

Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan, and Keira Knightley in Thérèse Raquin. Annie Funke and Jake Gyllenhaal in "If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet. Photos by Joan Marcus.

Want to reach out to James? Contact him at  jamesm@roundabouttheatre.org