“In general, it’s just the scale,” says sound designer Drew Dalzell. He and Jeff Rack stand in the courtyard of Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery. They are lifting the curtain behind the design challenges of Unbound Productions‘ Wicked Lit 2013.
Now in its fifth year, and in its fourth year at Mountain View, Wicked Lit takes audiences in and around the grounds to experience new adaptations of classic horror literature. This year it’s presenting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The New Catacomb, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear, and a remount of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The evening begins in the courtyard with The Masque of the Red Death Experience, created from the work of Edgar Allan Poe. That’s four shows over 14 locations.
The sheer size of the site provided the designers with plenty of challenges. Dalzell, along with associate sound designer Noelle Hoffman, had to deal with getting sound to multiple locations and overcoming the highly reflective marble surfaces. Rack — set and EFX designer and one of three directors (along with Paul Millet and Doug Clayton) — had to find ways to transform spaces without permanently damaging the mausoleum. And lighting designer Ric Zimmerman, along with associate lighting designer Hilda Kane and master electricians Reggie Owens and David Patrick, struggled with an aging electrical system.
“One of the things we fight with here,” Dalzell says, is that “this building is close to a hundred years old. The electrical went in some time in the ’50s, and hasn’t been significantly upgraded since then. And a lot of it runs behind marble, so it’s not going to be upgraded. So every year it’s two more circuits don’t work.”
Zimmerman, who was reached later by phone, reveals that when he took on the job, good friends who had previously worked on Wicked Lit did their best to scare him. He says they told him, “There’s not enough power, you’ll never win, you’ll never be happy.” So, he began doing research, not just on the space, but on the equipment that might be available.
Time and again, technology was the solution. Rack says, “It allows us to do what we do. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t be able to do it as well.” As one of the directors, Rack also wanted the technical aspects to be as invisible as possible, and this year, he feels that has been accomplished better than in previous years.
Dalzell agrees that “from a design perspective, this straddles that line somewhere between theme park attraction and being a play.”
In order to accommodate audiences moving around, Dalzell installed nine different playback systems throughout the mausoleum and the grounds. Some of them are launched by iPads. Dalzell explains that in order for some cues to happen, a stage manager might be hidden and away from the playback system, so the iPad is used. “So they can be where they can see something and they are sending remote control back to another system, where it actually needs to be located to play things back.”
Looking at a false wall, representing the entrance to a catacomb, Rack explains how it stays in place for the show. “You can’t screw in anything, so it’s all tension and pressure.” The false walls also help shape the journey the audience goes on, as they’re sometimes used to disorient spectators as well as to hide crew and computers.
Zimmerman was tasked to light a show using very little available electricity. He felt it was better to go smaller. He explains, “We’re using these spaces to become places the mausoleum is decidedly not. It’s an interesting blank canvas to work with, because there’s a lot of architecture there you can emphasize or downplay.”
After finding small LEDs for haunted houses, he applied the philosophy across the design. “What can we do with a 50-watt light bulb, what can we do with a flashlight, what can we do with a 3-watt LED fixture?” Using the smaller lights allowed them to be placed anywhere and almost hidden from view. He says, “We were sticking them on the marble walls with gaff tape and museum wax.” It allowed him to put light exactly where he wanted.
And because they’re relatively inexpensive, these small lights will continue to be used in future productions, cutting costs.
Instead of adding light boards to the already taxed electrical system, Zimmerman employed software that could be used in conjunction with QLab, designed to run sound on a computer. He says, “I’m a big proponent of open sourced software.” LX Console, designed by a programmer in France, integrates with QLab, allowing one system to run the whole thing.
Design, of course, isn’t just about solving technical issues — it’s about telling the story.
For Wicked Lit, Dalzell builds things with a unified palette, but looks at each show’s individual demands. For example, Dalzell was pulled into The Lurking Fear by its unique atmosphere. He explains, “What’s this impending threat? What’s always just outside the walls? What’s that sound that my brain is saying can’t be real?” He wanted to place the audience inside that uncertain, nervous atmosphere that Lovecraft is so well known for.
And then there’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, “It’s lyrical and funny. You want to capture that. Even the sound design has jokes in it.”
Rack, who directed it, adds, “It’s theater of the mind, so sound really supports it.”
Going up to the mausoleum’s cloister garden, Rack shows off the large altar he has built for The Lurking Fear. It’s intimidating. And weird. To say more might drive you mad. About his process, he says, “I take each story as a separate piece and design it for what its needs are. You want it to have a unifying quality and level of production value.”
When Zimmerman is creating a design, he imagines himself walking through the space, visualizing the defining parameters. “If I’m in a room and there are four walls, and something is going to happen…” He asks himself what he can do to re-create that sense of space for the actors and the audience to inhabit.
In the case of Wicked Lit, he wanted the light to be taken for granted. He wanted the worlds of the evening to make sense, so the audience isn’t distracted by the lighting.
And for The New Catacomb, he basically removed all lighting. Except for one scene, most of it is done with the lantern carried by one of the main characters. He says, “I had a very elaborate back-up plan, but I really did just want them to use the lantern.”
Zimmerman was also happy to have something he doesn’t get very often — a true blackout. “You go to the theater now and a blackout is never a blackout. You have exit signs, and aisle lights, people with their cell phones.”
He continues, “People should feel slightly uncertain about their ability to see what they are seeing, because it adds immensely to the drama and it also leaves a lot to the imagination. Not doing too much was the right amount to do.”
Wicked Lit is a different sort of theatrical experience. And one that requires preparation on the part of the design team to make the experience flow easily for the audience. Rack says, “We hope they walk away saying, ‘I’ll never forget that, how did they do that? Wasn’t that cool?’” He often finds that people disagree about the actual experience. He explains, “One thing about doing a show like this is that not everybody is seeing the same thing. Because you’re in different locations, you’re seeing it from different perspectives.”
Wicked Lit, Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery, 2300 N. Marengo Ave. (do not enter from Fair Oaks), Altadena 91001. Thu-Sun 7:30 pm (plus Wed. Oct 30). Through Nov. 2. Tickets: $30-65. wickedlit.org. 323-332-2065.