The Ontario Science Centre was already chosen as the site for the Toronto production of RA. Negotiations between Murray, Comus Music Theatre and the Science Centre directors were mostly complete and the limits of our access to the space defined. Having familiarized ourselves with the script, a team consisting mainly of Murray, Thom (Sokoloski - stage director), Sallie (Lyons - choreographer), Diana and myself along with various others at various times, did a number of walk-throughs of the space to determine the best approach to take each with our own concerns but the nature of the collaboration at that time allowed for a lot of overlap and cross influence.
The work (link to a brief description) requires a large number of different locations - some large some small, some indoor some out - and they had to be tied together in such a way as to allow flow from one to the other.
The first walkthru was May 9 1982. As the production was planned for May '83, it was very important to be there at the same time of year in order to see what the light and weather conditions were like and, most importantly for RA, what time did the sun set and where.
Our job as designers required that we observe from the perspective of the audience and what they would see from the time they arrive - including the transition from 1983 automobiles and public transport to ancient Egypt. The parking lot being a given, we then walked around the exterior of the Science Centre to determine how the introductory editing units might be staged.
The first thing we noticed was a grassy area facing the ravine parkland to the west with a minimum of distraction. The opening involves a procession of mourners carrying the recently deceased king. As well, a connection was to be made with the dying sun. We noticed a railway trestle bridge over the ravine about where the sun was setting and felt that a silhouette of RA (in his chariot/boat) moving across the trestle might be an interesting image.
As we continued around the north side of the building we were excited by both the architecture of the Science Centre and the adjoining landscape as appropriate settings for scenes. We checked access to roof, ledges balconies and stairs for positioning musicians and singers. We noted the timing from the score and checked the light as we proceeded, noting the need for torches as the natural light faded. [It was our intention to use electric instruments only where absolutely necessary for an effect...torches and candles were the preferred mode of illumination for the work].
The first 9 units, from 7:30 p.m. to 9:45 are outside and consist of an introduction and orientation - the framework for the piece is explained in one scene by a priest interpreting the hieroglyphic panels mounted on one wall. The images of some of the gods associated with RA are revealed - and we chose to do this in the ravine as the audience looked down from the path, chanting as they had been taught - and finally the birth of RA in his form as the ram-headed god. The audience must be distracted less and less by the encroachment of the twentieth century if we are not to lose them. At the end of the initiation, they are given the option of continuing or turning back...and we follow the procession of mourners with the sarcophagus of the dead king into the interior of the Science Centre.
So far the Science Centre is turning out to be very accommodating space. The small door leading inside opens into a large hall where we can divide the audience into groups for the preparation ceremonies. This is where we encounter the biggest problem we will continue to confront here. The modern world, in fact the cutting edge of the technological modern world suddenly intrudes on our ancient Egyptian reverie. Throughout the building, we will be faced with obtrusive signage, displays, exit lights etc. Thus begins a long process of working with the Science Centre technical staff to arrange to have lights turned off, machines shut down...as much as possible.
Given 32 different locations, there is no way we can build scenery or masking to conceal anything we donít want the audience to see. Even if we didnít have to return the Science Centre to public use every day. So we do the best we can; we use candles and very dim lighting wherever possible, we direct audience attention toward areas of activity that we have chosen to focus on and we avoid the areas of the building that are the most distracting. For the most part and for obvious reasons we have chosen to use the hallways and lobby areas rather than the display halls for the vast majority of the performance.
But there is another very important set of notes that we make as we proceed and that is the requirements of the offstage cast, crew and stage management. Paths beside and around the audience route must be established because what we will in fact be doing is working ahead of the audience to prepare locations before they arrive and run along after they pass to strike the props, candles and other evidence of our passing. Although this element warrants a separate essay, the lighting crew [Chris Clifford, Christopher Gerrard-Pinker and Veronica Staedler] for a number of reasons not the least of which were financial were obliged to leap-frog a very limited set of lighting instruments, cables and dimmers from one location to the next virtually non-stop for the entirety of each ten-hour night. Also our candlemaster would have to set out candles and light them for the coming scenes then scurry to collect the previous array for redeployment.
The acoustics of each area would be tested by clapping, chanting yelling or stomping our feet as we proceeded and many choices of location were determined by the appropriateness of the sound quality. Steps or elevator? Well, steps of course. But from time to time an opportunity for a theatrical effect revealed itself. After the preparation, the audience must literally descend into the underworld where they would be met by the jackal-headed god Anubis (who was to be their guide of sorts). There was a long flight of steps from the hall to the corridors below which we were able to decorate and light sufficiently dimly to be appropriately atmospheric without being too dangerous. But in the open area at the base of the stairs was a freight elevator the doors of which opened vertically from the Centre. We were able to arrange for the audience to gather in this dimly area after their descent and wait, quietly humming a three-note mantra until all were assembled at which point the elevator doors opened with a roar and the jackal god emerged from fog and backlight crying, ěI am Anubis, Guardian of the Dead in the Kingdom of Osirisî and ready to lead the audience of initiates into the Corridor of the Dead.
I recall a willingness to adapt the script slightly and to perhaps change the order of events and the timing to some extent to adapt to the configuration of the site but for the most part, the Science Centre provided us with a very convenient set of routes and these changes were not necessary (at least not to the same extent as two years later in Holland) [link to RA 1985] .
We found an area where we could lay out pallets for the audience members to sleep on (only long enough to allow them to drift off before being gently reawakened to a state of further disorientation and an aria by Maureen Forrester and percussionist John Wyre).
We erected a tent in the courtyard that served double duty as a venue for the Egyptian feast (about halfway through the night) and daytime storage for props and equipment.
The final ascent to the Great Hall for the climactic scene was particularly gruelling for most audience members - not to mention cast and crew - but part of the reason for doing this work in this way is to give the audience an all-encompassing physical experience. We did have to think very carefully about audience needs and comfort throughout and the difficult physical aspects of the piece were carefully considered. Rest room breaks had to be chosen with care and placed at points in the performance where the brief distraction of modern facilities would not detract too much from the flow of the work.
The last scene consists of the audience gathering in the courtyard, turning in their robes and headdresses and, facing east where the morning sun is just beginning to light up the sky, watch as a giant scarab pushing a disk slowly crawls up the east tower.
Part two: RA in Holland
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