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La Jolla Play More Hectic Than a 3-Ring Circus Members of Production Crew, Actors Kept Busy During Staging of '80 Days'

September 08, 1988|CATHERINE M. SPEARNAK

LA JOLLA — Phileas Fogg's formidable task of circumnavigating the globe in "80 Days" at the La Jolla Playhouse seems like a jog around the block contrasted with the rigors encountered by the show's backstage crew.

During the 2 1/2-hour show, 30 stage hands execute 31 scene changes, 400 costumes changes and 350 lighting cues. They move 135 pieces of scenery and help 24 actors change as many as 16 times each, creating a total of 275 characters.

And that's not all, folks.

Major scenery shifts occur four times during the play. All the scenery backstage must be carried to a loading dock outside and new scenery moved inside--50 pieces for Act I and 85 pieces for Act II. A 13-member running crew does the grunt work. Dressed in black so they won't be seen, the workers create a quiet chaos in the wings as they ready scenery and actors for viewing.

Stage manager Steven Adler is willing to reveal many of the show's tricks.

Capt. Nemo, the hero of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," rises from the deep on an unseen elevator in the orchestra pit and through a hole in the stage. Mrs. Fix instantly becomes Queen Victoria with the help of four dressers who fasten her into a Velcro-laced frock.

And the wind in the sails of the ice clipper that carries Fogg and his cohorts across the Great Plains is created by a small generator atop its mast. One of the actors has to plug it into an outlet in the stage floor after the tall, wooden ship stops on stage.

But no one on the playhouse staff will reveal the workings behind "80 Days" most ingenious set trick--Verne's rolling typewriter. It follows him throughout the show, a constant and unwelcomed reminder that Verne has only 80 days to write his book. The typewriter often steals the show, earning abundant applause as it rolls around the stage by itself.

The lifelike typewriter is set designer Douglas Schmidt's proudest prop in a set with much to be proud of.

"Even my theater friends haven't figured out how it works," said the designer, smiling.

Schmidt said his biggest problem was trying to make the show's many large set pieces fit in the relatively small space offered on stage. He wanted to achieve a big visual effect while keeping the set easy to use.

"We thought the final production was quite an achievement, not just for the La Jolla Playhouse, but for any theater," said Schmidt, who designed the Broadway sets for "Grease" and "They're Playing Our Song." The "80 Days" production is his first for the playhouse.

Despite the backstage traffic jam of people, props and scenery, the turmoil can't be seen or heard in the 492-seat theater. Music disguises the sound of casters rolling across wooden slats, stage hands chattering over microphones and crew members lowering scenery on squeaky pulleys.

From a plexiglass control booth behind the audience, Adler runs the show. He cues light and sound technicians, as well as the running crew, through a headset microphone which he and all stage hands wear. Every movement the audience sees or doesn't see is Adler's responsibility.

"I've always thought that managing a big show like this is akin to being in charge of Mission Control during a launch of the space shuttle," said Adler, who heads UC San Diego's graduate theater program during the school year.

The backstage version of "80 Days" rivals the show seen by the audience. Like the British farce "Noises Off," in which viewers are privy to happenings on both sides of the curtain, observers backstage at "80 Days" gain a new appreciation for what goes into the nightly creation of theater.

Actors run around half naked while changing costumes. Young stage hands boogie to British rocker Ray Davies' show tunes while waiting for the next scenery shift. Assistant stage manager Susan Slagle walks like an Egyptian behind a pyramid prop carried by two crew members.

Most of the scenery and actors in "80 Days" glide across stage on one of two mechanical treadmills installed in the floor. Originally built for the Broadway production of "Annie," the treadmills give the audience a sense that the characters are traveling across land and sea.

When Fogg crosses the Alps, Inspector Fix follows him on snowshoes, tramping across the treadmill as if he were walking across a snowy trail. The pink velvet chairs that belong to members of London's Reform Club who have bet 20,000 pounds that Fogg won't complete his 80-day journey, roll out on the wooden treadmills regularly throughout the musical.

The set also features a movable platform or "slip stage" that rides on top of the main stage. It carries large pieces of scenery upstage and downstage on mechanized cables. Thirty feet above the stage floor, two shirtless and sweaty stage hands wearing thick leather gloves pull 28 set pieces from the theater's rafters, or "fly space"--so-called because scenery literally flies off the floor and into the 65-feet of space above the stage.

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