Artistic Director, and Gospel Director, Dave Steakley first approached me about designing Gospel late last summer. For us, the show is about “coming home.” Oedipus is at the end of a long and tragic life and is looking for rest. The ZACH has a history with the show, having first performed it eighteen years ago. With the Topfer Theatre as the ZACH’s new home, the show itself is coming home. When we sat down for our first design meeting, neither of us knew what the show would “look like,” but we knew what it “felt like.” The soaring score of evangelical pentecostal gospel music in the show and the “meeting tent” outside of the theatre inspired us to look for a logical place where the show could happen. In fact, we found a stunning photograph by an Austin photographer of an abandoned revival tent and a stormy sky. It seemed to make perfect sense, and to our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has taken this approach to the show. It seems like a perfect fit to us.
We wanted the show to feel “at home” in the venue itself and within the city of Austin. The curvature of the set and the chorus risers reflect the audience seating, as do the lanterns strung over the stage and the audience, inviting the audience to feel as if they are seated within the tent throughout the show. Upstage of everything is a sweeping Texas sky that can be sublimely beautiful or haunting and dangerous when painted with Michelle Habeck’s glorious lighting.
I always create a scenic model of the set. This allows everyone to make sure the space is going to look the way we are all visualizing it before beginning actual construction and painting. The model is also a valuable tool for the Director and Choreographer, the brilliant Christa Oliver, to “pre-stage” the show before rehearsals begin. The carpenters and painters then use the model as a guide, along with technical drafting to construct everything onstage. For this show, we have been immeasurably helped by Production Manager Paul Flint and Technical Director Alexis Tucker; they have figured out a complicated rigging system to allow the fabric walls of the tent to “dissolve” before our eyes. Aaron Bell has lovingly carved dozens of limestone boulders and carved an entire hillside for our choir.
We have worked to keep the set in a subdued world of color, allowing the costumes to “pop.” For me, it is always important that the audience be able to follow the narrative of the story, and being able to focus on the actors always helps this. The structure of Gospel created two Ismenes and two Antigones, using a convention of ancient Greek drama. We have our two Singers in dresses and our two Evangelists in church suits and church hats, or “crowns.” The Antigones are in matching yellow and the Isemenes in blue. (Color also plays a part in the resurrection theme running throughout the show, but I don’t want to give away the surprise!) We have nearly fifty people onstage, including the band and choir, and they are all costumed. Blair Hurry is our Costume Shop Manager and has worked tirelessly to coordinate ordering hundreds of costume elements and helped fit our cast so they all look their very best. We have even worked with Sound Designer Craig Brock to build cordless body microphones into the ladies’ hats, a first for ZACH!
At the end of the day, we are a community of skilled artists and craftspeople working together to create a living, breathing community onstage. This show, maybe more that others, asks us to invite the audience to be part of that community. I, for one, am very excited to be part of it!