Three Trucks, 28 Crew Members, 37 Performers: Einstein on the Beach Load-in at the Power Center
Photo: A moment on the train from Einstein on the Beach.
Inside the Power Center 14 days before the opening of Einstein on the Beach, it’s not immediately clear that this is, “hands down, the biggest show ever” to hit this auditorium, as UMS programming manager Mark Jacobson told me shortly before we entered the theater. But after an hour or so of listening to production manager Will Knapp talk about the challenges of mounting the giant opera here in Ann Arbor, I began to see what Jacobson meant.
Knapp met with around 30 UM stage management and design students on Friday in the first class of a semester-long course on stage production taught by Gary Decker of the UM School of Music, Theatre & Dance and other faculty. Collectively, the students brought a decent amount of expertise to the session, so there was lots of technical talk about things like trap doors, cyclorama lights, tracks, cues, headsets, and so on.
(“Is it hard to focus when you’re calling a show that’s five hours long?” one student wanted to know. “It kind of is,” Knapp said, and mentioned that, among other things, the opera’s three stage managers have to coordinate toilet breaks.)
Decker, who teaches theater production classes, told the students that scenery for the show arrived in Ann Arbor in two 53-foot trailers on the day after Christmas and had to be “shoehorned” into the Power Center—whose stage area is small as opera houses go—with “literally inches to spare.” It’s taken some 40 crew members, both local and touring, to load in Einstein’s sets, costumes, and props, and hang and focus lights. The lighting for the cyclorama alone is so complex crews need to devote an entire day to installing it.
The cast, who spent all of December rehearsing Einstein, arrived this Sunday, January 8. Final rehearsals start today, with mornings devoted to technical issues—setting light and sound levels, timing cues, perfecting scene shifts—and afternoons and evenings to a rigorous runthrough of the opera, in full makeup and costumes, under director Robert Wilson’s exacting eye.
An Auteur at Work
Knapp has worked with Wilson off and on for two decades and describes him as more of an auteur than a conventionally collaborative stage director. “It’s all him. Everybody is a helper. You really are an extension of his fingers.” An architect before he turned to theater, Wilson typically begins work on a production by sitting with an empty stage, Knapp said. “He treats it like an empty canvas. He creates pictures and then tries to animate them. He’s not trying to reinforce a narrative but to make interesting pictures for himself. This is the start of his process.”
Wilson makes sketches on copy paper, often in charcoal. It’s a rudimentary way of communicating with his production team “but also very specific,” Knapp went on, with particular attention to spatial rhythm and proportion. Eventually real drawings emerge, and then a model—components of which Knapp hauled from boxes on Friday and spread out on a table for the students to inspect: a meticulously built miniature clock, a train, a multi-story gray space machine.
Knapp also showed the students the 130-page “project book” he and others use to make sure each production of Einstein adheres to Wilson’s fastidious vision. The book includes directions on things like the angle with which a given character should gaze at the floor and the precise distance a character should maintain between her right arm and the back of the chair on which she’s sitting.
“Bob doesn’t collaborate,” Knapp said. “He is the author, the costume, light, set designer. The best way to work with someone like him is to listen really hard and do exactly what he says.”
The payoff should be apparent on January 20, when Einstein opens its three-preview-performance run in Ann Arbor, the kick-off to a 30-performance tour that will take the massive opera to France, Italy, London, the Netherlands, Toronto, New York, and possibly Hong Kong.
What might Wilson demand once he gets to the Power Center this week? The first thing Knapp expects this acknowledged wizard of light to do is to examine every single light in the theater—there are hundreds of them, plus a whopping 3,000 light bulbs spattered across the surface of the towering space machine. Knapp suspects Wilson will also ask for at least one drop to be repainted.
Says Decker, who’s seen a number of Wilson pieces, “I’m looking forward to Robert Wilson.” He adds with a grin, “But it’s going to be tough sledding to get to opening night.”