Dane Laffrey’s design for the Broadway’s Once On This Island is magical. From the moment you walk into the theater, the stage is covered in sand, a crashed semi-truck takes up a corner of the space, a pool of water is held back by a pile of sand bags, and a downed power line has even crushed some of the seats. Welcome to a hurricane wrecked island in the French Antilles.
Dane has built sets for Broadway productions such as Spring Awakening and Fool For Love, along with off-Broadway hits such as The Maids and Woody Harrelson’s Bullet for Adolf, as well as the upcoming production of Tennessee William’s Summer and Smoke. The Tony Awards will take place on June 10. Read my chat with Dane as he receives his first nomination:
You and Michael have a long relationship going all the way back. What did he say about Once On This Island?
One of the first conversations we had about it was about creating a new orchestration that would be heavy on the vocals. Michael’s impulse was to look at the music and what it was going to sound like. So, it ended up being the idea that this bold new orchestration was heavy on vocals and there was the idea that you could pick up this discarded something and that would be a musical instrument.
I knew the show by way of its cast recording but I had never seen it. The script itself is a little vague with the setting. It says it’s an island on the French Antilles but both the libretto and the short story tell the history of Haiti. The story of the Gods in the show comes directly from Haitian voodoo practice. I was like, “OK, if we’re talking about Haiti and this is your impulse of the sound and how it’s picked up out of nothing, I think you’re onto something.” If we’re going to contextualize it in 2017 that means something particular about the kind of world we’re in and what Haiti had been through and its relationship to the elements and natural disaster, and that was really profound. I felt that was a great launchpad that would see us through all the way.
When you walk into the theater, it’s unlike anything else because you have the audience at least in the front, sitting in sand and there’s water on the stage representing the sea, and the upturned boat. Where did the idea for elements come in?
I guess in its original life on Broadway the show was told in a folkloric way with a pictorial and lyrical sensibility to it. We wanted to move far from that because our impulses about the show felt different.
The use of sand felt inevitable. I knew during the conceiving of that and bringing that into the show there would be implications. It has proven to be such an essential part of the theater-going experience. The elements felt so critical. We wanted to bring real natural things that don’t normally exist inside a theatrical context. The idea of the immersive nature of it came from our good fortune of getting that actual theatre. It’s the space we had hoped the show would be in because it’s the only theater like that on Broadway. When we knew the show would be there, that’s when we knew we could really craft an experience there because it’s so unique.
It’s an arena where the audience and actors share the room. It doesn’t have the formal separation, almost as if we’re in a basement together. It’s a critical part of the way we told the story about it being shared, being received and it was all about being in a circle.
One of the first things we had to do was create a circle. As you know that theater only comes with seating on three sides. The section opposite the doors when you come in was just created for the show specifically so when you come in now, it’s a full circle.
Transformantions are always an interesting thing to see play out in a show. I loved Timoun’s transformation. Talk about the challenges of that moment when she transforms from human form to tree form and how that idea came about?
We really had to wrestle with the idea of as you say, a human character that we know, being transformed before our eyes into a tree. First, it was about how to logistically and visually do that, but then how to spiritually do that? How do you begin to visually realize an idea that is heightened and metaphorical?
We were stumped by it for a while and looked at a bunch of different versions. Some ideas were hyper-technical, some ideas were really simple, but we had that downed power pole from the beginning.
There’s this idea that the power line would be collapsed into the seating and the people sitting next to it would have a connection with the world of the theater and the world of the design together.
That was there. Originally, it was a power pole and I was stumped how to use that for the transformation. Whenever I’m stumped I’ll go back to the research and I was reminded that all voodoo temples have a central pole that represents man and earth and the world of the Gods. Further research led me down a path to images of where trees were being used for similar purposes when Voodoo practices were being used outside of those walls of a voodoo temple. These photos had big beautiful trees wrapped in ribbons and offerings. It felt and looked so beautiful. I thought about our tree and power pole that we had in the show. So, the idea of transforming her into a tree was a resurrection of something in the bruised, battery of the hurricane wrecked world. Once the power pole was up, it’s this beautiful totem, it’s covered in imagery that is taken from voodoo reference points. It’s also covered in photos provided by our company of people who they have loved and lost and are tied to the pole. It’s the central axis of our whole story and represents the transcendence of Timoun.
How long did it take for that whole thing to come together for you?
It was about two years. We had our first conversation a little less than two years before it opened on Broadway which in a way is fast as these things go. The stars aligned, the casting, the producers, and getting the theater. It was pretty intense once we got into the theater and installing it. With this show, I had to sit in the room every day and give it 100%. Every inch of that room was considered a part of the design equation.
Aside from the tree, what else posed challenges for you?
A lot of it surrounded the idea of trying to use real salvaged sound materials whenever possible. A good example is the truck that you see in the show. That’s an actual tractor trailer.
A lot was done to get it into the theater and reinforce it. We didn’t know how big it was going to be until we found the real thing. That truck is one of many parts of that show and the size of it affected all the other elements around it. There had to be flexibility on my part and on the part of every fabricator who worked on this to understand the value. Building that truck from scratch was never going to be as good or feel like the right thing. In order, to accomplish that, we had to wait until we found the right truck from this field in Ontario.
It was huge, and then we had to talk about the scaffolding that sits around it, the shed and the wall it crashes through. That was the main design challenge and struggle.
We learned a lot when we took six tons of sand and dumped it into the theatre. We learned how wet it needed to be. We learned how it affected the actors. We just learned a lot of stuff along the way. We didn’t know how to move the sand to reveal the rug and floor. We had an idea about how to do it and that idea failed. There was one evening when we thought we couldn’t figure it out. The next day, by noon we had something to demo to Michael and that’s what you end up seeing in the show. What we hadn’t anticipated was that the rug could lay under all that sand. In the design stage, we thought we would have to come up with a way to lay it down after the sand had been swept away, but it ended up not being the case. What we ended up getting was even better. Sometimes, you just have to be in a room with smart people who come up with these great ideas at the last minute.
You and Michael are working on Annie this Summer at the Hollywood Bowl.
We’re so excited about it and working in that space and scale of the Hollywood Bowl which is so unique. I think it’s not going to look like your old Annie. We’re excited about where it’s going right now. We’re going to capitalize on the thrilling scale of the space of the Hollywood Bowl. Most theaters are the same size so it’s exciting when you get a circle or the Bowl which is four times larger than most stages.
You’re both creating a show for people who are watching it a quarter of a mile away, but they’re also shooting it for HD. You’re figuring out how to get something to read from that distance, but also something that will look great in close up. It’s an interesting problem. It’s incredibly fast and furious with a two-week rehearsal process.