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BWW Interview: Tony Nominee Beowulf Boritt On Creating a River Onstage in THERESE RAQUIN

It's not easy to create a real life river on stage! But set designer Beowulf Boritt did just that and picked up a 2016 Tony Award nomination for Best Scenic Design of a Play for Thérèse Raquin in the process.

The talented set designer won the 2014 Tony Award for ACT ONE and received a Tony nomination for 2011's THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS. His many Broadway credits include ON THE TOWN, SPELLING BEE, ROCK OF AGES, CHAPLIN and BRONX BOMBERS. Yet he is perhaps best known for his work on last year's HAND TO GOD, designing a set so realistic, it prompted an audience member to sneak up on stage in an unsuccessful attempt to charge their cell phone!

Today, Boritt speaks exclusively to BWW about the challenges and triumphs of designing sets for the beautiful and haunting production of Roundabout Theatre Company's Thérèse Raquin.

Congratulations on your recent Tony nomination Beowulf!

Thank you! It was a nice surprise to get the nomination.

When it was initially suggested to you to use real water for the set of Thérèse Raquin, what went through your mind?

[laughing] Well it came up honestly at my interview for the job. [Director] Evan Cabnet and I were just chatting about, if we do this show together how might we do it, and he suggested, 'well what if there was real water,' and right away I was into it. I had done real water on stage a bunch of times and I always find it incredibly beautiful, but unfortunately it's very difficult to do, so that's the downside of it. But for a play like Thérèse Raquin, where the pivotal climactic moment of the story is a guy being thrown out of a boat into the river and drowning, it just seemed like a perfect way to do it.

This was a bit of a deviation for you as you typically tend to be more abstract than realistic in your designs.

Yes, in general I'm sort of all for not being too realistic on stage, and we did surround the water with a bunch of more abstract elements. But having the reality of the water, it was striking and it made the action in the boat and the fighting in the boat real and scary in a way that I don't think we could have achieved in any other way.

I also think there is something about the wonder of an audience not knowing how something happens. It is literally a river on stage and a character seems to disappear under the waves and then drown. There was some stage trickery in that, but it was in fact quite deep, deep enough that he could disappear under it and even from the mezzanine, you couldn't see that he was still there and not really dead.

What an accomplishment! I imagine there must have been several safety precautions that had to be taken?

Yes, the tricky side of it is that water is heavy so we had to bring in an engineer just to make sure the stage could physically support that much weight. We had to build this big pool to contain it. There was a layer of rubber and a layer of steel over that so that the rubber wouldn't get punctured, and then another layer of rubber on top of that, so there was a lot done to make sure that it couldn't leak. And then we had to have pool chemicals and all that sort of thing put in it so that the water would be safe for the actors to be in.

How did you maintain the temperature?

It was literally just a heater in it, but it was tricky. It was a huge pool and on cold days, if the door to the outside was open too much the pool would literally start steaming, you could see the water evaporating off of it! There were a couple of times that the heater had some trouble and I think poor Keira [Knightley] got dunked in the water once when it really wasn't very warm. Hopefully that didn't happen too many times.

The river really served as a metaphor for Thérèse's journey in the story.

Yes. And ultimately, of all of the fun of literal water, that was what was most exciting to me about it. My interest in design tends to be thematic, so I asked myself, how can I take the emotional journey of this play and visually represent it and support it on stage? The story of Thérèse Raquin is really about this relatively ordinary young woman who gets boxed into smaller and smaller boxes by her family and the people around her. I would say they're not really bad people, they are just kind of stupid people, so the river was really her moment of freedom.

There's a couple of scenes in the play where she is along the riverbank and it's the only time she is happy and away from her controlling family. And we did it very sparingly. It was a big, wide open stage, we opened up Studio 54 as wide as possible, so it was just this big, open space. And the world started impinging on her. So at first the family moves into an apartment, this tiny little apartment in Paris, and we had that come flying in from above in front of the audience. So suddenly this vast, open space was locked down into this tiny, little eight foot tall black apartment that almost looked like a coffin coming in around her and locking her in. And there were two tiny little windows that barely let light in, it was dark, and dank with water dripping off the walls. And a big chunk of the play plays out in this coffin-like setting. It's almost as if she is buried alive.

So that contrasts with the scenes when she is by the water.

Yes, all that adds to the relief which results in a couple of scenes when she is able to escape from that. First she takes a lover and the apartment flies away, and suddenly she is revealed floating in the lover's garrett apartment, twenty feet up in the air. And it was a tiny, little apartment with a door and a bed and skylight, and a cloudy sky all around them and literally under them, because the thing is floating in the air. And it was kind of a fairytale moment where she is happy to have escaped from her prison. So it was sort of beautiful, but at the same time bleak, everything we did in the show was bleak, but it was still beautiful. And again, I think the people in the audience didn't know how the hell we did it. So that was a great moment.

When they next go to the riverbank, they go on this boat trip and we flew in some very stylized trees with leaves sputtering down. While the audience had seen the river earlier, I think it is at this point that they first realize the water is actually deep enough for things to happen in it. So suddenly there's a rowboat in it and three people sitting in that boat rowing around the stage, and you could just feel the electricity in the audience. At the end of Act One, the boat ends up flopping around and ultimately ends up getting half way swamped in the water so it sticks up, almost like the Titanic. And Gabriel Ebert's character just disappears and seemingly has drowned in the water while Keira and Matt Ryan are swimming to shore.

How amazing!

Yeah, you can see that I still get excited when I talk about it! So again, we were trying to use physical scenery to help hit those high points of the show and emphasize them and give the audience a sort of visceral and emotional reaction that is mirroring what the lead character is going through in her story.

I read that artist Vilhelm Hammershoi inspired your vision for this set. Do paintings often serve as your inspiration or was this a unique situation?

No, not often honestly. I feel like in design school we were taught to go look at an artist as inspiration for things but I usually don't. But for some reason for this show, the sparseness of the writing and the bleakness of the story made me think of Hammershoi. And he's Danish, so that didn't really look anything like Paris in the 19th century, so from a historical and an anthropological sense, it wasn't even correct. But it felt emotionally so right that Evan and I decided to push forward with it and it led me to these very bleak, spare interiors which just felt right for the emotion of this story. I always say, I'm not a museum curator, I'm not trying to create historical reality, but I also don't want something that is so counter to reality that it takes you out of the play. Yet in this play, it was very important to get the emotional feeling right, so even though it wasn't historically accurate, it didn't bother me very much.

Can you talk a little bit about how you coordinate with the rest of the creative team, as far as costumes, lighting etc.?

Well lighting was especially important in this one. [Lighting designer] Keith Parham and I hadn't worked together before but he's a wonderful artist, and almost from the beginning we knew that this enormous backdrop in the back was going to be really important, because for a couple of scenes, that really was the set. So we carved out a bunch of lighting positions for him to hit it from all different angles and all different colors. And anything we put on that backdrop was then reflected into the water, which was really beautiful. I did a translucent canvas and we put a heavy stucco on parts of it, so that when you lit it from the front, it looked like concrete and when you lit it from the back it suddenly had this great luminous depth to it and felt like a sky going on forever. I remember my wife came to see one of the first performances, and she said, 'oh what a cool projection, who did the video?' And I told her, 'it's not video, it's just old-fashioned canvas and paint!' So it was basically a turn-of-the-century effect that we were doing and we got a lot of mileage out of that.

I had worked with [costume designer] Jane Greenwood before a couple of times and she is fantastic to work with. She took on the onus of getting the historical accuracy right, she's so good at that, and the clothes were really spot on and in some sense relieved me from the need to do too much realistic detail. But interestingly, one of things we went back and forth about a lot was the apartment, which is intentionally as small and claustrophobic as we could make it, and since we're dealing with a period where woman wore hoop skirts, we had to keep on negotiating over inches. I would say I need thirty inches in width, can you make your hoop skirts less than thirty inches! So it was great fun and she's always a great collaborator.

I was thinking that one additional benefit of using real water is that you didn't have to worry about someone sneaking up on stage to charge their cell phone!

[laughing] Yes, that is true! I feel I am eternally going to get, 'where's the outlet on this one?' But on this one, because of the period, there was no danger of that. Although we did have a little gas light fixture so I guess someone could have come up and tried to light their cigar or something! Actually, when HAND TO GOD closed, I pulled that outlet off the set and put it on a shelf in my studio. Somebody said I should wire it up to my wall and use it as a cell phone charging station.

Yes! Now that's what I would call a real conversation piece!

About Beowulf Boritt: Beowulf Boritt received a 2016 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Play for THERESE RQUIN. His other Roundabout Theatre credits include Sondheim on Sondheim, If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, ...Tom Durnin,Tin Pan Alley Rag.

Other Broadway credits include Act One (Tony Award), The Scottsboro Boys (Tony Nomination), Hand To God, On The Town, ...Spelling Bee, LoveMusik, Rock Of Ages, Chaplin, Bronx Bombers, Grace, The Two And Only.

Off-Broadway credits include 99 shows including The Last Five Years and Miss Julie. Other Designs: The Seven Deadly Sins (NY City Ballet) and The Ringling Brothers Circus. 2007 OBIE for sustained excellence.

The Broadway adaptation of THÉRÈSE RAQUIN, starring Academy and Golden Globe nominee Keira Knightley (Thérèse) in her Broadway debut, began preview performances on Oct. 1, opened officially on Broadway, Oct. 29, at Studio 54. The new adaptation was written by Helen Edmundson, based upon the novel by Émile Zola, directed by Evan Cabnet.

Knightley joined Tony award winner Gabriel Ebert (Camille), Matt Ryan (Laurent) and two-time Tony award winner Judith Light (Madame Raquin), alongside David Patrick Kelly, Jeff Still, Mary Wiseman,Glynis Bell, Alex Mickiewicz, Sara Topham, and Ray Virta in the cast.

A quiet young woman with a restless spirit, Thérèse (Knightley) submits to a loveless life at the side of her weak and selfish husband played by Tony Award winner Gabriel Ebert (Matilda), and her controlling mother-in-law, played by two-time Tony Award winner Judith Light (The Assembled Parties)...until she meets his childhood friend Laurent played by Matt Ryan ("Constantine"). When their overwhelming passion spins violently out of control, they realize that love can be a dangerous game, and sometimes there is no winner.

Photo credit: Beowulf Boritt (unless otherwise noted)

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