Frames and Spaces
For a production of Germany’s most-staged drama at the Volksbühne in Berlin, a stage set was created that stood out not only for being ingeniously tailored to the protagonist in terms of thematic content but also for working within the theatre’s tight schedule and budget. Below, the stage designer and the engineer heading the project describe the concept, the preparations and how it was all brought to life in the end.
While preparing the concept for the stage set, I re-read a text on Lulu in Silvia Bovenschen’s book “Die imaginierte Weiblichkeit” (The Imagined Femininity), which was a major influence on our concept and the inspiration for the stage set.
All the focus on and images of the figure of Lulu – the things people attribute to her and that she herself plays with, that she takes to extremes or refuses to go along with, and that she assumes and shrugs off – I tried to visualize that in (projection) frames. The action takes place in and against a system of empty frames that can be combined and slotted into one another to create visible surfaces of various sizes, which serve as video screens. When completely level, the frames make up one surface – with no space for bodies anymore. By adjusting the position of the frames, the performance area, and the distance to the stage floor, can be enlarged or reduced.
At the beginning of the Volksbühne’s production, the actress Lilith Stangenberg quotes a scene from the 1988 Zadek production at Hamburg’s Schauspielhaus, where Lulu falls down the stairs. At that point, the floor surfaces move into a stair-formation. Visual quotes like that, pictures which the characters inhabit and with which they establish a certain connection, also play a major role in the video projection by Meika Dresenkamp.
The rehearsal process was very open and shaped by joint efforts to find solutions. I suggested a system of nesting trucks as a way of putting ideas into practice in the stage space. It was very helpful that the system was so flexible; we could put the trucks in a wide range of positions and so come up with tiered stages, spaces and steps of various sizes. The system could be constantly shifting, which is how the basic idea of the constantly changing perspective really crystallized for me.
The actors also performed on a revolving highchair and a trap door with a mobile platform. Both created focuses and changes of perspective on the stage itself: The actors used them to step back from the action and look in the frames from a position that was external but still on stage. In addition, we had various possibilities for filling the surface within the frames.
Technology and realization
In February 2019 Barbara Ehnes presented her stage design for the Lulu production to the technical departments. Her model featured five mobile, nesting module-spaces. They were planned to range in size from 4.6 x 2.8 x 2m to 9 x 7 x 2m and be able to slide out telescopically towards the auditorium and backstage. In addition, the entire construct was to be rotatable by 180° using the revolving stage. Plus, it envisaged several suspended screens dropping from the stagehouse grid into the spaces. Two of them would produce a moiré effect. Images would be projected on the fronts of the spaces.
Thinking about how to realize the designs, it became clear that we would need to use our existing stage machinery and controls to drive the moving spaces. Anything else would be way beyond our scope, both timewise and budget-wise. Also, the components were standardized to take some pressure off the workshops.
To ensure the individual spaces could be moved as freely as possible we needed to find a truck solution that was simple, quiet and safe.
Every space consists of a wagon and the module standing on it. The wagons were made of steel and encased with wood. The modules are pure wood constructions, which meant less to do for the metal workshop. The spaces move along tracks that keep them aligned. To ensure they don’t tip over when extended, stabilizers were mounted in the backs. These arms not only act as counterbalances, they are also long enough to prevent the spaces traversing beyond the maximum point and so overloading the stage floor. When reversing, the stabilizers provide extra support, allowing the spaces to also move backwards telescopically. The wagons are driven by the point hoists in the upper machinery. They need to be unhooked by the machinists before any rotations with the revolving stage are activated.
Trucks and drives
To avoid overburdening the metal workshop, we decided to assemble the frames from simple standard profiles. An unusual choice in this case was the use of IPE profiles.
The lowest wagon, which is also the largest, does not move during the production. It is only moved for transportation to the storage area. The truck under this wagon is equipped with 32 Turtle casters. There are so many to ensure equal load distribution even in critical load conditions and so prevent the stage floor from being overloaded. In the middle of each wagon is a track above and two steel flanged rollers below. They ensure that the wagons hold each other on track. The remaining rollers are fixed casters.
The casing and covering on the wagons were done with white-painted BFU 100 panels. The four inner wagons are driven by asynchronously moving point hoists. Each wagon is connected to the upper machinery by two point-hoists. One drives the forward motion, the other the backwards motion.
To deflect the ropes to the wagons we built roller blocks and fixed them to the stage floor. The wagons are positioned using the point-hoist controls.
Installing the technical facilities for this production was tricky. There was no test installation even for the most important elements. Adjustments to the complex construction could only be done on the stage.
The next day, once the stabilizers and the tracks were mounted, we could try moving the wagons for the first time. It turned out that the guide rollers were not firm enough; the wagons were sliding off the tracks. This was because of the low torsional resistance of the IPE beams. For security reasons, then, the wagons could only be moved by hand during the first rehearsal.
The workshop built new guide rollers, suspended on a crosspiece. This was then screwed on to the bottom of the IPE beam to transform torsional moments into push and pull forces.
While fitting the new guide rollers, we discovered that four sets of wheels had been wrongly installed. The parts just fitted everywhere! Now it was up to the stage technicians to draw on their experience to find a solution. To be able to demount a set of wheels, the load had to be taken off the wagon above and the wheelset in question. With a lot of creativity and know-how, the stage technicians managed to re-install the wheels without taking the wagon completely apart. Throughout the ups and downs, everyone, including the artistic team, stayed calm. The directors and actors were working under extreme time pressure. But this demanding preparatory and construction phase eventually culminated in a successful premiere with great acting in an extraordinary stage set.