A post about...turntables?

That's right. Turntables. They seem to be all the fad these days. While I'm no expert when it comes to scenic design, seeing an incredible volume of theater has inevitably begun to open my eyes to what works on stage and what doesn't, to what helps move the storytelling along in a production and what distracts from it.

Recently, I was fascinated by the use of turntables to stage the new Broadway play Grace. The entire set is built on two enormous, concentric platforms that encompass almost the entire floor of the stage; the narrow, outer turntable holds a door and a window, and the larger, inner turntable holds all the furniture and living space inside the characters' condo.

In the play, a couple played by Kate Arrington and Paul Rudd live in a condo next door to Michael Shannon's character. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt's genius lies in his decision to create only a single apartment on stage, so that Sara and Steve can be walking around their condo, and Sam can be sitting at his kitchen table, and all three actors are onstage at the same time, in their own condos, but the two sets of characters don't interact with each other. I've seen plays that use turntables to create smooth set changes between scenes, but during Grace, the platforms rotated throughout the production, in opposite directions, so slowly that I could only notice the movement if I stopped focusing on it for a few minutes and then looked back at a particular set piece.

The staging combined perfectly with the slow burn of the play's plot, which builds to a climactic finale that the audience has already seen (it's also the first scene in the show) by the time it comes around again in correct chronological order. A set in such slow, slow motion allows the audience the illusion of imagining themselves looking into the condo(s) from a variety of different viewpoints and angles, just as Craig Wright's text gives us grounds to step into each character's shoes and varying beliefs throughout the play. It also creates a parallel to the text itself; as characters who believe in God process experiences and situations that cause them to slip over to the side of the non-believers, and vice versa, the slow-moving set reinforces the shifting platforms of the characters themselves.

There's also a single fan hanging from the ceiling at the center of the stage, spinning lazily around, which adds to the circular motion and feeling of the scenes playing out onstage, several of which are performed forwards, then backwards, then forwards again.

In other plays - Manhattan Theatre Club's An Enemy of the People, designed by John Lee Beatty, and Playwrights Horizons' Detroit, designed by Louisa Thompson, come to mind - turntables are used for a more practical purpose. While scene changes can be made smoothly with the use of tracks and/or stealthy stagehands, I've found more often than not that turntables provide the least distracting way to transport the audience from one setting to the next without removing them completely from the context of the play, even with the use of blackouts. I will never forget seeing Leap of Faith, for, among other reasons, the incredibly distracting use of "ensemble members," i.e. stagehands in disguise, to erect the giant revival tent upstage while another scene took place downstage. (No offense intended to those hardworking stagehands, of course.) Turntables allow complete, ornate, and detailed sets to be permanently constructed and moved on- and off-stage with the least amount of commotion possible. What's not to like? If Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? contained an additional scene in Honey and Nick's living room, the current Broadway production, designed with an appropriate, enormous amount of clutter by Todd Rosenthal, would be well advised to utilize a turntable in order to maintain the carefully placed stacks of books, newspapers, and drinking glasses scattered around George and Martha's house. In my limited experience, there's no other way to achieve the same "lived-in" feel of a home on stage when props and set pieces are constantly on the move.

An Enemy of the People 
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Still other plays take place entirely in one room, or ask the audience to imagine a shift in location with the use of just a prop or two, and the scenic designer still manages to keep things interesting. Mr. Boritt's staging of If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet at Roundabout begins with a pile of furniture and possessions in the middle of the stage that's gradually disassembled by the characters and eventually ends up in a trough of water at the edge of the stage, mimicking the characters' emotional unraveling and disconnect from each other. Adam Rapp's Through the Yellow Hour, running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, is set in a post-apocalyptic New York City apartment constructed so convincingly by Andromache Chalfant that my friend and I debated whether the holes in the ceiling of the theater were real or not upon taking our seats. And the naturalistic, humble, middle-class feel of the home created by John C. Stark for Falling at the Minetta Lane Theatre, combined with the design of the space itself - orchestra seats come close to surrounding two sides of the cornered stage - made it easy to imagine that I was sitting on a couch on the other side of the family's living room, observing their daily struggles with raising an autistic son. While huge, flashy sets add to the glamour of going to the theater with the right show, a set that serves its story so purely that it fades into the background can be the greatest design success of all.

If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet 
Through The Yellow Hour