So splendid are the visual surprises in Bartlett Sher’s production of Camelot that I cannot, in good conscience, reveal all the secrets Michael Yeargan, in a recent conversation, shared with me about how those surprises are achieved. But I can say that, like Aaron Sorkin’s new book for the show, they are low on flights of magic and high on feats of construction.
Sher and Yeargan have the shorthand familiar to longtime collaborators – including, for LCT, on South Pacific, The King and I, My Fair Lady, and Oslo. Shorthand does not mean shortcuts, however. “Bart and I began talking about Camelot at least two years ago,” Yeargan said, “and the set design went through several versions. I began by doing some drawings based on the script, and we went from there.”
As the design evolved, Sher said he wanted it sparer. “He commented that we didn’t need buckets of drapery and loads of furniture,” Yeargan said. “He wanted for the most part to retain the full majesty of the Beaumont’s vast stage and to give an epic feel, almost of a Shakespeare play.”
Virtually the entire expanse of the Beaumont stage is covered in a wood floor. But it isn’t actually wood, Yeargan explained. “It’s a painted material that is almost like Masonite.”
To accommodate the design, the Beaumont stage was lifted between two to three feet and raked. This allowed for a bit more of an orchestra pit, which is somewhat exposed to the audience. “One of the effects of this raising,” Yeargan said, “was on the acoustics. The show is hardly miked, which gives a wonderful, almost old-fashioned feel.” He added that raking tends to make the world of a production feel closer to an audience.
In addition to the flooring and the raking, Yeargan and I discussed the set’s giant arches. “For those I was inspired by a space in London – the Battersea Arts Centre. It’s a former Victorian Town Hall that had been practically burned out. When it was restored its wonderful arches were exposed.” Yeargan added: “Arches give the Camelot set an almost timeless quality that can evoke many scenes and moods, depending on the lighting and the projections.”
Early on in the creative process, Yeargan contemplated a design in which some of the elements conjured by those projections were more literal. “I think I must have consulted almost every book there is on castles,” he said. “But going that direction felt a little too Game of Thrones. And we also had to be careful that the production not look and feel too much like Spamalot.”
Not that Yeargan wanted the production to lack merriment. “The actors are skilled at comic delivery and Aaron’s script provides plenty of opportunities for wry humor.” Yeargan’s own initial contact with Camelot and its joys came during his childhood in Dallas. “It was one of the first musicals I ever saw. It was a touring company, starring Biff McGuire and Jeannie Carson. It was pithy and English. Very Noel Coward. I can’t say that Camelot made me want to work in the theater, but it was certainly one of those experiences I had as a boy that made me feel that theater could be a lot of fun.”
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.