The term “spoiler alert” in a review applies customarily to details involving the plot. Sometimes, I wish it also involved the set. When critics lavish description on the design of a production, I feel as if there is little left for me, in visual terms, to discover once I get to the performance.
My feelings in this area were activated the other day when I entered the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, where the cast, creatives, and crew of The Royale were beginning their first day of technical rehearsals. This is the week in which a play moves from the rehearsal room to the arena itself. The process of a play suddenly mirrors the process of a movie: short bursts of acting followed by long pauses in which the sound and lighting cues are adjusted endlessly.
That first day, however, any such work was in the future: my pleasure in the set, which is built of pine-like wood, was too grand. To find out more about how this wonder came about, a few days later I slid down beside Nick Vaughan, the set designer of The Royale, for a chat. He said that among his inspirations for the set were "images from the period” – 1905 to 1910 – “that felt useful.”
“It was important,” Vaughan explained, “to make something that held the whole story together and that was not over-literal.” He added: “The main character is not the actual Jack Johnson, so I thought it was important to have the references abstracted somewhat.”
The set design uses banners that extend from the playing area to the walls of the Newhouse’s audience area. These banners, Vaughan said, “use the font and layout from tickets to one of Johnson’s fights.” But, he added, the banners’ silhouettes are not of Johnson.
Vaughan, who is making his LCT debut and whose bio includes several opera productions, also designed a separate production of The Royale that was presented at The Old Globe, in San Diego, in 2014. “The guts and the texture of this new production are the same as in San Diego,” Vaughan said. “In going from the in-the-round configuration in San Diego to the thrust stage here we were able to ground a back wall. This allows us to heighten the immersive quality of the production.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.