Synetic Theater’s Unforgettable Watery Worlds
In 2013, Arlington-based Synetic Theater took their signature cinematic style to a new level when they flooded the stage with water for a production of The Tempest.
The physical theater company, well known for their wordless productions of Shakespeare plays, had previously created a water stage for their 2010 production of King Arthur. Known for their creative use of mixed media, Synetic Theater utilized the water to add an extra layer of magical realism to that production.
The Tempest was to be the 9th installment of Synetic’s popular Wordless Shakespeare series and Founding Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili was inspired to use a water stage by the way in which water is closely tied to the plot.
“The exiled Prospero is sent to an island, surrounded and inundated by water,” Tsikurshvili said. “His power and magic grows from it, and even the inciting action is created by water when Prospero uses a storm to bring his enemies to him.”
Water is a versatile theatrical element, conveying a variety of emotions and feelings. It can be at once dramatic, comical, magical, and lyrical. Additionally, the hypnotic combination of water and physical theater captivated audiences’ imaginations in a totally new way.
Once Tsikurishvili decided on the watery world his Tempest would be set in, he tapped Synetic’s Resident Stage Manager Marley Giggey and Technical Director Phil Charlwood to figure out the logistics of getting water into a pool onstage. “It was the strangest combination of terror and excitement I have ever experienced,” Giggey said of her first meeting about working on a water stage.
Technical Director Phil Charlwood had worked on King Arthur three years prior, and this time he strove to improve circumstances for the actors. The biggest challenge was keeping the water at a comfortable temperature. By using large heaters, Charlwood was able to keep the water warm during performances.
Charlwood also used his innovative design and building techniques to create one of the most compelling elements of the production, a piano fountain that served as an important piece of the set.
Filling the pools and keeping the water clean and safe fell to Giggey. "The water came from several hoses running from two sinks in the laundry room backstage and in the lobby,” she said. “The drain was a series of PVC pipes that connected together and went to a hose. We would bring out all the pipes and connect them - going out the loading dock door and leading to a floor drain in the parking garage that could accommodate all that water! Before each performance I would do a half drain and fill.
“We would drain about half of the pool and then fill it back up to show levels with hot water. On Fridays and Sundays we did a total drain of the pool and a very through scrub and clean. Then we let it dry for at least 12 hours before refilling. It was a time consuming process, but keeping the pool safe and clean was key.”
Once the water was on stage, Giggey was faced with more challenges. The stage lights made it difficult for the actors to consistently see the spike marks. This problem was solved with a grid system that allowed the actors to line themselves up with the left and downstage points.
The actors movement in the pool created a lot of splashing into the audience. Synetic offered branded ponchos to patrons in this “splash zone” and those seats became the most popular for the production.
Lighting designer Andrew Griffin enjoyed working with water and overcoming the challenge the water gave him in designing a light plot for the show.
“The light would reflect and refract because the water floor was reminiscent of a mirror,” he said. Griffin used several low-angled sidelights to exploit the angles of light that would scrape across the floor, rendering less of a reflected impact on the architecture of the space. This effect made it seem as though the water was dancing along with the characters. "Through a lot of careful planning, we created some pretty great effects,” said Griffin.
When working with water, there was also the question of mold and mildew - particularly concerning costumes. The costumes were all treated with camp spray to help waterproof them. "Cleaning the costumes was very tricky,” Giggey said. “They had to be thoroughly washed so we turned the back room of the theater into a ‘dry room’ with fans blowing from all directions and drip buckets to catch all the water. The last thing any actor wanted was to put on damp costumes or shoes when they came in the next day.”
Working with water required Synetic’s creative team to master a free-flowing element that is not easy to control consistently. Synetic was able to overcome many obstacles and use the water to their advantage with the help of various theatrical elements, all while taking the necessary steps to protect their performers.
The hours of maintenance required to keep the pool clean and functional and the additional challenges of working with water in a theatrical setting paid off. “It was a moment that was so immersive and dramatic that it was difficult to believe it was happening live in front of you,” Giggey said. "The energy in the theater as the actors were jumping, spinning, and splashing was electric!”
Overall, the creative team, crew, actors and audiences appreciated and valued this rare experience. The professionalism, ingenuity, and talent of the production crew, actors, and artistic team helped to make The Tempest Synetic’s highest grossing show to date.