Bringing a show as expansive as Big River to the small stage of the Rubicon Theatre Company was a daunting prospect, but Kirby and Beverly Ward thrive on such problems and ended up producing a masterpiece of intimacy and atmospheric beauty. We continued our discussion by talking about the staging and the unique properties of the Rubicon.
VCOS: Big River is a show that works better on the small stage. What are some of the issues you faced in doing that?
KIRBY: Well, I’ve done this show before and I’ve always used a moving raft, one that can actually move across the stage. One time I did it with guys who actually moved it while underneath it. It was a tour set that we had borrowed. The second time I did it was with the first national tour which was all winched and we could choreograph it. You know, I could say, make it go a quarter turn and then I want it to go all the way to stage left, and we were able to choreograph the raft to go all over the place. Because the Rubicon is a small theater, the raft can’t go anywhere, so I had to figure out how to tell the story without a moving raft.
VCOS: Do the projections do some of this?
KIRBY: We are doing projections and the center of our playing space is the raft element. But it also acts as a house, as a church, and as many different locations. And when they sing “Muddy Water,” they got on it and we treat it and set it up like a raft. And we assume they’re going down the river. But it’s all being done by the actors. There are also times where people board the raft so we had to figure out how to do that as well. A skiff approaches and the guys are supposed to board the raft from the skiff, and there’s a time when a couple of guys jump onto the raft from a dock. So that was a challenge.
VCOS: What was the process like in coming to this decision?
KIRBY: Well, we started out with the idea of doing it as a thrust show, with the audience on three sides. But it ended up being kind of in-the-round, because of figuring sight lines and where the seats would go. I wanted to get the raft out into the audience a little bit so we could get around three sides of it. And in order to do that, we had to remove some seats, and then figure out where we were going to put those seats. And I wanted a dock going down one side and another dock going down the other side. So that meant we had to take out more seats. And that’s when we decided to put those seats on the stage.
BEVERLY: On stage left, in the front row, there are two seats where, literally, in the Wilkes house scene where Huck has to hide behind the coffin, if you are sitting in one of those two seats, he is hiding at your feet.
KIRBY: And Huck actually has to say, “Excuse me” to whoever is sitting there so he can hide behind it. It’s actually kind of cool. But it’s interesting how the process of creating this – and I think it’s like this with a lot of creative endeavors – it’s a series of solving difficult problems. And I keep learning from this. Sometimes it takes seven problems that we have to solve, each one caused by the previous one, before we have our answer.
VCOS: Technology has made movies more complex but less creative because you’re able to use CGI for just about anything, but theater remains basically the same. You still have to figure out how to do stuff just as you would have decades ago. There are a few things that you have now, such as projections, that make settings easier, but that’s about it.
KIRBY: Yes, that’s the big game changer now. And now just with projections, but LCD screens.
BEVERLY: Mike Billings is our guy who does our projections, and he is so talented; he’s the young man who did South Pacific for us. Kirby had worked with him on lighting design for The Forbidden Planet and we knew that we wanted to do Big River and we knew Mike was the guy. We had to have him. So when we talked to him and Kirby told him we have a raft that can’t move, he came up with some very specific ideas about the playing areas. But beyond that, he knew that he wanted it to be environmental.
KIRBY: I knew he was going to bring it up because he did South Pacific but the challenge was that this show takes place in 1850 so you don’t want super modern stuff happening on the walls.
BEVERLY: And we didn’t want “here we go down the river” – you know, like a travelogue, we didn’t want that either.
VCOS: Like the haywagon scene in Young Frankenstein.
KIRBY: Right. Because there’s a danger there that you want to avoid. When people come to the theater, they want to see theater, and if you start to show movies behind them, you start getting out of the realm of live theater and you get into some other conglomerate thing.
VCOS: So the effect is like moving wallpaper but nothing more.
KIRBY: Yeah. And for me, I want to make sure it doesn’t move so much so that it distracts and people start saying, “OK, I’m done watching them, I’ll watch the wall for a while.” (laughs)
VCOS: How do you two divide your duties?
BEVERLY: I’m working on the sets. The thing is that Kirby and I had worked on a production of Big River two years ago in a theater that was even smaller than this one out in Fairfield and I felt a particular connection to it and wanted to work with him on this one as well. So I’ve been wearing a lot of hats.
KIRBY: I’m director and choreographer and Bev assisting. And she’s particularly good at large scenes with a lot of bodies and she helps me place the people on the stage where they’ll be the most effective. But Bev is also a great actress and has a great eye for the scenework, so it’s a joint effort.
VCOS: Last question. Do you have a favorite part of the show?
BEVERLY: “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine” is my favorite.
KIRBY: What we came up for that really does something for the storytelling. And it’s different from the way it was done on Broadway. On Broadway, Huck sings “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine” and a vision of slaves working in the fields appears on the scrim behind him. But they never interact because they are behind him as a vision. He sings the song by himself. We don’t have a scrim and since it’s in-the-round, we can’t have any kind of a vision behind him, so they come on stage and interact with him in a way that really brings the story home because it’s about his perception of how the relationship between slaves and white people should have been. It’s at that moment, when he’s interacting with these black slaves that they embrace each other and it becomes this catharsis for him. And again, that was out of necessity because as the song is designed, there was really no other place to put them.
VCOS: It sounds like this project really challenged you two.
KIRBY: It really did. The Rubicon is a really unique place. There are other theaters like it but the audience is right there and in this production, we’ve brought them even closer.
VCOS: It really feels like the Mississippi, but just don’t put the humidity in .
KIRBY: Or the mosquitos! We could release them right at the top of the show. Now that’s realism!
Big River plays through November 10 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For dates and show times, see the VC On Stage Calendar.