Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009

Designing The World: Keith Pitts on Milwaukee Chamber's AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Chris Klopatek as Passepartout

The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opens its season this week with a production of the recent stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World In 80 Days by American playwright Mark Brown. The play, which debuted with the Utah Shakespearian Feestival in 2001, has some 36 characters being portrayed by five actors. The adaptation has been hailed as a clever modern comedy directly adapted from a late 19th century adventure novel.

Verne’s novel found protagonist Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout rushing around the world on a very expensive bet that they couldn’t do it in only 80 days. Bringing a globe-spanning adventure into the stately confines of the main stage at the Broadway Theater Center is no small task.I asked a few questions of the show's Set Designer Keith Pitts.

Being a story that spans the globe, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS will likely have a variety of different scenes in drastically different locations (the book features Hong Kong, India, Salt Lake City . . .) Are all the locations explicitly featured in the set design, or does the set have more of a general feel to it?

Keith Pitts: A piece of theatre like this can be tricky scenically.   My first reaction was to try and represent as many locations as possible, but  reality quickly becomes a driving factor.  We eventually narrowed it down to what was needed to tell the story.  We had conversations about how Fogg isn't interested in the locations as much as in making up the time lost or being on time in the first place... so with that in mind the focus really shifted to the means of transportation with the set adding areas that allow the actors to tell the story.

How much reference research did you do in designing the set for this show? Did you find yourself putting in more work on the design for this show than you have on previous shows? 

Keith Pitts: With all design and art, the final product is the tip of the iceberg.  With every show I have tons of research and I'm constantly looking for insperation in my daily life that I can use in the design.  I think that the amount of drawing and prep. for the show has been normal, but the amount of communication between everyone has been alot more indepth.  Everymeeting we have had for 80 Days has been 4 hours or longer.  I remember in 1 week Patrick and I meet 3 times for a total of 16 hours.  And even now as we are going into tech we continue to have discussions about how things function, what each area needs to help them out, and to genreally make sure we are all on the same page.

What are some of the unique concerns you had to deal with on this particular production? Have you encountered any challenges here that you haven't in any of your previous work? 

Keith Pitts: I would say the difference with this script is that most plays don't have you travel around the world... and if they do not a such a quick pace.  I always try to keep in mind the momentum of a show... if you kill the momentum then you can kill the show.  So how do we jump from location to location and do it quickly with out making the audience loose the pace being set by the actors, and how do we make the locations have some uniqunous without bringing on unnecessary scenery.    As for the unique concerns... it would have to be the elephant.... how do we do an elephant on stage?  And then on top of the elephant we have a multiple trains, boats, a wind sledge, and the many in door locations... Its a big challenge to do this show... and I think it can sneak up on you.  Most of the time it is presented as... "Around the World in 80 Days... with 5 actors"  So we hear it and think small show, but then you read it and begin your meetings... 200 hours later my head is spinning and we still haven't made it all the way through discussing act 2.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS opens this Friday, August 14th. It runs through August 30th. 

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