1776 Scenic Designer Russell Metheny on the Balance between Historical Accuracy and Theatrical Fancy
1776 begins on September 11.
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For Frank Galati the set was all about the muscularity of the show and the environment. He wanted it to be masculine so that when Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson entered this world there would be a strong contrasting energy. And he also wanted it to be about that summer and the oppressive heat.
I researched the Philadelphia Independence Hall, as well as the House and Senate halls in the capital of today. Independence Hall is grey/white with tall windows and a pine floor. The House and Senate are dark woods and marbles, tiered seating, and no windows to speak of. The timeless nature of the musical needed to be in a space that felt both then and now.
I reinterpreted the windows to louvered [slatted] walls for the light to play through and intensify the interior summer light. Light pouring through the louvers gives a heightened theatrical sense of heat. I went with the dark wood to allow for the weight of the history of the event and to the nod to the Congress of today—and to allow the lighting design to have a freedom of visual expression atmospherically. (The model itself remained a white model for some reason. I did dimensional stained paint elevations for this design.)
Frank also wanted the entire event to take place in the hall, eliminating the physical scenes outside of it. This brought the sky vista into the design, allowing for the John and Abigail Adams correspondence scenes to have a more immediate elevated sensation—and for emotional atmosphere when Frank desired a particular song to soar and take the audience into a personal place, a world outside the hall, a young country in turbulence, and a moment when history was being made by the hour, day, and month.
It was very important to balance historical accuracy and the audiences’ own personal imagination. So, the tables are historically correct, except for their size and number of them. Same with the furniture, with some variety for character. The moldings are close to the original moldings in the room. But the show deck is tiered for theatrical sightline clarity, and the rest is invented.
For me, design is truly about performance in the end. Historical accuracy is in the bones of it; the rest is an invention through the music, text, director vision, and the performances.