Needles and Opium: The Backstage Pass

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

By Simon Hodgson 

While audiences have been dazzled by the onstage acrobatics of Needles and Opium, the backstage choreography demanded by this striking production is equally impressive. On a special behind-the-scenes tour for press and A.C.T. executive producers last Friday, three members of the Needles technical crew revealed some of the techniques and tools behind this extraordinary show.


The tilted cube itself is 10-feet square, made of plywood panels on an aluminum frame. Tour Manager Charlotte Ménard said it weighs around three tons. It is powered by a 3000-watt step motor manufactured by Québec-based set design company Scène Éthique. The cube rotates on a central axis, with the motor running almost soundlessly. On the small platform built above the motor, Video Manager Thomas Payette makes sure the show is unfolding according to plan, with infra-red cameras tracking the movement of the cube and the crew and projecting the images onto his two monitors.


When the cube is rotating, the scene changes need to happen quickly and precisely, even in almost total darkness. Stagehand Julien Leclerc described a moment when Pierre Gagné, the head stagehand, has a window of two seconds to remove a chair before the cube’s “floor” turned to become a wall. If he doesn’t take the furniture cleanly, it will crash down onto the set.

Precision and practice are vital for this crew. Every aperture in the cube’s sides—which open and close throughout the show to represent windows, doors, and a hotel bed—needs to be secured from both sides so that it doesn’t fly open at the wrong moment.

The same detailed attention to safety applies to the actors’ gear. Leclerc showed us a coil of charcoal gray rope used to secure actors Olivier Normand and Wellesley Robertson III as they move nimbly inside the rotating set. The rope was a 12-strand synethetic cable reportedly stronger than metal. “This was originally developed by the military,” he said. “The breaking strain is 5,600 pounds, so we’re not even tickling the material.”

The technical demands of Needles and Opium mean that the crew, the equipment, and the actors must work together with complete trust. It’s one of the reasons why, says Ménard, this show features the unusual sight of the technical crew taking a bow at the end of the play. “It’s a way to thank them and to show the audience how many people are responsible for this production.”

Needles and Opium runs through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the aesthetic of Robert Lepage? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.
 
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