Bringing the Prince of Players design to life

by David Feheley, Technical and Production Director

It’s always wonderful and a little scary when a creative team says to me, “What we really want to do is this.” Finding a way to bring an artistic vision to the stage is a big part of why I do this job. But there is also a point when we need to ask, “How can we create this responsibly, within the operational capacity that we have?” One of the big challenges with Prince of Players was the complexity and associated costs of creating a very “period” production. It took solutions from the entire creative team to make it work.

Shoko Kambara, our set and properties designer, gave us a unit set including a large platform with drawers and a center pivot. By dressing it with different props, we can take you to different locales like King Charles’s court, backstage at the theater, or in the street. Behind the set is a painted drop.  Everything is placed on a gloss black floor that was pulled from stock and painted. The relative simplicity of the scenery allowed us to use focus our resources on the construction of the costumes. At the same time, the flexibility of the scenery gave our director, Michael Gieleta, many options in his staging.

The sets were created by Ravenswood Studios in Chicago. HGO does not have the facilities needed to build and paint scenery of this size, so we ask different scene shops to bid on the build and we award the contract for construction. For each set piece, we write specifications and describe what it needs to do; for example, it has to carry X amount of weigh, it has to load into a shipping container, and we have to be able to clear the stage within two hours. There’s a lot of discussion before they send us construction drawings for approval. We’ll put in changes and then I make one or more visits to the shop with the designer, to look at paint finishes and samples, etc. Once the Prince of Players pieces were done they were loaded onto a truck and shipped to Houston. 

The costumes are the big “flash” in this show. Gregory Gale’s original costume designs called for full period costumes. Each character would have several costumes as we moved from scene to scene. After much discussion and debate the design was simplified to include a basic costume, in period shape, with pieces added to further establish the character and location. We have a fantastic costume shop, and they built over 195 pieces for Prince of Players: doublets, jabots, capes, corsets, petticoats, bum rolls, etc. A lot of archival research went into these costumes. For each costume, the shop creates a pattern of the costume and then builds a mock-up using muslin. The mock-up allows us to make sure we have the pattern correct before cutting into the more expensive fabric that we have purchased. After a fitting with the singer we will make adjustments to the pattern and start cutting, stitching, and finishing the costume. A series of fittings will happen with the singers before the costume is moved to the “complete” rack.

All of the physical elements in the production came together in the Cullen Theater for our onstage rehearsals. Just before the singers started rehearsal with us, our lighting designer, Renée Brode, started working on the lighting for the production. There are around 200 lighting fixtures being used in Prince of Players. The stagehands and Renée focused each light to a specific spot onstage and added color and patterns as necessary. We also have automated lighting fixtures that can change focus, color, and pattern automatically. Over the following week of onstage rehearsals we created 116 different lighting cues by programming the level of each fixture into our computerized lighting control console. This final design element not only helps set the location where a scene is taking place but can also add emotion and feeling to a scene.

Every production provides the HGO Technical and Production Department with different challenges. The vision of this creative team is what excited and inspired us to create the incredible visual elements for Prince of Players. We never know what we will be asked to create next, but the challenge is something we all look forward to meeting.