Audiences are just loving David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, but they’re almost buzzing as much about the set. And with good reason! The set changes feature two turntables, automated armchairs, moving walls, flying screens and curtains, even actors crossing the stage as the set moves -- all to the energetic beats of c-pop.
Check out the scene changes in this video! It was shot with three cameras, including a handheld one backstage and one mounted on our catwalk for the overhead shots. Of course, some of this wasn’t filmed during a performance – otherwise all the backstage shots would be totally dark.
While Chinglish’s set looks fully automated, what really happens literally behind the scenes is a complex dance between computers, stagehands, scene pieces, wardrobe, and even the actors.
Only the two turntables, three chairs, and tables are fully automated. But even that is a challenge because the crew uses three types of cues.
As for the rest, the elevator doors are controlled by an air tank, and the walls are pushed back and forth by our all-female run crew: Leslie, Julia, Alaina, Kourtney, and Rachel. Alaina pushes the stage left wall -- in the Broadway run, two people did her job!
Naturally, with all these moving parts, the trickiest thing was figuring out traffic patterns -- not only between set pieces but also between the five-person run crew, the three wardrobe assistants, and the seven actors. For example, here’s an example from our “backstage flow” spreadsheet of what happens in the scene change from the hotel lobby to the hotel room:
Michelle Krusiec (Xi) exits a beat before the scene ends. She begins a quick-change, described below.
Alaina opens the hotel lobby wall while Kourtney opens the elevator door so actor Alex Moggridge can step into it.
Leslie flies the hotel ceiling piece out, and Julia cues the stage-right turntable to move counter-clockwise and the stage left turntable to move clockwise. (There’s a mere six-inch clearance between the turntables at centerstage.)
Kourtney then closes the elevator door, opens the escape door so Alex can exit, and lights Alex’s way with her flashlight. Kourtney closes the office door and elevator escape door behind him.
Wardrobe crew members Alex and Amy help actor Alex Moggridge with his quick change (read how that happens here).
Wardrobe Supervisor Barbara quick-changes Michelle down to her bra and underwear and helps let down her hair -- all in the middle of the stage-left turntable as it spins around! Michelle reenters through the bathroom door.
Rachel closes the hotel room window wall, and Alaina pushes the hotel bed onstage.
Alex enters from the bathroom in his boxers, and let the steamy (hysterical) scene begin!
All this in only 31 seconds!
The set for Chinglish was born at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago for the play’s world premiere before it headed to Broadway. In New York, Hudson Scenic made some necessary changes and adjustments, and after the show closed on the Great White Way, it was loaded into a big rig to make its journey west. When it arrived, it was naturally a bit beat up, so Lisa Lazar, our charge scenic artist, and her crew repaired some munched wall corners and wallpaper and refreshed the paint. The scene shop started working on the automation in the scene shop before transferring the set to the Roda Theatre.
David Korins designed this awesome set. Watch this fabulous Broadway.com video about his design process.
I saved this post to read after seeing the show, and I'm glad I came back to it! Thanks for the clues into how the magic happens - these were some of the coolest set changes I've seen in a while!