Hail Caesar—& The Set

Margaret Andreassi Photo

Brutus stabs Caesar with the “unkindest cut of all.” Before that can happen, Jake Hill had to cut two-by-sixteens with a radial arm saw.

The young carpenter creating a stylish place for an assassination was among a crew of three hard at work this week at the shop behind Lyman Performance Center at Southern Connecticut State University. The crew was building the set for the upcoming Elm Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar .

Allan Appel PhotoThat venerable—and unfortunately always timely—play about political intrigue and extremism opens in Edgerton Park Aug. 15.

Hill (pictured), who is Fordham University-bound in the fall to study theater, was an Elm Scholar last year. That’s a group of high school kids the company gathers each season to teach both onstage and behind-the-scenes aspects of the theater biz while helping Elm Shakespeare mount its plays.

Hill was in charge of erecting the immense metal scaffolding that held the set for Macbeth, last season’s dagger and sword-clanging offering.

He was so good at being a “technical scholar” and an invaluable stagehand, that this year Elm Shakespeare hired Hill as a carpenter to build Julius Caesar;s set, said Managing Director Margaret Andreassi.

On Tuesday he was at work with master carpenter Brandon Fuller and Fuller’s assistant carpenter. Edmund “Bwak” Comfort. They cut immense boards that will ultimately be the treads for two staircases, one with steps 26 feet long that will lead up from the grass to the first platform and then another set of steps 16 feet long leading up to a second platform on which the intrigue and political action will unfold.

But don’t look for rounded Roman columns and solans in togas. This production, directed both by the company’s artistic director Jim Andreassi and fabled actor Alvin Epstein, will feature conspirators in suits and ties.

They will tread on a stylishly modern set, designed by Elizabeth Bolster to evoke a sense that your assassination or coup or stealing of a presidency could take place just about anywhere around the globe.

A tour of the shop at Southern and the green rooms and little black-box rehearsal space revealed the immense amount of sawing, building, painting, then shlepping involved in building the company’s large sets, to say nothing of the acting and staging and directing!

Fuller said that on this, the first day of building, the crew had received a delivery of 17 sheets of plywood, 20 sheets of facing,  20 two-by-fours, 20 one-by-fours, 10 two-by-twelves, and other many other long pieces of wood. Fuller makes the “cut lists” detailing the number and length of boards to be cut based on his read of blueprints created by technical designer Ted Delgado.

He gives the cut lists to Hill and Comfort. They in turn don the goggles and turn on the blade—and the action begins.

After all the pieces are created, they are then painted, all in the same shop space that the company has rented from Southern for the past six years. Then the forum is trucked to the park the first week of August for assembly on the scaffold, which itself has to be assembled.

This year’s crew of Elm Scholars will help. “Some have more muscles than others,” said Fuller.

At the park, city inspectors verify that the platforms and staircases—both ones visible to the public and auxiliary stairs behind for the actors to enter and exit—are all meet code. There are city standards, and there are Actors Equity standards.

For example, when you climb around castles and forums, each railing has to be at least 42 inches high, and have a mid-railing so an actor doesn’t slip through.

“There also has to be a kick, so the actor knows it’s coming,” said Fuller, who also plies his trade as a master carpenter for productions at Yale.

Hill said he takes a lot of pride in helping to build the set, just as he did in working on the scaffolding of Macbeth.

Last season, he said, he used to remind the actors, as they climbed up and around Macbeth’s castle, that a certain high school kid built it, or rather worked on the scaffolding that holds it.

He said this season during rehearsals he’s likely going to advise Caesar, “When you fall, don’t hurt my set.”

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posted by: cunningham on July 19, 2013  11:28am

This looks like an awesome production. Good job, everyone.

posted by: robn on July 19, 2013  12:58pm

Not so sure about that radial arm saw. SCSU should consider replacing it with a sliding compound miter saw. The deep throat of the RAS can tempt inexperienced users to rip (which can be dangerous) rather than crosscut (usually safe).

In summation, the RAS can be as dangerous as Lady MacBeth….IF you cross her.

posted by: HewNaven on July 19, 2013  4:08pm

Awesome! Can’t wait for this!