Where better to stage a play about art than an art museum?
The answer may depend on your point of view.
Kansas City Repertory Theatre has teamed up with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to produce “Sunday in the Park With George,” the 1984 Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical that depicts painter Georges Seurat and reflects on the nature of art and artists.
The Rep couldn’t stage a fall show in its traditional main-stage home, the Spencer Theatre in the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, because the theater and the center are undergoing major renovations. But the Rep and the Nelson came to an agreement: The show is being staged in the Atkins Auditorium, the museum’s venue for speakers and occasional films.
There was just one small problem: the Atkins isn’t a theater. So director Eric Rosen and his design team had to essentially build a workable theater inside the Atkins and go to creative lengths to make virtues of the venue’s limitations. The Atkins has no fly space, from which scenery could be lowered to the stage, and no wings, from which set pieces could be rolled on and off stage.
“It’s a lecture hall,” scenic designer Donald Eastman said from New York. “It’s meant to project a big painting with someone at a podium talking about it. But the relationship between the stage and the audience is pretty good.”
Except for one thing: The seating area is fairly wide in relationship to the stage opening, which meant that sightlines became a concern. If every seat were filled, some theatergoers would have a limited view of the stage.
Rosen said those issues have been resolved, and some seats on the margins will not be sold. Each performance will seat about 480.
“The auditorium is such a beautiful thing from the ’30s and so we decided, ‘Let’s just embrace it,’” Eastman said. “I brought the stage out further, as much as I could, but it’s totally a re-creation of the existing architecture.”
Eastman designed two previous productions for Rosen at the Rep: “August: Osage County” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” both of which required a realistic house onstage. In the case of “August,” he built a three-story house with multiple rooms.
“August,” in fact, was so complicated that Eastman joked he found himself longing to design a nice, clean production of “Our Town,” with a ladder and a couple of tables on a largely bare stage. This production of “Sunday in the Park” turned out to be his “Our Town.”
“I was happy when Eric called me, and when I found out we weren’t going to be in the (Spencer) theater and we weren’t going to have the fly and we weren’t going to have wings, that meant we weren’t doing the Broadway show,” he said. “This is the Nelson-Atkins production of ‘Sunday in the Park With George.’ It works for the space, I hope.”
Eastman’s solution was a collection of easels with canvases arranged onstage. Each represents an isolated detail of Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
“We have five easels with sketches on them, but all together they kind of make a picture,” Eastman said. “A lot of this musical is about what it takes to put something together. Inspiration comes only if you’ve done your homework. We don’t really see that painting come together until the end of the first act.”
Rosen said the idea for staging the show at the Nelson came from discussions about a year ago involving Rosen, KC Rep executive director Angela Gieras and the Nelson’s director, Julián Zugazagoitia. Initially, Rosen said, they considered small plays: Yasmina Reza’s “Art” (with only three characters) or John Logan’s “Red” (requiring only two actors).
“And then I said, ‘No, let’s do this huge musical,’” Rosen said.
Zugazagoitia said Rosen’s original idea was even more radical than staging a Broadway musical in a lecture hall.
“When Eric first approached us with that idea, it was even crazier because the idea was could we do it in the galleries and have the audience walk with from one gallery to another,” he said. “I think both of our staffs were looking at this with stunned eyes and saying, ‘Please, no.’”
Zugazagoitia and Rosen agreed that the Rep and the Nelson represented two different cultures and that the process involved meticulous planning.
“All of the arts have inspired the others and so having here the enormous talent of Eric Rosen and a beautiful musical that has had a great trajectory, and to have it in a place with real works of art just enhances it,” Zugazagoitia said. “I’m excited because of that.”
Rosen said a catalyst for his decision to do the Sondheim musical rather than a smaller show was a well-received production of “Sunday in the Park” last year at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va. Claybourne Elder, Rosen’s husband, played Seurat. Rosen said he saw that production five times and absorbed the music. And it was performed on a small stage. He decided it was possible to do a show with some 14 actors at the Atkins.
“I was excited about it because I’ve been there a million times to see talks and lectures, and I’ve always loved being in that room,” Rosen said. “And I loved the fact that the second act of the play takes place in the lecture hall of an art museum. … We are in an art museum talking about art.”
The small orchestra will be in a side room concealed from the audience’s view by a wall constructed for that purpose. The musicians will watch the action onstage on monitors.
“We’ve pulled down all the drapes and acoustic ceiling tiles, everything that wasn’t architecture,” Rosen said. “We wanted to fully acknowledge that this is a museum auditorium and then have magic come out of it, which is what the play is really about. You start with a blank canvas.”
Elder will reprise the role of Seurat, and Sara Jean Ford will play Dot, his model. Rosen has surrounded them with a strong cast of Kansas City-based musical-theater actors, including Lauren Braton, Charles Fugate, Seth Golay, Colleen Grate, Shanna Jones, T.J. Lancaster, Melinda MacDonald, Jake Walker, Stefanie Wienecke and John-Michael Zuerlein. All actors play dual roles at minimum, because the second act is set 100 years later than Act 1. Elder plays Seurat’s great-grandson, also an artist.
That’s a lot of people to navigate on and off a small stage.
“The real estate questions are so tough,” Rosen said.
But he has help from choreographer Chase Brock, who worked with Rosen on the Rep’s productions of “Pippin” and “Venice.”
“It’s a very different scale,” Rosen said. “I think it will feel really psychologically intimate in a way that theaters with that many seats aren’t designed to feel. I told the actors: ‘You can’t do anything extra in a room that small. No added bits. Keep everything simple.’”
Eastman said the limitations of the Atkins ultimately became a source of inspiration.
“A couple of months ago I got real excited and said, ‘You know, if we were doing it on a real stage I’d like to do it the same way,’” he said.
Could we see more professional theater at the Nelson? Zugazagoitia said it wasn’t out of the question.
“Each experience leads to other opportunities,” he said. “And I think when you have the right ingredients and the right partners, I would never hesitate to do it again.”
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.