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"On the Verge" of a Wild Design

Date: Nov 12, 2010


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As a designer, how do you adapt a Spanish-language movie into a Broadway musical, especially when the film was already meant to look like an adaptation of a stage show?

Just ask Michael Yeargan and Sven Ortel, the set and projection designers, respectively, for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, now playing at the Belasco Theatre in a production by Lincoln Center Theater. Based on Pedro Almodóvar's screwball comedy, the show spins around Pepa, a romantically challenged woman in 1980s Madrid who's surrounded by a manic circle of friends, colleagues, and lovers.

But it's not just Almodóvar's story that's represented on stage: The design team wanted to acknowledge his vibrant visual style as well. (Click on the photo above to view a slide show of the designs.)

"A lot of the film informed the sets and props," says Yeargan, who joined Ortel for an interview at Lincoln Center. "But there comes a point where you can’t slavishly imitate [the movie] because the set pieces have to move. Bart [Barlett Sher, the musical’s director] said we only need specific parts of Pepa’s apartment, so we created 'quotes' from the film. The red sofa in Pepa’s living room is a direct quote from the film. For the kitchen scene, it’s just her, the TV, the refrigerator and the gazpacho. In a way, it was like a 3-D version of a movie, close-up."

Technical demands also influenced Yeargan's work. With over three dozen locations to suggest in just two acts, he had to make a set that was easily movable, and because the Belasco's stage is shallow, he also had to limit the number of large structures in his design. Ultimately, he relied on four treadmill tracks that have been built into the floor, allowing pieces to be whisked on and off quickly between scenes.

Meanwhile, Ortel's projections create images that emphasize locations without requiring set pieces. He brings each new setting to life by using a cut-and-paste technique reminiscent of 1960s movie title designer Saul Bass. (Think of the opening credits to Psycho or The Man With the Golden Arm

This technique evokes the surreal, pop-art look of the movie, and it allows Ortel to layer buildings and project images of a unique version of Madrid’s skyline. He explains, "I experimented with layers to create a sense of distance, because Madrid itself doesn’t have a particularly impressive skyline. Those buildings you see aren’t actually adjacent to one another, but I tried to think of how a tourist would see the city. You come away overwhelmed after looking at all of those beautiful buildings, and your mind plays tricks on you. So I tried to recreate what your mind does, which is create its own sort of 'best of' Madrid, mashing everything you’ve seen together."

While maintaining a cinematic essence was the goal, both men were still working in a very real theatre space where every inch mattered, which is how the projections ended up not on a screen, but on the theatre's back wall. “We needed to use every inch of depth," Yeargan says.

Space is an issue backstage, too. There are exactly two inches separating Ortel's projectors, a mirrored wall (which drops down in the opening scene), and windows that fly in to create Pepa’s apartment. "We had to be really prepared," Ortel says. "We squeezed these projectors into these precarious and tiny spaces on the stage, and we couldn’t risk anything banging against them."

Once previews began, the design team continued working: There were dry runs in the morning, run-throughs with the actors in the afternoon, and full performances in the evening. "We were there for every preview," says Yeargan.

The designers also had to adjust for changes in the production itself. During the preview period, the opening song of the second act suddenly became the opening number of the entire show. Another song was reprised. As such, projectors and treadmills needed to be reprogrammed, and new images had to be added. Since everything from the projections to the sets and props work in concert with one another, each change affected every member of the crew.

"Brian [MacDevitt] was lighting, Michael was doing the set, and Bart was staging the actors," Ortel says. "We were all working on top of each other during this period; it was chaos. We didn’t have more than two minutes to go back and rehearse, and in two minutes there might be four scene changes.”

Ortel also had to find a creative way to speed up the transitions between projections, so that he could let the audience know the show was in a new location without dragging down the pace. He came up with an aesthetic solution: pulling out horizontal stripes from one background image and replacing them, slice by slice, with pieces of the new background. This makes the projections feel active and lets viewers comprehend the move to a new location.

As challenging as it's been to design this show, however, both Yeargan and Ortel sound energized when they discuss their work. "It was a lot of fun to make," Yeargan says, and Ortel adds, "What we’ve created isn’t meant to be taken seriously."

"Everything on that stage is meant to be fun," Yeargan continues, to which his fellow designer says, "There’s a humor in it that’s freeing."


Ashley Van Buren is a writer and film production freelancer. She has contributed writing to The Huffington Post, Women & Hollywood, Supernanny, The Rachael Ray Show and several other outfits. If you read quickly, you can catch her name in the credits of seven feature films. She blogs (sporadically) at