Award-Winning Designer Christopher Oram Shares 10 Secrets of the Hughie Set
March 18th, 2016
by Josh Ferri
Two-time Olivier and Tony Award-winning set and costume designer Christopher Oram (Wolf Hall, Red, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Evita) created what may be the most marvelous set piece on Broadway right now, the run-down midtown hotel in Hughie.
The Eugene O’Neill revival is latest in a long collaboration between Oram and director Michael Grandage. Below, Oram shares with BroadwayBox 10 secrets about the Hughie you might not notice at first glance.
1. This is a transitionary space for this character. He’s come back from his five-day bender but he’s not ready to commit to going upstairs. It was always going to be important that the staircase gave a sense of journey—the elevator doesn’t work so it’s the stairs that are gigantic and imposing and act as a stairway to something much more than just his room upstairs—it’s the next chapter of his life whatever that may be. So we knew they had to be the dominating feature of the space.
2. I did start the sketch with the staircase pretty much. There’s an Escher-esque quality about the stairs. The graphic drawing of staircases that appeared to turned in on themselves and go back to the beginning. He used optical illusion to create a sense of depth, and that’s what we’ve done here a bit. You perceive much more architecture than there is here.
3. It has a somber quality; It’s a cathedral like. It had to be a lobby but it’s also a waiting room—it has to have a degree of solemnity to it and it’s not a happy place. Neither man is happy in their lives. There’s a slight touch of purgatory about it as well. That’s why the architecture is a bit grandiose and church like in a way, with tall columns and the sense of that scale.
4. All of Frank’s world was built by the scenic. It all works. Every drawer opens; every cupboard opens; there’s a wastepaper basket under his desk with bits and pieces in it; and every one of those key slots has its own individual number and its own individual key—some of which aren’t there because they are in their rooms upstairs and some of which are hanging because they are still out for the night. There’s a lot of detail.
5. My favorite prop is the ashtray full of cigarette butts that’s clearly been sitting there gathering over time. It’s a prop so it’s completely fake but it has this sense of just being there forever.
6. The Gashlycrumb Tinies book by Edward Gorey, with Neville who died of ennui, was sort of the inspiration for the piece—it’s this wonderful sense of a lost child just staring and staring and wishing and wishing, and there’s something of Frank [Wood] in that. He’s there in his desk. He doesn’t know how to break out of it—he’s resigned to it—then Erie comes in and gives him something to talk and think about.
7. I was blessed with having a brilliant set of scenic builders, artists, painters, and prop supervisor, and they sourced all this amazing material. The elevator has this prison like quality to it because it’s a cage. I’ve worked with Neil Austin, the lighting designer, a lot in the past and I knew if I gave him a tall vertical like that he’d want to be able to light down it and through it. All those levels of mesh, crate, and cage would create incredible shadow. There’s lights inside it that deliberately cast cage-like shadows across the ceiling. There’s also practical levers and buttons and lights inside it—not that anyone would see them, not even Forest sees them, but we wanted to make it as real and detailed as possible.
8. We knew we weren’t going to have a curtain so we had to reveal the set in a different sort of way, so we did it with a deliberate lighting cue that allows us to explore the set. The light in the preset just blushes on the night porter so you get a sense of this world in the darkness—you see the shape but you don’t know what it is. Then as the music swells the light builds out from Frank to each individual pillar, then the following pillar, then the elevator, then the lights upstairs, and eventually the light is drawn all the way up the stairs to the very, very top; then the hotel sign comes on bringing your eye back down to Frank. Then the green light comes up on the door and Forest enters. Very, very specifically and circularly you’re told how to read the space, and the lobby.
9. A lot of those fantastic lobbies, restaurants, hotels, and apartment buildings had those beautiful mosaic tile floors that took weeks to lay down in their original form. They just don’t do them anymore—they are too expensive—but back in the time, those dime-sized mosaic tiles were very common. Our scenic artist made a cast then we made each individual tile, and they have been grouted individually and smashed so the floor moves and shifts and cracks. It becomes like a painting itself.
10. The luggage trolley in the back was a tough piece. I wanted something more beautiful than anything we could find. Weirdly, even early ones were much, much less interesting than you’d give them credit for. They had simpler shapes and I needed something in the style of the hotel, slightly more ornate with this old, period feel to it. So we commissioned that as a make and it’s a really nice touch. With a design like this you want to create harmony within the space—everything has to feel as though it’s meant there. The ashtray, the luggage trolley, the sign on the elevator: it’s all been there as part of this same world.
Hughie plays its final performance on March 27, so hurry to the Booth Theatre to see this spectacular creation for yourself.