The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe is open at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.
I’ve been working as Aerial Director on this project since earlier this year. The creation process started with conversations with Sally Cookson about how to stage the story in this theatre. Excitingly, the semi-circular amphitheatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse was to be transformed into a playing space in the round. This causes some staging challenges, including for any flying, because not only do the actors and set have to work on all sides, but there’s very little ‘backstage’ or ‘wings’ space to store props and hide technical trickery.
I travelled up for an initial site visit in May to see what the possibilities for rigging were. Its a brilliantly large space with loads of height but, with the show being in the round, not really anywhere to rig aerial equipment where it could be both easily removed when not needed AND stable enough to have bodies hanging from it. Kit rigged from lighting fly bars would move around and bash into expensive lights/sound equipment when performers climbed about on it. Further discussions with the technical staff at the theatre were had, and I went away with some ideas of what is and isn’t possible.
Before another site visit in June, there was a two week (non-aerial) R&D period in London with the core creative team and a few actors. I was able to attend for a few days and it was hugely useful to get a sense of what the design of the set was to be, which of the big key scenes might have the potential for aerial, and how Sally was approaching the style of the storytelling. I put together a selection of aerial images involving hemp-like ropes & nets (for Aslan), white drapes of fabric & silks (for the White Witch), various hanging oddments (for the Professor’s house) and some sketches of what a winched up Witch might look like. These images & ideas, along with others from the set designers, were put into the ‘pot’ – we shared a dropbox folder amongst the creative team – and were referred to in conversations with Sally about what effects were most suitable for which scenes.
Another site visit to the theatre involved lots of discussions with the technical team whilst stood on the stage pointing upwards, along with scribbled drawings of rigging and trussing. With the addition of a square of truss fixed at ten metres, and some ‘docking stations’ for the lighting bars, we figured a way to get the vertically-rigged aerial equipment into the space, and importantly out of sight again.
For another aerial effect, we hired in a fancy winch system and had a harnessed actor lifted into the centre of the airspace above the stage, before she is lowered down through a trapdoor in the stage floor.
All in all, I think the aerial elements work well within this show, though because of limited timings within the silks scene, the performers never get as high as I’d like. And I’m sad that I wasn’t able to get any actors ‘appearing/disappearing’ by climbing out of view or entering from above. This was because the grid of this theatre is fixed in such a way that it would be really difficult for an actor to safely access any ropes/silks that are rigged. It is a shame, as I think that this is one of the magical effects that can be enacted by strong & confident performers with a good head for heights. The other disappointment for me was that I wasn’t able to get the cloudswings rigged any further out. At this point in the show near the end, an effect where the four main characters are swinging over the audience would’ve been amazing.
The show runs till the 27th January. www.wyp.org.uk/events/lion-witch-wardrobe