Instead of Moving Sets, Dallas Theater Center’s “Electra” Moves the Audience
Eric Tysinger, the stage manager of Dallas Theater Center’s current production of Electra, embraces a good theatrical challenge.
His first show at the Dallas Theater Center was The Wiz, a production with the audience seated in 12 seating units which were moved 22 times during the performance.
Kevin Moriarty, Dallas Theater Center’s artistic director, freely adapted Sophocles’ Electra to provide another stage management challenge: move audiences through multiple outdoor spaces to viscerally experience one of Greek theater’s great family tragedies.
The play is set on the grounds of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Annette Strauss Square with the audience traveling to four different locations during the 75-minute show.
The show begins on the concrete stage where bands play for concerts and then moves to the expansive lawn used as concert seating. From that large setting, the audience is moved into what Tysinger calls the “bunker”, an area designed to support portable bathrooms and is often used as storage. The show concludes at the reflecting pool outside the Winspear Opera House.
To ensure the audience hears every word of the show, the theater provides headphones with recorded commentary specifically timed to accompany the script and the movement of the audience.
Tysinger sent out an email asking Dallas Theater Center staff members to help figure out the timing of the movement of the audience.
“It was literally research and development. We walked a bunch of people around, we timed it, we went, 'Ah, let’s add 45 seconds for a wheelchair.' Kevin then would write some and we would test it out and we would read it out and he would write some more,” Tysinger said.
The team discovered where they needed to build lifts and ramps to smooth the changing topography of the play’s route and protect the safety of the audience. Twelve ushers, mostly volunteers, guide the audience through the show.
Abbey Siegworth plays Electra, a furious woman mourning the death of her father at the hands of her mother. For 40 minutes, she performs on the lawn, anxiously pacing, sobbing, and yelling.
“It was physically demanding to move from indoors to outdoors. You really are laying on the ground with real garbage on it. You really are digging in the dirt. You also get the beauty of the night sky and the city lights. No matter how talented the designers, theater magic cannot recreate that environment,” Siegworth said.
The Dallas skyline plays an important role. A building under construction provides a dystopian background to the lawn. The city’s ambient noise includes sirens and eight Southwest flights flying over the show each performance.
Weather is a major factor. Temperatures during performances have ranged from 52 ˚F to 90 ˚F. Tysinger watches weather forecasts to see if it will rain during set-up or during the show. He has cancelled three performances for wind, lightning and storms.
During the first rehearsal, Tysinger learned sound support is needed to communicate with the actors on the large lawn. “In a normal play when you’re indoors, cross down stage right might be six feet. Here, cross down stage right could be 30 feet,” Tysinger said. The smaller spaces, such as the bunker, require more calculated and precise movements.
The actors needed the ability to act with the recorded commentary and react to each other appropriately. Each actor wears two different headpieces: a microphone side and a listening side.
“Figuring out a listening system for a live talking actor while they are microphoned was a challenge. Of course, it has to stay in their ear as they run around, fight and roll around,” Tysinger said.
Performing on a large lawn presented a specific problem for the actors. “The most beautiful part of live theater is the feedback loop from the audience. It’s really cut off on the lawn. I can only see the shadow of shoulders. I learned to trust the story we learned in rehearsal and have faith in the structure of the play,” Siegworth said.
Tysinger has a better perspective on the audience, especially in the bunker. “It’s been interesting to watch the psychology of the audience during the journey of the show,” Tysinger said. “In that bunker, there’s not a person who can escape and you watch them carry that in different ways. You watch to see who is terrified. You watch to see who is intensely intrigued.”
Siegworth loves the beauty of the final scene at the reflecting pool. “One of the last changes was to have Electra get in the pool and wash completely. We have a vision of everyone being cleansed and moving forward. It’s a meditative moment to contemplate how futile vengeance and violence is,” Siegworth said.
Electra continues through May 27