Productions like Twelfth Night, Wild, Vivid White and Macbeth have all used trapdoors and lifts to create surprising moments on stage. To achieve these tricks, there’s lots of machinery underneath the world that the audience sees.
Frank Stoffels is Production Services Manager at Southbank Theatre. One of the first productions he worked on was Simon Phillips’ Hamlet in 2011. ‘It was a baptism of fire,’ recalls Stoffels, ‘but a fantastic, if challenging, production. There was a revolve with Perspex walls, flown elements, and traps.’ Since then, Stoffels has worked on a many technically complex productions, most of which achieve their trickery by using the basement below the Sumner stage.
‘A large portion of the Sumner theatre stage is removable,’ says Jacob Battista, a CAD Drafter based at Melbourne Theatre Company HQ who converts designers’ concepts into plans. The Sumner doesn’t have permanent trapdoors built into the stage – instead, it’s a completely modular. ‘The stage is made up of 24 modules 2.7m wide and 90cm deep,’ explains Battista. ‘Each of these can be removed individually or in larger groups.’
Stoffels explains that installing a trap is a relatively straightforward process. ‘Firstly, the location of trap is marked out on the stage. Then the masonite stage sheeting is removed to reveal the floor modules underneath, and the hatches in the floor section are removed. The modular gantry is moved into position and the module is lifted up and wheeled away from the trap. The hole is then filled in with a modified module and the lift or staircase is constructed from below.’
‘The biggest safety concern is normally the large hole in the stage. If you are operating the trap with an automated lift, consideration has to be made to ensuring that nothing and nobody gets trapped or stuck as the lift travels.’ – Jacob Battista, CAD Drafter
‘The biggest safety concern is normally the large hole in the stage,’ says Battista. ‘If you are operating the trap with an automated lift, consideration has to be made to ensuring that nothing and nobody gets trapped or stuck as the lift travels. It is also important to ensure everyone on stage in that scene is aware of when the lift operates, when there’s a hole in the stage, and when it’s safe to stand on the trap.’
Below the stage, it’s all about logistics – not aesthetics. Lifts are constructed below trapdoors, and shafts are created with plywood panels to ensure performers don’t get their limbs stuck in the machinery. Tech rehearsals will involve lots of testing to ensure the lift moves at the right speed. This is also an important time for actors to become accustomed to the lift. Carpet is laid onto the concrete floor so that the footsteps of cast and crew can’t be heard by the audience above.
Twelfth Night Trapdoors
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was given a musical makeover by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall in Simon Phillips’ 2018 production. Trapdoors and lifts helped the musical performances flow seamlessly in and out of the play, with musicians and harpsichords smoothly ascending onto stage. In fact, several trapdoors were disguised within the stage deck for other storytelling moments. Mourners gather around an open grave in the play’s opening scene, while Malvolio is hauled from a dungeon in a cage during a mock interrogation.
Vivid White's Güüs emerges
Eddie Perfect’s musical satire Vivid White culminated in an outrageous and unexpected cameo from Güüs, a gigantic cephalopod hellbent on world domination. Güüs, an inflatable puppet operated and voiced by Virginia Gay, made a surprise entrance onto stage by bursting through a sofa’s cushions. The sofa sat on top of a trapdoor, concealing the lift that elevated Güüs onto the stage. The bespoke lift platform also had to accomodate the pipes that kept Güüs inflated.
Before a coup de théâtre left audiences gobsmacked, the scenic hotel room in Mike Bartlett’s Wild began to vanish in plain sight through a series of trapdoors, automation, flying elements and sleight of hand. A lamp descended into the stage through a well-hidden trapdoor, while armchairs seemed to slide offstage by their own volition. Finally, the illusion of a woman popping herself like a balloon was achieved with a high-speed lift that plunged the actor into the basement below.
Stoffels explains that the basement also has the capacity to transform into an orchestra pit, though Melbourne Theatre Company is yet to make use of it. To date, musicals like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ladies in Black have positioned musicians upstage of the set, sometimes incorporating them into the storytelling. ‘If we were to open up the pit,’ explains Stoffels, ‘we’d remove the first few rows of seats from the auditorium and lower that area into the basement.’ Whatever a designer’s vision, it can most likely be achieved in the Sumner.