Even before the lights go down, you are drawn into the vibrant world of Once on This Island. The immersive experience begins the moment you step inside the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway.
Motley T-shirts strung along the theatre walls conjure a secondhand clothing bazaar; the stage in the center (the audience is seated in the round) is covered with beach sand. But this is no idyllic tropical island paradise. This place looks ravaged by some catastrophe — an overturned dinghy, upturned plastic crates, pieces of rubber hosing and other detritus strewn about the beach. Indeed, the very auditorium itself seems struck by natural disaster: Water seeps out of the basement, flooding a pool at one end of the staging area; a fallen power line pole has destroyed a bank of seats; an 18-wheeler seems to have crashed into a rear wall of the theatre. But there is a powerful vitality present; the islanders go about their daily lives in a lively preshow that’s already in progress as you enter; there’s the smell of cooking in the air. And, there’s a live goat wandering across the stage.
The current production of the 1990 fable by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, a star-crossed romance between a peasant girl and the son of the landowning elite on an island in the French Antilles, received this year’s Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. “This is completely different from anything else I have done,” says set designer Dane Laffrey, who received a Tony nomination for his work. A key to the design, Laffrey explains, came from setting the story specifically in Haiti. That island’s recent spate of natural disasters — the devastating earthquake of 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 — and the indomitable spirit of its people who were determined to rebuild and get on with their lives, inspired the trash-strewn, half-wrecked, makeshift look and feel of this production. And the island’s Afro-Haitian Vodou traditions provided a context for the tale, in which the gods intervene in the ill-fated love story between the young girl Ti Moune and Daniel, the scion of the ruling class.
Given the story’s island locale, the dominant elements of the set are, of course, sand and water. “The water has to be filtered and changed regularly, and the surface of the pool itself is a very specific combination of a bunch of different rubber products, which has to look the right way and isn’t slippery,” Laffrey explains. The sand (there are 6 tons of it on stage) has its own challenges, but it also solves a potential drainage problem created by the water from the torrential downpour that occurs during the show. “The sand just absorbs the water, and it really needs to be kept moist,” Laffrey adds. “We had to source different sands and, of course, you can’t just talk to a guy who sells sand about what the sand looks like. They sell sand usually for construction purposes, but not because it is browner or grayer, or lighter or darker. Eventually we managed to find a brown sand and also this sand with a pretty strong gray color. We did a four-to-one mix of those two sands to get our Once on This Island mix.”
Beyond the sand and water, there is a glut of items visible in every nook and cranny of the theatre — stuff on the beach, shrines for the gods, and the ubiquitous clothes. “We had an enormous wealth of research. A lot of it came out a trip that Michael [Arden, the director] and I were able to take to [Haiti’s capital city] Port au Prince,” says Laffrey. “We came back with hundreds and hundreds of photos — not the kinds of photos that a photojournalist or a tourist would take. We took photos of the wall of a building, or of a pile of stuff. There was a huge encyclopedia of things for the prop team to look at, and then just to go out and collect as much of it as possible. We had trucks and trucks of stuff: clothes, items for the altars, all the dressing on stage, bits of padding and piles of things.” Blended in are some scenic elements and props that were built specifically for the production in a scene shop, such as the musicians’ deck atop a wrecked truck, wall architecture, and customized seating banks. “Everything you see around the edges that wasn’t designed per se, that was an assemblage that was massed in the space and, piece by piece, me and my associates,” Laffrey reports. “It was a wonderful six-to-seven-week process of installing the place.”
Some of the crates on the stage provide camouflage for sound equipment, but having debris scattered about the set also fits well with director Arden’s initial concept for this production. “The very first conversation Michael and I had about the show was this idea of using makeshift or found instruments,” Laffrey explains. “We worked with John Bertles and [his ensemble] Bash the Trash, who make instruments out of found stuff.” The whirling tubes that the actors pick out of the sand at beginning of the show are actually musical instruments that play consistent notes, based on the diameter of the tubes or how they are manipulated. “I’ve never collaborated so closely with an orchestrator, or with instrument makers,” Laffrey reports. “We have this world where you pick something up and suddenly you are making music.”
A significant element of the Once on This Island set — the crashed power pole — lies practically unnoticed until the story’s redemptive finale. Those sitting close enough to the pole will notice there are photos tacked onto its trunk. “It is a memorial object,” says Laffrey. “These are the pictures and the mementos provided by our company of loved ones they have lost. We felt that the pole is really a spine through our story and it is sort of the resurrection of our hurricane-racked world.” It is based on the central pole typically found in any Haitian Vodou temple. “It’s a beautiful symbolic object that represents the connection between the world of man and the world above — the spirits, the gods. Beyond that, we thought it is also a connection between our company and the roles that they are playing — this community of storytellers and our community of actors.”
Laffrey’s set is distinguished by a surfeit of objects and minute detail that no member of the audience can ever be expected to take in completely from the vantage point of their specific seat. “I love that,” says the designer. “I think that if you are the person who sees a specific thing, you know it’s just for you. That is a cool part of this experience.” If you happen to be one of those audience members sitting alongside the back wall of the theatre in the seats close to the trailer truck and the musicians’ deck, you may glimpse one of Laffrey’s personal favorites: an image of a dachshund. It’s a photo image of a magazine tear-out that he saw tacked on a wall during his visit to Haiti. “Who could possibly explain that? But it was such a beautiful, peculiar, slightly anachronistic thing,” Laffrey remarks.
“Being able to craft the biggest 360 panorama design and also these really micro close-ups, all as part of one experience, has been really fulfilling and gratifying. In a way, it’s a wonderful expression of things about design that I’m the most interested in,” he continues. “It’s how people watch a piece of theater as a fundamental part of design –– a testament to the value and power of real materials instead of fake materials. It’s gritty and rough and nonillusionistic, but it has storytelling flair. It’s a process that was driven by, and wholly inspired by, carefully curated and developed research.”
Ultimately it all came together, Laffrey says, when he saw the space he designed populated with a live audience. “To see it with 700 bodies — that was thrilling. The audience is the final but most essential ingredient.”