Kris Stone has designed lots of theatre sets. Big ones for large scale opera and more intimate spaces for one act theatre. Sometimes she gets plenty of time to do her research, but there are other jobs which leave her with just a few days to get a working model up and running.
Her latest challenge is the world premiere of Upright Grand at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto. The story, centered upon a pianist father and his gifted daughter, required the passage of time to be shown by the evolution of various pianos. Not only that, she had to design a piano which looks enough like a real instrument to play while remaining invisible enough to reveal the actor’s full body, except for their hands.
So how do you do that? Enter Hilde, a 110 year old piano that deserves her own bio in the program. Stone christened her Hilde as she came to know the personality of the upright better. Just like costumes, the actors needed fittings with the piano as they learned to work together.
Months before being contacted for the show, Stone had come across a crazy metal sculpture in Brooklyn which looked “like a piano that had been deconstructed and hacked in half. Like it had been hit by lightning and had the wood burned away so only the metal remained,” she says.
Though Stone knew TheatreWorks Director of New Works Meredith McDonough to be an amazing director, the two had never worked together before Upright Grand. “Meredith knew the play inside and out,” Stone says.
Stone loved reading the play, written by acclaimed playwright Laura Schellhardt (Auctioning the Ainsleys), which features live music throughout the piece. But what really sold her was the inclusion of the score from Carousel. Stone had grown up listening to the album of that particular musical over and over. In Upright Grand, the father and daughter communicate by the ritual of playing the show from beginning to end.
So she signed on and got to work deconstructing pianos, hacking uprights apart to create a shell that mimicked Hilde’s form. Then, Stone happened upon a photo of a super-elongated full grand piano on a beach in Thailand and the way to conquer the sightlines started to click in her head.
One other happy accident involved the window behind the piano which is used to represent studios, rehearsal rooms and performance halls throughout the show. Stone had seen the window upstage from Lincoln Center so she hastily stretched sheets of clear vinyl tight to represent a window, but she couldn’t make the window stand up. “It kept tipping forward on the jacks,” she says, “which meant the circle, piano, and benches were all reflected.” This revealed the sheet music scattered across the floor and allows the audience to see into the mess of the rehearsal room. Then the window can be tipped up or curtains closed if anything needs to be hidden. Simple genius.
See Hilde and her human co-actors, Dan Hiatt, Renata Friedman and Brett Ryback at TheatreWorks. Upright Grand runs Tuesday through Sunday from July 11 through August 10 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. For tickets, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.
For more work from designer Kris Stone, visit www.kristonedesign.com
Written by Gillian Claus