Building a City - On Stage with In The Heights

Spiro Kostof, in his seminal text A History of Architecture, defines major American cities like New York City as the pinnacle of change in architectural attitudes at the turn of the twentieth century.

The term “American Renaissance” now circulated freely, and domestic parallels were labored at every turn… Art works, bits of architecture, even entire buildings were spirited out of Europe. Americans, the novelist Henry James said, were superior to Europeans in that “[we] can pick and choose and assimilate and in short (aesthetically and culturally) claim our property wherever we find it.”
— Kostof, A History of Architecture

The call for uniformity amidst unruly urbanization typifies the national mood during the early part of the century. In the next fifty years, skyscrapers like the Empire State Building would begin to emerge as a symbol for the height of achievement. Immigrants would continue to file through the gates of Ellis Island in search of a better life. The era of cutthroat industrialization and robber barons made for ruthless competition among those trying to make it to the top despite economic privilege, and after surviving two global conflicts where the cost of casualty was commonplace, the post-World War II period was met by an American people tired for conflict and ripe for optimism.  

Of course, in 2019, it might be difficult to see how the trials of Modernism apply directly to a neighborhood like Washington Heights, a community historically known for the accomplishment of Dominicans since the 1960s. Most of the businesses located in Washington Heights are locally owned, and residents have lived there due to its accessibility to cheap housing, affordable education, and unique blend of Latino Caribbean cultures (and a small smattering of Irish and Orthodox Jews). The promise of prosperity, however, is never without its challenges. It is unsurprising that many inhabitants in the Heights wish to leave in search of something better: despite have a higher rate of college-educated residents than the rest of the city, social obstacles — such as income inequality, work discrimination, and racial prejudice — have long plagued the immigrants who seek out better opportunities for their families. In this regard, Washington Heights is not unlike much of America today.  

I had the opportunity to live on West 153rd Street for six years with two of the finest people I have ever met (both of them happen to be architects). The neighborhood I lived in straddled north Harlem and Washington Heights, but the change in community as one walks north towards the George Washington Bridge is subtle. Different dialects of Spanish are the words on the street. The smell of sweet breads from Latin America permeate the streets in the morning while those cleaning out the restaurants and corner stores from the night before diligently work to put trash on the street in time for pick up. In the summer, women sit on plastic milk crates and fan themselves while exchanging chisme, and old men play canasta ritualistically on top of folding chairs and tables. People learn about each other’s families and histories and cultures and ideas. They learn of their values. In the middle of the fastest city on the planet, time seems to move slower here.  

As a teacher, I wanted to share this part of my experience with my students and with our audiences from the moment they stepped into our Performing Arts Center. The set is often the first thing an audience sees when they come to our productions, so it had to encapsulate the Heights, its sense of anxiety and its perpetual promise. The set design for Ovation's production of IN THE HEIGHTS was inspired by the 2008 original Broadway production by designer Anna Louizos. The design employs several concepts that we often discuss in our Technical Theatre courses, listed below. 

(1) Forced perspective. Forced perspective is an optical illusion that manipulates perception, its byproduct the creation of height, depth, and complexity. My personal taste will not allow me to walk into a theatre and enjoy something that is perfectly square. I often look at a set’s horizon to look for variance. Perfectly square ceiling lines or walls that are created to make a room, for example, bore me. I challenge my students to play with artifice. “Of course, it’s fake…” I tell them. “The trick is not making it real. The secret is making an audience forget it’s artificial.” Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think every story needs forced perspective, but in a place that is known to take creative risks, forced perspective allows us to take a calculated leap into the imagination.   

(2) Repetition and use of color. These are, truthfully, two separate concepts, but in IN THE HEIGHTS, they are interconnected. Brick color is the perfect example of both of these concepts working in tandem.A general concept in set design is that a mixture of darker colors on the set allow for brighter costumes and makeup on actors to pop on stage. Our bricks have at least three colors on them: a base, a darker color, and a lighter color. The darker color may sometimes be lightly mixed with water in a technique to produce a more opaque effect or as a variant in shading. In fact, how we manufacture and replicate the techniques in shading look almost mathematical up close. From far away, they create a desired effect of a dirty city block. When working with students, I often manage opportunities in our set design for repetition so that students can practice technique while working against the clock of a dwindling production schedule.   

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(3) Variety. Anyone who has ever visited New York knows that the symmetry of a street is the perfect example of irony: the streets in Manhattan, built on a grid, can look identical while also being completely unique at the same time. The set functions to provide four distinct locations (from left to right: Rosario's Car Service, Abuela's stoop, Usnavi's bodega, and Daniela's salon). Facade color, signage, shape, height, and varied entrances are all a few ways to distinguish one location from another to aid in the visual storytelling. The bridge at the back of the set is a tunnel to another part of the city. The enormity of the drop (designed by Dawson alumna and current University of Houston School of Theatre student Lauren Hale) gives off the sense that its inhabitants can’t escape where they come from. Every detail is an opportunity.  

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I firmly believe that dogged attention to detail must be developed in every student’s approach to theatre, from actors to young designers. Most of our set is made from recycled lumber and polystyrene foam insulation panels, and students need to be challenged in bringing out the set’s nuance. The bricks, for example, were first drawn on and then at an angle to accommodate ideas of forced perspective. Then, acetone was used to create the grooves in the grout using paintbrushes. Next, we put acetone in spray bottles to create an acidic, weathered look to the brick. We began painting the panels with a base coat before applying several darker and lighter colors to provide shading and contour to each of the bricks. With drying times, it took almost five days to create the level of detail needed for this set. It still isn’t perfect, but that’s why we have planned time to work on it before the show opens in mid-September. 

There are other issues that we talk about in class that go into the design of a set — the subconscious thought that manifests itself in total composition, for example, is not something that we should force ourselves to be aware of, but our research (and our empathy) should lead and inform our design choices. I tell students that, ultimately, the set must tell a story itself of the people who live there. The set is there to give us a sense of time, place, community, and, ultimately, understanding. Without the set, this piece of theatre would simply not work. The community and its structures (especially, with an artistic tribute that is made at the end of the show) are vital to the emotional impact the story has on its audience.  

I greatly admire the poetic sentiment of IN THE HEIGHTS in that the set does not move, but everything on the street changes in the matter of a few short hours. The world moves, and we are witness to it.

Kostof reminds us at the end of his book that “we must accept that all buildings…are worthy of study… that buildings are only the visible tip of a complicated story that encompasses politics and economics, the philosophy of human institutions, and the identity that people of all social levels find in the built environment that they inhabit.”  

Usnavi says, “This corner is my destiny.” It’s a tall order, but with a lot of work and a little bit of hope, our students can build cities on stage and worlds within themselves. 

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John Grimmett