RICHARD HOOVER: Fitting a Cellblock Within a Circle in a Square
''WE want to put the audience in prison.'' That was the director Trevor Nunn's first comment when he enlisted the scenic artist Richard Hoover to design the set for the world premiere of Tennessee Williams's ''Not About Nightingales'' at the Royal National Theater in London.

And, indeed, the striking environmental set that Mr. Hoover created for the production, currently at Circle in the Square on Broadway, immediately affects how audiences experience Williams's harrowing play.

Based on a true story, ''Not About Nightingales'' depicts a prison hunger strike that results in four inmates getting roasted alive in a steam-filled torture chamber known as Klondike. On the stage, a two-tier cold-steel cellblock stares across a clanging grated floor at the warden's office, which consists entirely of metallic gray fixtures.

The set itself represents a physical confrontation as stark and unyielding as the showdown between Boss Whalen, the brutal prison warden played by Corin Redgrave, and Butch O'Fallon (James Black), the hard-headed convict who leads the strike. From two facing banks of seats, the audience follows the action as if it were the deadliest of tennis games.

Not the least of the production's achievements is its ingenious manipulation of Circle in the Square's notoriously cumbersome theater-in-the-round. What has usually served as the world's largest and weirdest living room, inevitably furnished with backless chairs and sofas, has been transformed into a claustrophobic environment charged with the tension of impending violence.

In his review in The New York Times, Ben Brantley said: ''I have never known the awkward theatrical space that is Circle in the Square to be used as effectively as it is here, with the prisoners marching in lock-step through the aisles and the guards suddenly materializing at your side. Mr. Nunn's staging extends the prison's boundaries to embrace the audience, further inhibiting any safe sense of a spectator's distance.''

On Monday, ''Not About Nightingales'' received six Tony Award nominations, including one for Mr. Hoover for best scenic design. Mr. Nunn, Mr. Redgrave, Finbar Lynch, who portrays a prisoner-clerk in the warden's office, and the lighting designer, Chris Parry, were also nominated, as was the play itself.

Although he began as a theater designer, Mr. Hoover has spent the last 15 years working primarily on films, among them ''Dead Man Walking,'' the Tim Robbins movie in which Sean Penn plays a prisoner on Death Row. It was this film that brought Mr. Hoover to the attention of Mr. Nunn, who recently took on the job of running the National Theater in London.

When Vanessa Redgrave approached Mr. Nunn with the manuscript of a 60-year-old never-produced prison drama by Tennessee Williams, he knew just who would know how to put it on the stage.

In separate interviews with the director and the designer, each man was eager to give the other credit for key elements of the set: a testament to their intricate collaboration.

The metallic look of the show was Mr. Hoover's idea, said Mr. Nunn by telephone from London: ''His first instinct is to work with real materials, because the camera's scrutiny immediately discovers anything that's phony. We didn't have to use them in a real way, but we wanted real surfaces, real noise, real material. Metallic floor, ironwork, bars, sliding doors. We wanted things that would slam and clatter and crash. We wanted to furnish the place with all-metal benches, metal bunks that would get moved away -- all the ingredients of a kind of infernal machine, an appalling man-made metallic machine.'' The prison cell unit alone weighs almost 10 tons.

Meanwhile, it was Mr. Nunn's idea to keep the color scheme monochromatic, so that everything, from the American flag to a child's rubber duck, appears in shades of gray.

The two men worked out every detail of the production design while reading the script aloud at Mr. Nunn's house in the country in Surrey. ''Trevor is one of the most rigorous directors I've ever worked with in terms of questioning a script,'' Mr. Hoover said. ''He does an amazing amount of homework before going into rehearsal, looking at every sentence, trying to figure out where it would go onstage.''

The environmental aspect of the production was more or less dictated by the peculiar dimensions of the Cottesloe Theater, the experimental space at the National Theater where ''Not About Nightingales'' was first installed. A long narrow black box (30 by 170 feet), the Cottesloe seated only 234 spectators for the production. ''It's completely surrounded by metallic galleries, so we had each one patrolled by guards,'' Mr. Nunn said. ''The audience was perpetually aware of guards on duty. And when moments of violence occurred, the sense was that it started onstage and continued through and beyond the audience.''

The exact same set traveled to Houston last summer for a staging at the Alley Theater, which officially co-produced ''Not About Nightingales'' with the National and the Moving Theater (a company founded by Ms. Redgrave and her brother, Corin).

To preserve the traverse-style presentation, with the audience seated on either side of the stage, the Alley rented a high-ceilinged convention hall. With space around it and the seating capacity increased to 500, the set was somewhat less intimate than at the Cottesloe. But in Houston it took on a formidable beauty as a free-standing sculptural object.

Searching for suitable theaters in New York, Mr. Hoover became excited at the prospect of staging the play in some empty space, such as a pier or the roof of a high school. He looked at the Manhattan Center on West 34th Street and Studio 54 before ''Cabaret'' got to it. These options proved too expensive. He views Circle in the Square as a reasonable compromise.

To keep the seating capacity at 561, he had to dismantle the giant wall of filing cabinets in Boss Whalen's office that represented another bureaucratic form of incarceration. ''Physically, we couldn't quite transform Circle in the Square into the prison,'' he said, ''but we could have the prison visit the theater.''

A small, soft-spoken, 52-year-old Illinois native whose unassuming demeanor masks what Mr. Nunn calls a ''terrier determination,'' Mr. Hoover began his career as an apprentice at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. He got involved with the American Indian movement and made a one-hour documentary titled ''We Are the Evidence of the Western Hemisphere,'' which introduced him to the independent film community.

When he moved to California in the mid-1980's, his theater background came in unexpectedly handy in getting movie jobs. He was hired as the set designer for David Lynch's television series ''Twin Peaks'' because the father of its producer had directed the first play Mr. Hoover designed in Minneapolis. And when he sent his resume to the Actors Gang, a Los Angeles theater company whose hard-edged New York-style work he admired, he wound up forging a relationship with the company's co-founder, Tim Robbins, who hired him as the set designer for the films ''Bob Roberts,'' ''Dead Man Walking,'' and ''The Cradle Will Rock,'' which is expected to open in the fall.

How does designing for film compare with designing for theater? ''It has to do with the eyeball, really,'' Mr. Hoover said. ''The perceptive eyeball in film is the camera. We're creating emotion pictures, manipulating the audience in a very focused way toward some end. In the theater, the audience is a collective series of eyeballs. The theater space can be less literal. We're not completing every nook and cranny. That makes it more abstract and more interesting for me.''

Most important, he said, is the emotional journey of the script. ''How does it resonate personally, and how do I physicalize that personal experience? It's got to make sense here,'' he said, touching his chest over his heart.

Mr. Hoover acknowledged that ''Not About Nightingales'' was designed to make those watching it nervous. ''But it is not an attack on the audience,'' he said. ''We're trying to show people who are locked up in a lot of different ways.''

New York Times, May 9, 1999, Sunday

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