Complete with stained-glass windows and thick blue carpet, the set of Chautauqua Theater Company’s The Christians has all the elements of a lavish megachurch.
The show, which opened last weekend and continues its run at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 3 in Bratton Theater, looks at how a single change in belief can ripple outward and affect all aspects of life.
The high, vaulted ceilings of Bratton Theater draw the eyes of audience members toward a large cross hung at the back of the set, and the arrangement of the stage is such that those in the seats are made to feel like members of a real congregation.
According to scenic and projection designer Adam Rigg, these elements are entirely intentional.
“We’ve got people coming in and saying ‘Oh, am I in a church?’ ” Rigg said. “It’s to the point where we’ll be sitting in rehearsal and someone will curse and then look up and say ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ So that feels like a success.”
The design team of The Christians has worked toward blurring the line between theater and church to sell the relatability and universal nature of the issues the play brings up.
“We wanted the set to feel open and contemporary, like it could almost be any church anywhere in the country,” said Masha Tsimring, the show’s lighting designer. “We didn’t want it to feel particularly Catholic or ancient.”
Tsimring said she used lighting to convey the subtle shifts in scene that occur without the actors ever leaving the church set. When the lighting dims slightly, characters might be in a more intimate setting, while the bright, full nature of the church lights paint a picture of a high-energy sermon.
Tsimring, Rigg and the rest of the design team put thought into the show down to the smallest detail.
Rigg recreated the church of his childhood with wood-paneled walls and bright, lavish carpet, and Tsimring considered how light would look as it emanated from onstage lamps versus ceiling-mounted lights. Costume designer Andrew Jean thought out how the lead character’s appearance could shift and deteriorate alongside his mental state as the show marches on.
But according to the design team, the technical elements of the play aren’t meant to steal the show. Sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman said the true heart of the show lies with the actors.
“Everything we’re doing with our technical elements is in support of the play,” Sulaiman said. “The emphasis is more on what the actors are saying in this show.”
According to Sulaiman, while some plays are certainly design-heavy, others are far more sparse, instead relying on the actors to drive home much of the emotion. He said The Christians is one such show.
To this end, the show’s crew has worked to make the technical parts present, but hard to perceive. Their goal has been to enhance the world of the play through subtle shifts in scene and minute modifications of the mood, all while allowing the play’s message to shine.
“Good design is sometimes pretty transparent and isn’t really always that noticeable,” Sulaiman said. “People thinking to themselves, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a really cool sound cue,’ is nice in a complimentary way, but it doesn’t always serve the play. Ideally, it makes people feel something without noticing they’re feeling it.”
The designers don’t mind that the full extent of their work sometimes goes unnoticed by the audience. Instead, they appreciate the depth of the show and the questions it raises.