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Extreme Makeunder

How the house in Clybourne Park ages 50 years in fifteen minutes


In Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (opening April 19 at the Walter Kerr Theater), the set tells the story of an extreme socioeconomic shift in one Chicago neighborhood. Act One, set in 1959, shows a cozy, middle-class house whose owners are moving out (making way for the Youngers, the black family fromA Raisin in the Sun). Come 2009, in Act Two, the house reflects a neighborhood gone to seed and ready for the gentrifying white couple that wants to buy it and tear it down. “It needs to feel like the exact same house, only completely trashed, 50 years later,” says Daniel Ostling, the play’s scenic designer. How does it work? Over the fifteen-minute intermission, the set’s basic structure (plaster, woodwork, floor) is all that remains unchanged, as two carpenters, one flyman, three people on props, one sound person, one electrician, and an assistant stage manager dive in and transform the rest.

1. The Entrance

This chunk of the set—door and windows, mostly—is the only one that’s hauled up into the flyspace and entirely replaced. The bench stays on the stage and is removed separately.

2. The Floor

There’s no time to replace most of the floor during intermission, so the scuffs and other signs of distress are cleverly masked during the first act by rugs, furniture, and moving boxes.

3. The Kitchen

The swinging door separating the kitchen from the living and dining area is lifted off its hinges and removed, and the tile floor—painted on three Masonite panels—is pulled up by hand to reveal beat-up wood.

4. The Light Fixtures

A stagehand unscrews the two wall sconces and pulls out some wires (the sconces aren’t lit, so there’s no power to shut off). The new ceiling light hangs off-kilter and has broken bulb coverings; it’s clipped to the bottom of the old one, which is then hoisted upward so it’s hidden.

5. The Staircase

A fifteen-foot-wide staircase unit is unanchored and rolled off, the landing acting as a dolly to remove props and furniture. The replacement arrives, also transporting props. The L-shaped wallpaper section at the foot of the stairs is spun around to reveal graffiti.

6. The Wallpaper

Unable to find a pattern he liked for the 1959 set, Ostling digitally created floral wallpaper and had it printed. The 2009 set has two clashing papers, both reproductions of seventies wallpaper that’s been aged and slathered with graffiti. The triangular wallpaper section on the staircase is held in place by magnets, so it can be peeled off in a moment.

7. The Fireplace

It’s the first thing that stagehands roll away, opening up the set so furniture can be cleared quickly. The attached bookcase goes with it; then the stained-glass window and frame are popped out and replaced.

8. The Props

The final step adds atmosphere, as working-class fifties furnishings—a chafing dish, an AM radio, the mantelpiece clock—disappear and are replaced with discarded McDonald’s bags and condom wrappers. The dilapidation was inspired by the bungalow in Chicago that Ostling’s assistant bought and began to renovate in 2010.

Photo by Nathan Johnson

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