Turntables and Trap Doors
Critical Dialogue about performances in London
Catherine Armbrust and Elizabeth Hall
Elizabeth and I (referred to as Liz and Cat in the proceeding dialogue) are rising seniors at Vanderbilt University where we both study theatre. Both of us went on a trip to London and various cities in Scotland to study Theatre and Performance in the UK with several other students and our professor, Dr. Christin Essin. Liz and I were very interested in the technical elements of the shows that we saw while in London and Scotland. One night at the end of our trip, we decided to engage in a recorded dialogue about Turntables, Trap Doors, and the various ways that they were used in the shows discussed below.
Cat: Ok let’s talk about trap doors and turntables! So which were the shows that had turntables?
Cat and Liz:
- Come From Away (Turntable)
- Follies (Turntable)
- Half God of Rainfall
Cat: Half God of Rainfall could be a trap door.
Liz: Is it?
Cat: Yeah because the stage opens up to reveal a pool of water.
Liz: Yeah but it was at ground level… like we can see the water on the stage. It’s not something coming up or going down from the surface.
Cat: Yeah I suppose that’s true.
Liz: Let’s put that in the “unclear” category.
Cat and Liz:
- The Provoked Wife (Trap Door)
- Small Island (Turntable AND Trap Doors)
- The Lehman Trilogy (Turntable)
- Henry IV Part One (Trap Door)
- The Lion King (Turntable AND Trap Doors)
Cat: So 8 shows that used either trap doors or turntables or both.
__________________________ Turntables _________________________________
Cat: Wow. Okay so let’s talk about the turntables first.
Liz: Should we talk about the isolated turntable use? Or the shows that also had trap doors? How about we talk about the introduction to the turntable on this trip which was Come From Away.
Cat: Hmmm yes.
Liz: In which I was greatly disappointed with their use of the turntable.
Cat: They kind of just used it as a conveyor belt.
Liz: Yes. And that is my least favorite use of a turntable… in which they just walk and don’t go anywhere because they are walking on a treadmill.
Cat: It’s like lazy blocking almost.
Liz: Yes, and it’s like you can easily mimic that same motion with people just walking in place and pretending to travel somewhere. It just looks kind of stupid to me when they’re actually doing it on a rotating thing…
Cat: It’s really just used as a way to pretend you’re traveling somewhere and it’s like…
Cat: …a poor use of a turntable.
Liz: It’s so easily conveyed without a turntable, so if you’re going to build a turntable or rent a space that has a turntable you should use it more effectively.
Cat: Right. They didn’t have any scenery that went around. There was no rotation of scene to show you a different side. They didn’t have any juxtaposition of one side of the stage to the other… they simply used it as a conveyor belt.
Liz: My favorite use of a turntable is when the movement of something rotating is used to accentuate something still, so like when all the characters form a tableau or a really interesting formation, and it rotates while they are all stopped in one position, holding the same position. In Hamilton they do this where people will be fighting or holding up a chair and then all of a sudden, they stop and hold that position. Using the turntable allows you to see this position from all sides to just make that moment feel out of time. Like slow motion almost.
Cat: What do you think that that motion does thematically?
Liz: I really think it is equivalent to slow motion in film or when you are reading a book and a character is described to have stopped in time for a second, and then there is a pause where all of these things are described and you get to read all of these things even though they are happening simultaneously. In theatre, it can be hard to see all at once because obviously you can’t look everywhere at once. But when a turntable is rotating, you get to see every angle and every aspect of the moment. It allows that moment to stand still and lets you fully take in whatever emotion is being portrayed in that moment (or what they’re trying to make you feel). It’s clear that they want you to stop and that they’re saying “this is important. Think about this moment.”
Cat: Which of these 8 shows do you think used the turntable like that?
Liz: The image I’m using as my example is Hamilton. None of them really used it in that way except Follies a couple of times, but it was less in a dramatic moment and more in the dance numbers, like in that kick line where they rotated in like a “grand finale” moment. They did that, but they never really used it to accentuate a super dramatic moment. They used it more like you were talking about earlier, where they show different sides of a stage and different spaces.
Cat: Would you say that Follies was your favorite use of a turntable?
Liz: Probably… but I did really like The Lion King’s use of it’s combination turntable and trap door where the pride rock came out of the ground but also turned and rotated.
Cat: It was a very important thematic and technical use of a turntable and trap door.
Liz: Yes. The only time that a show came close to what I was talking about is in The Lion King. He wasn’t completely still as he slowly ascended the steps to Pride Rock, but it was a moment that they were capturing while it slowly rotated.
Cat: It’s kind of a conveyor belt moment because he’s staying in the same physical space while the set is moving under him but it was also an extremely important thematic moment that they were trying to emphasize. He’s climbing, he’s rising up to Pride Rock, which is why I would say it is better than simply a conveyor belt because it also had that thematic element.
Liz: Which is weird because I can’t remember which direction the rock was going in.
(A side conversation ensued about which direction the rock was rotating).
Cat: I think that says a lot because even though both of us were analyzing it as a moment of thematic and technological relevance, neither of us can remember exactly what happened.
Liz: Well also it’s my favorite moment of The Lion King — when that music plays. It’s him ascending to his kingdom, literally, as he’s ascending this giant staircase. All of that is just conveyed through his movement, not through words.
Cat: And even though both of us were analyzing it as an awesome piece of turntable and trap door use, it was still mesmerizing and did not distract us from the actual moment.
Liz: I almost cried.
Liz: I think that that got the closest to slowing down a moment to make you feel it. The only time that Come From Away did it, when they could have done it so many other times, was the one time during the part when they would line up in rows of 2 or 4 to symbolize sitting on a plane. They would just sit there and I wish that they had rotated that moment to make it feel dizzying because they are going stir crazy on a plane. It never rotated until Act Two! They only rotated it when they went back on the plane to go home and I thought: “That’s not dramatic anymore! They’re not stuck on the plane anymore!” I thought it was just such a weird time to use that finally.
Cat: I really enjoyed the turntable use from Come From Away at the time. However, since we’ve seen so many other pieces of theatre that had really good uses of turntables, I would say that my favorite use of a turntable…
Liz: Well describe what you want from a turntable because I described mine.
Cat: My favorite use of a turntable is when it shows a dichotomy between two elements. Come From Away never did that. I developed this favorite use of a turntable from all of the other shows that we have seen. Like, for example, in Follies when they had that giant wall in the middle. One side was all of the older characters at their reunion party, and the other side was all of their younger counterparts doing what they used to do in the past. This was only in the first act because then the wall went away…
Cat: …but it was constantly rotating to show you what the older generation was doing, and then mirror the scene in the younger generation. I loved that flipping back and forth. Then, after the wall went away, there was a moment in the second act when Phyllis and Ben were on one side of the turntable, on the edge, and Sally and Buddy were on the other. Each pair was arguing amongst themselves and the arguments were mirroring each other. As the turntable rotated, you saw one argument playing out, and then it rotated again and you saw the other argument. Then, there was a really interesting bit of blocking where one half of each couple crossed the middle of the turntable and they faced each other across this huge rotating gap. I thought that it showed the two sides really well and made a thematic statement about the arguments and the two couples.
Cat: Small Island also did that really well. There was an apartment building staircase in the center of the turntable. One side of the staircase was the nice living room of a single white woman. The other side of the staircase was the tiny one-room apartment of a black couple. There was a huge dichotomy between this white woman living alone and this black couple struggling to survive in this one room that they can barely afford.
Liz: Yeah and the difference in furniture and everything. Those furniture pieces never change at all throughout the second act. The pieces were always there, whereas in the first act, the furniture moved around all the time.
Cat: Right. The second act was a unit set where one side was one way and the other side was another way. As the plot lines in the story came together, the turntable would rotate from one side of the unit set to the other, displaying either the white woman’s apartment or the black couple’s apartment. Additionally, the turntable always moved clockwise. In theatre, moving clockwise usually symbolizes moving forward in time. It always moved clockwise from one apartment to another, and even though there were sometimes people or crowds moving around the set as the turntable rotated, it always moved clockwise.
Liz: Yeah almost every time the entire ensemble would come out as it rotated and they would move props and move costumes.
Cat: And it would always signify the passage of time.
Liz: Yeah but they wouldn’t always rotate with the stage…
Cat: They would swarm it from all directions.
Liz: …there would be this sort of hustle and bustle and then they would all disappear and then the set would be empty again as it came to a stop at the next apartment. It definitely signified a transitional period.
Liz: I was going to say, in our conversation about Follies, that the rotation back and forth from each different time period, this rotating back in time, reminds me of my other absolute favorite use of a turntable. We did not see it here, but in Groundhog Day, the musical, the turntable literally rotates counterclockwise to signify that they’re going back in time to start another day all over again. It seems very simple but it’s so fun.
Cat: To your mind it’s important.
Liz: Exactly! It’s like: “we’re going back again. Time to rewind the clock!”
Cat: And another thing is that, when the turntable goes clockwise and someone walks against it (conveyor belt style), they are walking from left to right which also symbolizes going forward in time. When the crowd would swarm the stage during Small Island, while the turntable was rotating, they had to walk from house left to house right on the turntable during the scene shift. It just added to that “forward progression of time” ordeal.
Liz: Oh yeah!
Cat: So what about The Lehman Trilogy?
Liz: They used the turntable in a very different…
Cat: Vastly different way than how either of us have talked about turntables so far.
Liz: I don’t analyze the blocking in the same way that you do, like when you were talking about the people arguing on opposite sides of the turntable. I didn’t even think about that during that moment. I guess I think of it more as the movement of the turntable itself and what image it shows as it’s moving. To me, all I got from the turntable in The Lehman Trilogy was that it would rotate so the characters could move into one of the three different rooms on the set… so that you could see that room at the forefront of the stage. That’s the only purpose I could perceive from the use of that turntable: turning the set so that you could see different rooms and didn’t get bored only sitting in one room the entire time.
Cat: I also felt that the three different rooms were conducive to different types of scenes. They had different setups that allowed for different patterns of blocking so you knew where you were in space and time even though they were just in a corporate office building.
Liz: Yeah, like the room with the big table was used for all the bargaining-type scenes and the other, smaller rooms were used to show characters when they were at home. So they kind of just rotated it to show different locations.
Cat: It was basically just designating different slices of the turntable to be different scenic locations… but there was no dichotomy or thematic relevance when they would go from one room to the other. It went both clockwise and counterclockwise yet the story never moved backwards in time.
Liz: To me, it really just moved so you could see different set pieces. I never really noticed it being used any other way.
Cat: I will say, something that I did like was that there were different corners. The fact that the set was a perfect cube stacked on top of a turntable made it special because of the corners dividing the different rooms almost like walls.
Liz: And sometimes they would rotate it so that we were looking directly at a corner.
Cat: Right! And that called for a different type of blocking which was usually kind of disorienting. I noticed that the corners were used most often when the characters onstage were in some type of crisis.
Liz: It was almost as if they were shooting a film from different angles.
Cat: Yes! It was very cinematic.
Liz: Still very effective and a good use of a turntable… it kept me engaged. It just didn’t…
Cat: It didn’t do either of the things that we most love in using turntables.
___________________________Trap Doors ______________________________
Cat: Let’s talk about trap doors! We saw trap doors in Half-God of Rainfall, The Provoked Wife, Small Island, Henry IV Part One, and The Lion King. Let’s talk about Half-God of Rainfall.
Liz: The stage split… like cracked.
Cat: Yes, and it revealed something that was not there before which is what trap doors do.
Liz: Yes but we basically realized that the stage had been elevated the entire time.
Cat: Yes it was basically a show-deck that split in half.
Liz: But the water that it revealed was on the stage, just under the deck. I don’t really know if that’s a trap door or if…
Cat: If it’s just a show-deck revealing the stage that was underneath.
Liz: Yes, it never went below the ground level.
Cat: Well if you had a show-deck and then put a trapdoor in a show-deck… that would still be a real trap door.
Liz: But it wasn’t a trap door in the show deck… the entire show deck moved. With a trap door, it reveals something by means of its elevation… something either comes up or goes down. This opened up but then stayed like that the entire time and the water became the new stage upon which the character performed. That’s why I really don’t think it was a trap door.
Cat: This was a good debate to have because I think we established the definition of a trap door. How about The Provoked Wife? That had a very by-the-book trap door that they used as a cellar.
Liz: They also used it as an exit.
Cat: Yes, it was like a staircase that people could go up and down.
Liz: Two men hid in it at a certain point when they weren’t supposed to be somewhere, and then they were revealed when another character found them there.
Cat: And they used the door itself to jar people because they kept slamming it closed. Multiple times.
Liz: It was heavy. It made a loud sound. I didn’t like it.
Cat: The performers would push it, like physically slam it down and then look at the audience and laugh, acknowledging that they had slammed the door in their faces.
Liz: Something I noticed is that the theatre in the Royal Shakespeare Company was designed with many side views that could see down over the stage. I personally could see everything that was going down in the trap door. One time, someone was supposedly pushed into the trap door but I saw him fall onto a mattress and then get pulled away. It ruined the magic for me. However, people on the ground floor could not see that and they were the people that the actors were performing at for the most part.
Cat: But also think about the view of someone in the front row when the trap door was open. They would not have been able to see anything past the trap door while it was sitting there appointing upward.
Liz: It just seemed like a weird use of a trap door to me because usually trap doors reveal something subtly whereas this trap door was very in your face.
Cat: You’re right. They would pull it up very dramatically as if opening a door.
Liz: Right. It was weird that that was an entrance and exit and that they would slam it like a door.
Cat: Right. Which also brings us Henry IV Part One. That trap door was also used as a doorway to a cellar. As an entrance and exit.
Liz: I just thought that that was so weird. They barely used it at all.
Cat: It didn’t really serve much of a purpose. I think they only opened it twice.
Liz: To me it just seemed like that trap door was built into the Globe so they might as well use it. It would not have been a necessary thing to build if it had not already been there.
Cat: It was a weird two-time use.
Liz: They either should have used it more and had it signify a certain space like in The Provoked Wife, or they should have not used it at all. There was no pattern established that involved the trap door. It made me think “huh… why did they just use that trap door.” It gave me more questions and drew me out of the performance.
Cat: I think what we’re used to as theatre-goers is trap doors like the ones they used in Small Island. They just very subtly went down, something went onto it, and then it came back up, either revealing a new person or a new piece of furniture or whatever it was… just very subtly.
Liz: Yes. The Shakespearean theatres liked to use trap doors as storage spaces. Which is fine. I mean I think that’s because they did not have the technology that we do now to raise and lower a platform the way we now expect a trap door to function.
Cat: It was mostly used as an additional entry and exit point for performers. You couldn’t pull an entire set piece from the ground like in Small Island and The Lion King.
Cat: We have now put trap doors into two categories. On one hand, there’s trap doors as we know them with mechanisms to raise and lower platforms to subtly reveal people or objects, and then there’s the Shakespearean trap door which was used as an additional entry or like a cupboard. Interesting!
Cat: Awesome! Well I think that just about covers trap doors and turntables (and my phone is about to die) so let’s cap it at that!