Art and Engineering Unite: Mammoth Steel Wheel Anchors New Production of Prometheus Bound
Twenty-three foot revolving wheel creates focal point for classical Greek drama at the Getty Villa’s outdoor amphitheater.
Bringing a contemporary edge to an ancient work, actors perform on a five ton kinetic sculpture representing Prometheus’ mythological mountaintop.
Valencia, CA, May 30—This September, a monolithic work of scenic design will transform the outdoor amphitheater of the Getty Villa in Malibu, California—creating a contemporary focal point for the ancient Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound. Combining art with mechanical engineering, the twenty-three foot revolving steel wheel signifies the mythological mountain top where the suffering protagonist Prometheus was bound for all eternity. This work of functional kinetic sculpture is the single set piece for a new production of the ancient play.
Prometheus Bound is presented by the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) Center for New Performance (CNP) in association with Trans Arts and the Getty Museum. Prometheus Bound is directed by Travis Preston and introduces a world premiere translation by Joel Agee. It runs, at the Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, September 5-28, with previews on August 29-31.
Resembling a Ferris wheel combined with the workings of an enormous clock, the five ton wheel is an integral part of the action—serving as an elevated grid on which the actors perform. Ron Cephas Jones as Prometheus performs while strapped to a small wheel orbiting the rim of the larger disc.
“The wheel embodies a dense layer of imagery and metaphor, referencing medieval clocks, the Buddhist Wheel of Dharma, the zodiac, and a Catherine Wheel, among other symbols.” said Preston, Dean of the CalArts School of Theater and artistic director of CNP, “There’s an austere beauty to the wheel, but it is undeniably static, reinforcing the idea that the main character is locked in place, as demanded by the text.”
From concept and design to fabrication and installation, the wheel presented CNP’s production team with a fascinating series of theatrical challenges.
To conceive the wheel, scenic designer Efren Delgadillo, Jr., a CalArts alumnus, studied wind tunnels, water wheels, clock gears, and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. Mark Odom, engineer and co-founder of DAS Design Works, designed it to be sturdy yet maneuverable. The object was constructed at LA ProPoint, a fabricator of theme park rides and complex mechanical props. Construction was coordinated by CalArts’ student Bill Honigstein, an MFA3 in the technical design program, and will be installed by a team from both ProPoint and CalArts.
The wheel runs on human power. Resting on a base fitted with casters, actors push it across the stage—triggering two hidden wheels, one rolling across the floor is linked by chain to a second wheel that sets the big wheel in motion. Prometheus’ small wheel is controlled by an actor operating a ground-level steering wheel.
As the story progresses, actors perform while climbing on both wheels. To offset additional weight on the small wheel, Odom created a counter-balance system using dumbbells to keep it stable. Flying by Foy, a Los Vegas-based theatrical flying service, taught the actors how to maneuver safely on the elevated and sometimes moving structure.
Too large to transport in its entirety, the wheel was designed to be easily broken down and reassembled. Disassembled, it will be trucked to the Getty Villa in Malibu, and reconstructed in the Villa’s amphitheater. Beginning in mid-July, the wheel will be on view for museum visitors—providing a rare contrast to the museum’s architecture which is modeled after a first-century Roman villa. Said Laurel Kishi, performing arts manager at the J. Paul Getty Museum, “In terms of the look, the height and the footprint, we’ve never done anything like this before in our eight years of presenting theater. It’s almost like a contemporary art installation. We’re definitely excited.”
The CalArts Center for New Performance (CNP), the professional producing arm of the California Institute of the Arts, was established in 1999 as a forum for the creation of groundbreaking theatrical performance. Seminal artists from around the world are brought to CNP to develop work that expands the language, discourse, and boundaries of contemporary theater and performance. CNP supports a producing model that is artist and project-specific, giving priority to performances that cannot be easily produced in other circumstances—either because of scale of vision or extremity of aesthetic. CNP fosters the future of the theater by infusing its work with the talent, vitality and impulses of emerging artists in the CalArts community. CNP is headed by Travis Preston, Artistic Director; Carol Bixler, Producing Director; and Leslie Tamaribuchi, Director of Research and Planning.
Travis Preston directs theater and opera throughout the world and recently directed the Master Builder at the Almeida Theater in London, starring Stephen Dillane and Gemma Arterton, which is currently being readied for film production. He also directed the acclaimed production of Macbeth with Stephen Dillane for CNP at REDCAT in Disney Hall, which subsequently performed at the Almeida Theatre in London and then traveled to Sydney and Adelaide, Australia. Upcoming projects include The Long Road to Freedom with Harry Belafonte. In 2006 he was named Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture for “contributions to the arts in France and throughout the world.” He is Artistic Director of the CalArts Center for New Performance, the professional producing arm of California Institute of the Arts, and Dean of the CalArts School of Theater.
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The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that includes the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Foundation. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.
The J. Paul Getty Museum collects in seven distinct areas, including Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture and decorative arts, and photographs gathered internationally. The Museum's mission is to make the collection meaningful and attractive to a broad audience by presenting and interpreting the works of art through educational programs, special exhibitions, publications, conservation, and research.
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