It’s one of Rebecca Cribbin’s first projects as the Guthrie Theater’s new director of production. And she’s being thrown into a pool.
It’s not hazing; it’s “Metamorphoses.” Based on ancient fables by the Roman poet Ovid — including the stories of Narcissus and Orpheus and Eurydice — “Metamorphoses” is set in and around the pool of water that currently covers the Guthrie’s entire thrust stage. Created by theater artist Mary Zimmerman in 1996 before making its way to Broadway in 2002 (Zimmerman won a Tony Award for directing), “Metamorphoses” opened Thursday, with a production that was coproduced with California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre (where it ran this year).
The Guthrie has used water features in the past. But an onstage pool where actors hop in and out, their clothes and hair wringing wet? That’s a new one.
“The minute you mention to any theater technician something like this, their interest will be piqued,” said Cribbin, who joined the Minneapolis theater in November. “It was one of those things that felt challenging. And I do love a challenge.”
At the Guthrie, the entire stage essentially has become a giant trap door filled with water. And the work of supporting 1,500 gallons of water that weighs about 12,500 pounds is done by a wooden structure the audience will never see. Guthrie crews constructed an enormous network of braces that stands on the concrete substructure beneath the thrust part of the stage.
That’s where they’re keeping a stash of buckets, just in case. “Water has a mind of its own, so I’m sure we will have leaks,” said Cribbin, whose aqua-theatrical history includes the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Penelopiad” (which featured a small pool) and the double-bill of “Wolf Hall” and ”Bring Up the Bodies” (which featured rainfall and was conceived with its own version of the River Thames).
But Ginny Mulvaney, owner of Custom Pools and Spas, insists the buckets won’t be necessary. “The only thing that would cause a problem would be if you put something sharp in there,” said Mulvaney, whose Hopkins-based firm installed a custom-made plastic liner in the 23-by-20-foot pool — larger than the one at Berkeley Rep. “We cut in all of the fittings. There were a couple of leaks on the equipment they got from the Berkeley people, but all of those got fixed.”
Mulvaney was impressed by the Guthrie staff’s work on the pool framework, built under the leadership of technical director Jim Gängl, especially since pools are not exactly the theater’s specialty.
“It’s holding together great so far,” she said of the Gängl team’s reinforcements. “So I’d say they did a perfect job.”
Entering the ‘Splash Zone’
As with any pool, installation was only the beginning of the work.
Actors will be pleased to know the pool is heated. The plan is to keep water temperature just above 100 degrees, roughly the equivalent of a warm bath. But that requires two noisy heaters, which must be shut off before each 90-minute performance. Gängl figures the pool will cool about 2 degrees during each show, which should still be comfortable for the actors.
What won’t be so comfortable is leaving the pool and milling about in wet costumes backstage, where air temperature runs in the low 70s. That’s where the crew took its cues from ice fishermen.
“For when the actors go backstage, we’re building little warming huts,” Cribbin said, noting that heaters will run in the huts during performances. “Obviously, their clothes will be wet, but they can stay somewhat comfortable if they’re at least kept warm.”
Crews also will test the water twice a day to monitor alkalinity and levels of bromine, the chemical that prevents the development of harmful bacteria (bromine maintains its integrity better at high temperatures than chlorine and won’t leave the theater smelling like a public pool).
“We want to see what happens when we have a couple performances a day and we can’t have the floater in the pool, bobbing around and dispensing sanitizer, because there are people in it, using it,” Gängl said. “You have to keep track because, especially with the water being so hot, it’s a breeding ground for bacteria if the chemistry gets a little off.”
Cribbin and her staff stand ready to address any other problems that might arise.
“The thing I’m most nervous about is that the actors have been doing it for many weeks in Berkeley and they’re used to the way it worked there,” she said. “So we want to be sure to re-create that comfort level.”
That’s why the Guthrie installed a layer of foam beneath the pool liner, to make navigating in bare feet more secure.
They also added extra waterproofing, to help the production avoid the fate of a Minneapolis play that was shut down in 2017 when actors spotted an electrical circuit near the stage pool.
“Water and electricity don’t mix,” Cribbin said. “There are a couple of footlights that will be shielded from having any water fall on them, and we just need to be mindful that there isn’t anything electrical going anywhere near the water.”
“Metamorphoses” is not the Guthrie’s first time at the water park, but it is its most ambitious use of H2O to date. A giant wall supposedly held back water throughout the run of “The Good Hope” (1993). Virtually all of “Nice Fish” (2016) took place on frozen (fake) ice. There were rainstorms in “The Bluest Eye” (2017) and “Indecent” (2018). “Other Desert Cities” (2013) was set in a Palm Springs home with a 50-foot-long water feature.
But for these shows, audiences took in the effects at a remove. “Metamorphoses” is different. It has a Splash Zone.
“We are putting in seven seats in a little recess” at the front of the thrust stage, Cribbin said. “That’s the Splash Zone, and we have ordered towels for the seven members of the public who are sitting there so if they get wet, which they invariably will, they can dry themselves off.” (Splash Zone tickets can be purchased via the Guthrie box office by phone or in-person.)
Guthrie staffers, too, hope to get close to the water. The stage area remains strictly off-limits to nonactors (off the record, several employees admitted it may be hard to resist slipping into the theater for a relaxing foot bath) but that may not matter now that their eyes are open to the wonders of having a pool.
“I’ve never had one,” Gängl said. “But I want one now.”