Much more than just a pool of water

Juneau native Art Rotch helps construct key set piece for Perseverance Theatre's production of 'Metamorphoses'

Posted: Thursday, August 26, 2004

A s staged at Broadway's Circle in the Square theater, 114 years after first opening in Chicago, Mary Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses" was notable for its smooth, trance-inducing minimalism.

The idea of staging the colorful 2,000-year-old stories of the Roman poet Ovid in and around a 17,000-gallon swimming pool seemed complex. But the simple layout of pool and painted sky gave life to the story without superseding the life of the characters.

Juneau native Art Rotch, a former Perseverance Theatre employee and current full-time student at New York University, was taken by the water's metaphorical versatility.

It represents the ocean in the myth of Ceyx and Halcyon, an enchanted pool where King Midas wipes away his golden touch, a goblet for Erysichthon to drink from, as he tries to fight off Hunger. It seemed to exist not just as a passive place, but as an active vessel for transformation. The water is so integral to Zimmerman's re-telling of six Ovid myths, it plays a role itself.

"It was just a pool with a deck," Rotch said of the simple design. "But it was much more than just a pool of water that they did cool things with."

Now on summer break, Rotch has spent the last several months working with director Dave Hunsaker on Perseverance's own production of "Metamorphoses."

The play opens Friday, Sept. 3, and runs through Sept. 26. For a complete schedule, refer to page 2, visit or call 364-2421. (A story about the play itself will appear after dress rehearsals, in the Sept. 2 issue of This Week.)

The first order of business, of course, was conceptualizing a 17,000-gallon pool in place of the theater's wide-thrust stage. How would it look from the middle of the crowd, and then the sides? And how could the water be given a story in a way that gave the play a Juneau life?

"I was pleased with how on the page there were a lot of possibilities," Rotch said. "What's smart about the script is that the language is very simple. It's very modern, and they've taken the stories and put them in language that's very easy to understand. It's not particularly poetic, and it's not particularly complicated. It's given a context that anybody living in the American world today can get."

Ultimately, they decided to create a library. The audience sees the bookcases and stained-glass windows of the second floor. The illusion is that some sort of tragedy caused the first floor to flood.

Hunsaker and Rotch decided the water should be 4 feet 6 inches, shallow enough for the 10 actors to stand on the surface, deep enough to disappear and return.

"The library is just a space where these stories happen," Rotch said. "It's the life of our mind, of our writing or our civilized selves. The water is our emotional selves. It's more of a metaphorical space.

These stories are very simple stories about love really, and how you don't always know where it comes from, how it got there or what it's doing in your library, as it were," he said.

The set designers began removing the Perseverance stage at the beginning of July to make room for the pool. It was the first time that technical director Sergei Morosan had worked with such a massive amount of water.

"Because of the nature of the space, and how small it is, it's important that you can't see the bottom of the pool," Morosan said. "That it look like an endless abyss."

"I've been learning massive amounts about water, and all the things that need to be considered, especially when you're using it on a stage," he said.

Before any work was done on the pool, Morosan and the set designers had to determine whether Perseverance's concrete foundation could handle 17,000 gallons (or about 140,000 pounds) of water.

"I had to do a lot of math to refresh my memory of physics and figure out how many pounds there are per square foot and whether the material we were using - steel and plywood - could support that kind of pressure," Morosan said. The numbers checked out. I spoke to a couple engineers, and I was kind of showing them what I was doing as I was going along."

"People said we were crazy, but they didn't see any reason why it wouldn't work," he said. "Especially for something that's going to be up for seven or eight weeks."

The bottom of the pool starts 18 inches off the theater's foundation and sits on a strong platforming system. The shell of the pool is a steel fame, bolted to the floor. Along the outside, 45-degree knee braces keep the frame steady. The pool walls are steel and plywood. A layer of reinforced Visqueen covers the wood and steel for protection.

A giant, black sheet of EPDM rubber membrane, commonly used for roofing or backyard ponds, holds the water. The sheet had to be carefully folded at the corners of the pool, and spliced at the rear corner entrance of the pool, where actors appear and disappear without being seen.

That corner splice proved to be tricky. It leaked at first.

"We experimented with a lot of different products, and fortunately, living in a boating town like Juneau, we were able to find some products that would adhere to the membrane and cure underwater," Morosan said. "We were running out of time, and we didn't have time to drain the pool and fix the leak."

It took 15 to 17 hours to fill up the pool. One hose was attached to a metered city hydrant and another ran from a downstairs sink. The water level rose 112 inches each hour.

"It was very nerve-wracking," Morosan said of the incremental filling. "But I felt confident about the structure, I really did. To me that was the most important thing, that this sound structure wouldn't fail."

When the water pours out of the hoses, it's between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It immediately enters a water pump filter that circulates it through a 30-kilowatt heater and back out at 92 degrees.

The heater and the pump are turned off while the actors are in the pool. That eliminates the chance that anyone will get electrocuted by the above-ground fixture and the submersible, electric pump. But the water temperature dips closer to room temperature, 75 to 80 degrees.

"There are a lot of equations that you need to do to figure out how powerful a heater you need," Morosan said. "They're based on what your original water temperature is, what your goal is, and how long you want it to take to reach that temperature."

"I studied up on that and came to the conclusion that we needed a 30-kilowatt heater if we were going to keep the pool comfortable," he said. "When Dave talked to some of the actors in the Broadway production in New York, they said their biggest problem was water temperature."

To keep the pool clean, the designers used Rain Forest Blue, a non-toxic copper ionizer that contains no chlorine or bromine.

"We're trying to keep it as chemical-free an environment as we can for costumes and the actor's eyes," Morosan said.

With about two weeks until opening night, Morosan was still exploring ways to reduce the heat and humidity from 17,000 gallons of 92-degree water. The pool is covered with strips of foam when not in use. Sealed off, the heat is barely noticeable.

"Heat and humidity are two different things," Morosan said. "If it's too hot in here, the audience is asleep. We need to keep it as cool as possible."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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