By Evan Henerson
It’s fair to say that Robert Brill can always get a prime seat at the Kit Kat Club, wherever that shrine of pre war entertainment decadence may materialize. That’s only fair since Brill designed the club. From “Cabaret’s” first incarnation in 1997 at the Henry Miller Theatre through its subsequent move to Studio 54, to its revival 16 years later also at Studio 54 and on all accompanying tours, that particular layout of tables, lamps and chandeliers is from Brill’s vision.
As recently as June, nearly two decades after he created what has become an iconic design, Brill checked in on Sally Bowles and the gang when the national tour – currently at the Pantages – played a run in San Francisco where Brill has a home.
“When I see the show now, I’m really looking at how the production fits the venue,” Brill said. “There are parts that are somewhat adjustable that allow it to sit in the venue for it to be exposed in the right way. So the first thing I’m looking at is how the picture is framed and the proportion of it. Then as you sit down, you’re taking in some of the givens of the space, what the sight lines are like, and how shallow or how deeply raked is the house. You’re kind of taking in the venue, but then you’re also looking at how the show is running in terms of props and then any scenic moves.”
“I jotted down a few notes when I saw the show in San Francisco and passed them on,” he continued. “They take the notes and then they move on from there.”
From its origins at London’s Donmar Warehouse, Sam Mendes’s version of “Cabaret” has sought to place its audience in the center of the action. Sally, the Kit Kat dancers and that scabrous Emcee are continually addressing the guests, several of whom are sitting practically in the performers’ laps. The scenic design had to fit that concept.
When they were gearing up to move the Donmar Warehouse production across the pond to New York, Mendes and his co-director/choreographer Rob Marshall located a space – Henry Miller’s Theatre – that was already a functioning nightclub. That venue needed a sizeable revamp to make it suitable for live theater, and the team needed a designer to oversee that transformation.
Brill, who had designed at several major regional theaters and had a couple of Broadway credits, was asked to meet with Mendes and Marshall. Two days later, he was offered the gig and asked to return to New York to check out the venue and to get things rolling.
Re-shaping the Miller’s Theatre – which they renamed the Kit Kat Club – was challenging enough. Having theater audiences and late night club goers sharing the same venue made for some interesting experiences.
“We were out by 10, and there was already a line outside for people to enter at 10:30 and they would be all over the space on stage, at tables, in front all over the building and backstage until 2 or 4 in the morning,” Brill recalled. “You never knew what you were going to find or discover the next morning.”
Ultimately the production had to move and the conversion of Studio 54, a dance club later owned and operated by the Roundabout Theatre – forced 10 weeks of renovations. From lobbies to bathrooms, from marquee to chandeliers, from painting to demolition. The venue had no stage, so a stage was constructed from the floor up along with terracing for audience seating. The balcony, which had previously been used for events, was demolished.
“What was important to the production was this gradual immersion into the world of the Kt Kat Club from the marquee until you reach the actors on stage,” Brill said.
Looking back at his own “audition” for “Cabaret” with Mendes and Marshall, Brill thinks one of the key factors that landed him the job wasn’t so much his Broadway and larger regional theater credits, but a different part of his portfolio. While still a student at UC San Diego, Brill had co-founded the Sledgehammer Theatre, a company that made highly and often guerilla use of venues throughout downtown San Diego.
This was during the 1980s when the real estate climate was friendlier toward this type of experimentation. Sledgehammer staged in former funeral homes, parking garages and abandoned warehouses that had no electricity or bathroom facilities before Sledgehammer took over. A group of fellow UCSD students even built a stage in a canyon adjacent to the library on campus, trucking in sand for the audience to sit on. There was a five and half hour production of “Hamlet” and a staging of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” in a small former retail space. Sledgehammer mounted another play in a former auto service garage.
“I showed [Mendes and Marshall] that work last in my portfolio and that was the work that I think really captured their attention,” Brill said. “It was very rough around the edges, showing the hand of the artist, having to be resourceful and work in a scrappier way. Also to be working site specific and because that’s what this piece became, working in an actual venue and transforming the venue. That really got them interested in having me on the team. It was not so much about the more polished work that I had done at that point. It was really about something that would serve this new interpretation of Cabaret.”
Between the first “Cabaret” and its revival, Brill has hardly been idle. He now has nearly a dozen Broadway credits with his designs for Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” (also at Studio 54) and the 2009 Broadway revival of “Guys and Dolls” earning him Tony nominations. He has designed multiple operas and touring shows and worked repeatedly with Leonard Foglia and Des McAnuff who has championed Brill’s work since McAnuff was the artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse which sits on the campus of UCSD. Brill returns this year to UCSD as a member of the School of Theater’s design faculty.
Brill’s upcoming projects include another collaboration with McAnuff, and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a co-production between Houston Grand Opera and the San Francisco Opera scheduled to open around the holidays.
And speaking of immersive theater, another Brill design figures to occupy a place in Southern California for years to come. The artist designed the scenery for “Disney’s Frozen – Live at the Hyperion,” a short version of the animated film which opened in May and plays several times daily at the Hyperion Theatre at Disney’s California Adventure theme park.
If you think transporting audiences to Weimar era Germany is challenging, how about taking them to the wintry world of Arendelle, a world that had previously existed only in a much beloved animated film? Dana Harrel, the production’s executive creative director, was not necessarily looking to do a live replica of the film, but, according to Brill, Harrel stressed the need to make the experience to be, you guessed it, immersive.
“I thought a lot about Cabaret when we were putting in Frozen,” Brill said. “Dana really wanted it to be an experience for the audience to be completely enveloped in the world of this story. One of the first goals was how to extend the visual out into the theater so they feel like they’re immersed both in the visual world and the storytelling. We did that in numerous ways, both scenically and with projections, lighting and also with the staging.”
“Frozen – Live at the Hyperion” opened May 26, and Brill attended several performances in the days immediately following.
“It was amazing to watch, easily 1/4 of the audience was watching the experience through their phones or their iPads,” Brill said. “But it’s been fun to watch that online and check out who is watching the show and who is paying attention to it.”