I walked into the auditorium of the Music Hall in Kansas City to set up for video interviews with three members of the Cats company. As I stopped and listened, I could hear the constant hiss of air compressors. I knew they would be a problem for the audio but there was nothing I could do. Turn off the compressors and the set falls flat.
Yep. The Cats set (above) is inflatable.
If you watch the video interviews on our web site, you’ll hear the compressor running in the background. When you come to the show, you probably won’t. With even a minimum of crowd noise before the show, or the constant soundscape during the show, you’d be hard-pressed to pick that sound up at all.
Cats takes place in a junkyard with the bits and scraps of that world scaled for the human-sized cats in the show. The original design was not executed as an inflatable set but was constructed out of steel and molded plastic pieces. The original tour, too, took steel and plastic sets out on the road, but the road is not always kind to sets. The Cats set took a lot of abuse, not to mention the expense of trucking, assembling and disassembling an oversized junkyard in city after city. Somewhere, someone got the bright idea of transforming the set into something inflatable.
Enter Big Air Productions in Poulsba, Washington.
They were called upon to recreate the Cats set with inflatable pieces rather than constructed elements, but to keep the look created by set designer John Napier. They figured out a way to break the set into a few different inflatables that butted up against one another and still left spaces through which the actors made their entrances and exits. Mix the painted, cold inflatable pieces with a few constructed ramps and oversized props and, voila, the Cats set is reconceived for the road without any loss in the overall look.
Big Air was certainly not the first to come up with the idea of a cold-air inflatable set elements. Many moons ago, Musical Theatre Southwest staged a production of Little Shop of Horrors. Then called Albuquerque Civic Light Opera Association (ACLOA), they hired local puppeteer Michael McCormack to create Audrey II, the man-eating plant. McCormack crafted an inflatable plant that all but consumed Popejoy’s stage.
The inflatable Audrey no longer exists, of course, as it was lost in the fire last May that destroyed years of accumulated sets and props. But it just goes to show that a good idea never goes to waste as Cats comes to town next Friday with a full set that inflates instead of just one part. Given the paint and lights, you might never suspect that the set the cats scamper about on is inflated. And that’s the idea.
Stage construction sometimes is about delivering an unexpected solution to the problem of building the world of the play. As long as you, sitting in the audience, accept the world as it’s constructed, they’ve done their jobs.
Terry S. Davis