1812 Productions’ Set Model Theatre is an immersive viewing experience that goes far beyond the limits of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Even though I was sitting in front of my computer, staring at a screen, watching Set Model Theatre, I felt as if I’d been invited backstage before a performance for an unrestricted, all-access tour. The experience created in this five-part documentary is akin to meeting the cast and crew, walking amidst the sets, handling the props, marveling at the costumes and lighting, hearing snippets of the show’s musical underscores, and then getting to sit front row center and watch it all come together.
Arranged as a five-part web series, Set Model Theatre highlights the collaborative creative process of 15 Philly-based designers whose virtual magic was inspired by Philly theater-legend Jen Childs and made possible by 1812 Productions. Childs, the innovative mind behind the series, had the inspired idea to create a version of Shakespeare’s King Lear that would’ve been fiscally unfeasible to execute as a conventional on-stage, full-length theater performance. But, as the pandemic dragged on and 1812 was forced to pivot to a virtual space, Childs realized that a virtual adaptation of her original concept could work – with a few modifications. I’d hazard a guess that the virtual version exceeded her original expectations. I know it exceeded mine. In fact, Set Model Theatre evokes a magical experience that could not be transferred to the page or the stage. A huge part of the reason for that is that by virtue of the physical limitations of the project, Set Model Theatre required intense collaboration and innovation beyond what is typical in a conventional theater setting.
Between January and February of this year, 15 Philly-based designers were randomly assigned three five-person teams then given the task of crafting unique scenes from Shakespeare’s legendary King Lear. For anyone cringing at the high-brow humor and inaccessibility of Shakespeare, relax. You don’t have to be familiar with King Lear, or even remotely interested in Shakespeare, to thoroughly enjoy Set Model Theatre. You don’t even have to know anything about theater, although being a fan might enrich your experience.
The five-part series is the ideal mixture of behind-the-scenes intimacy and theatrical expression. As I watched, in rapture, I felt myself drawn into the stories of the project’s creators as well as the performance itself. It felt especially significant that the creators brought a depth of diversity that remains all too rare on stage or on screen. There is so much visible diversity in the cast and crew as well as a diversity of thoughts, perspectives, styles and influences that the work was able to stretch beyond the confines of traditional Shakespearean storytelling.
I found Set Model Theatre to be relatable and real in ways that Shakespeare alone simply isn’t, in a 2021 context. In fact, if you’re seeing the show expecting to see Shakespeare, it really isn’t that. It’s a documentary-style series of episodes about how 15 people created three separate scenes from one of the Bard’s selected works.
I’m sure Childs had no idea that her initial spark of an idea would evolve into a five-episode, in-depth exploration of how 15 talented individuals could come together to co-create something beyond any one person’s ability to conceive.
You can’t see me, but I’m currently giving a virtual standing ovation to everyone involved in the creation and production:
Production Manager Ben Levan. Technical Director Lance Kniskern, Video Designer Jorge Cousineau. Producing Artistic Director Jennifer Childs. Project Stage Manager and Narrator Tom Shotkin. Featured designers and team leaders Tanaquil Márquez, Brett Ashley Robinson, and Briana Gause. Costume Designers Natalia de la Torre, Jillian Keys, and Leigh Paradise. Scenic Designers Jennifer Hiyama, Colin McIlvaine, and Sara Outing. Sound Designers Elizabeth Atkinson, Damien Figueras, and Daniel Ison. Lighting Designers Shon Causer, Alyssandra Docherty, and Maria Shaplin. And Voice-over Performers Brian Anthony Wilson, Pax Ressler, Jaedto Israel, Anita Holland, Anthony Martinez-Briggs, Jo Vito Ramirez, Frank Jimenez, and Andrew Criss.
If you’d like to see Set Model Theatre (and you absolutely should see it!), head over to www.1812productions.org to buy your virtual tickets. You can binge-watch the first three episodes then catch the live watch-party of episodes four and five on June 28th at 7:00 p.m. along with members of the cast and crew. Or you can simply sign up for an all-access pass to watch all five episodes on-demand. Whether you catch the live watch party or stream the entire show solo, the series is well worth the price – $35 for all five episodes! Watching really does feel like having an all-access backstage pass, plus front-row seats, to one of the most incredible performances you’ll ever see.