“You’ve got this tiny box. Then you’ve got sound equipment, and you got lights hanging from the top. You’ve got huge numbers of [singers] and an orchestra. You’ve got a dance stage that is probably about four feet deep and goes all the way across the theater. So the actual space you have is very, very small. The big challenge is how do you make some kind of presentation that is compelling, and warm, and echoes what’s being said when you don’t have much space.”
Such are the challenges faced by set designer J. Gregory Barton, who, for the past several years, has been designing the Congressional Chorus‘s theatrically-inclined productions. For the group’s annual spring cabaret — this year entitled Road Trip! and featuring 80 singers and 20 dancers — he’s devised a clever setting that immerses the audience in the evening’s theme of traversing the country through song (“California Dreamin’,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Dust in the Wind,” because it’s by Kansas). To that end, the stage incorporates a “neon” sign from which “map lines” branch out and into the theater space itself, enveloping the audience in what Barton jokingly calls a “poor man’s laser show.”
“We’ve immersed the theater walls with states: big states, small ones, all recognizable,” he explains. “They encircle everyone on stage and in the audience. The audience is part of the production’s space. We show our connection to each state with a big map pin. Then we connect each state from one side of the theater to the other. We use black and yellow dashed cords that crisscross the theater connecting everything, to everyone else. The black of the cords blend with the black background of the theater and the dashes appear to zip untethered from one point to the other — just like dashes on a map course.”
The 55-year-old Barton, who hails from Oklahoma City (“we had a red barn, we raised rabbits and chickens, out in the middle of nowhere”), enjoys working with the Congressional Chorus, first established in 1987, and does it for the ability to connect culturally with the community.
“Theater design doesn’t pay,” says Barton, who runs the design firm BrittBarton. “You do it as an act of love. You try to take this little budget they have and try to cover expenses. Everybody else is a volunteer there, and a lot of our work is volunteer. They pay for some of our time and some of the installation but we really support them and believe in them. We stop counting hours early on.”
Road Trip! Tour The USA in our Cabaret runs through Thursday, March 16 to Sunday, March 19. Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. General admission tickets are $50. Reserved tables of six are available from $362 to $562. Visit CongressionalChorus.org.
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