Rocky scenic designer Chris Barreca is the Head of Scene Design at California Institute of the Arts.
Rocky scenic designer Chris Barreca is the Head of Scene Design at California Institute of the Arts.
(photo via calarts.edu)

"It started, frankly, with the ring itself," says scenic designer Chris Barreca of his concept for the new Broadway musical Rocky. This monolithic set piece houses the show's climactic boxing match and is, well, just too big to hide. "We had to figure out how to integrate it with the rest of the show," he explains, "because it wasn't something that could leave the stage."

The ring is just one of Barreca's massive set many moving parts and it is one that, despite its size, is put to very good use, even when it's not being boxed upon. "We very quickly decided that it was useful to us to be moved in the air," he explains. Thus, when the scenes transition into the homes of titular boxer Rocky Balboa or his girlfriend, Adrian, the massive boxing ring becomes the ceilings, creating a sort of claustrophobic feeling that helps show how confined the lives of the characters truly are.

That this one and a half-ton set piece actually moves is a feat in and of itself, but it isn't just the ring that performs double duty. "When I was designing," Barreca recalls, "I looked to try to make the space a movable city." It was an idea that came from Sylvester Stallone, the film's star and screenwriter who is also a coauthor of the musical. "He said the movement of Rocky through the city was really important. I tried to make everything that would normally be fixed moveable. Pretty much everything in the space that would be a fixed object would allow us to move through the city." There are "eighty moving parts to change the spaces as we do these transitions that feel like you're moving through a city. That's very complex."

This arduous process, where cues are created, lights are focused, and the kinks are worked out, could take weeks, if not months, on a show as complex as this one, which has multiple locations that roll on and off stage. However, thanks to a concept called previsualization, a typically filmic function of visualizing complex scenes before shooting, the process was made slightly easier. Barreca, a professor at California Institute of the Arts, used students from the school's world-renowned animation department to create a "moving movie" of the space. "We built up a 3D model, took the sound from the workshop, made a movie, Alex Timbers and I would sit, and we would do all of the transitions. That really saved not just an enormous amount of tech time, but it gave us creative time so we could actually imagine and experiment in a way you can't normally do."

German engineering also helped. Rocky had its "out-of-town" run in the unlikely city of Hamburg, Germany, where the team was able to work out the bugs before they hit New York. "Broadway is capable of doing the most amazing things, but it is very hard to do it for the first time on Broadway because it's just very expensive," he says. "I know a lot of the very best engineers in New York and they could do it, but it is true that the Germans, and Stage Entertainment in Germany, have the best technical people in Europe by far." With the previsualization of the set, they were able to pre-tech the show on a computer screen. They gave their models to the German technical director, who would then tell them if what they wanted was actually possible to achieve.

And if you're of the mind that there are two boxing rings, one that floats atop the action and one that, in a stunning engineering coup at the very end, extends off the stage and sits on the first six rows of orchestra seats, you're wrong. "The idea came up but was quickly discarded," Barreca says. "They're massive. It's like moving a car. I call the whole design the Swiss Watch Design. In the old Swatch watches, you could see all the mechanisms inside. All of the lighting and sound are built into it. If you rake the plywood cover off the ring, the thing is packed like a Swatch watch."

Get an up-close-and-personal look at Barreca's work on Rocky, with his commentary, in the gallery below.