Roger Wadham is waiting on 200 tons of double-ground brick dust.
It's 4 o'clock on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the South Coast Metro. Five minutes from the Bristol Street exit off the 405, crews are hard at work on one of the few undeveloped sites in this prime piece of real estate across Town Center Drive from the Orange County Performing Center. Workers call to one another across the dusty lot, straining to make themselves heard over the scream of power saws and the pounding of hammers driving tent stakes into the ground. Fat-tired Gradall trucks and nimble Bobcats haul stacks of platforms and material to the nylon-canopied tent at the center of the lot.
After more than a year of planning, the centerpiece of Zingaro Village is nearly complete, and things are going well enough for Wadham, the production supervisor and a soft-spoken New Zealand native, to joke with an easy laugh that "the transition from theory to practice has been really fascinating."
When audiences arrive for the opening night of Théâtre Zingaro's month-long Orange County engagement on Saturday, they'll cross the well-tended lawns behind South Coast Repertory into a pocket world, an exotic encampment inspired by the nomadic peoples of India, Persia and the Middle East—trees swathed in multicolored cloth, the night air laden with the smell of wood smoke.
There's still a lot to do before then. The bleachers are two-thirds together, the lighting equipment is being cleaned, and something Wadham calls "preliminary assemblage" is going on outside the tent. "Tomorrow the lights will go up into the inside roof of the tent and the bleachers will be completed simultaneously," he says. "We spend two nights adjusting the lights and focusing them for the performance. That's a precision operation, there. Then we go into the arena and build the special performance surface."
Which is where the brick dust comes in. Théâtre Zingaro's program of "equestrian ballet," choreographed by the company's artistic director, Bartabas, incorporates 23 horses and seven masters of the ancient Indian martial art known as kalaripayatt. Their physically grueling performances frequently bring them into contact with the crushed red bricks, the same material that lines the base paths at major league baseball stadiums.
"Baseball players have long pants on," Wadham points out, "and they slide across the brick dust without any problems. But those particles, for people who are wearing nothing but short, underwear-like costumes, are very scratchy. So we had to put it through the manufacturing machine two times over."
It was undoubtedly this kind of attention to detail that led the Philharmonic Society of Orange County to secure Wadham's services to oversee the creation of Zingaro Village. An independent consultant and art director now based in Sherman Oaks, he's no stranger to obscure logistical challenges. Beginning with one of Mel Gibson's Mad Max movies, he has supervised film crew operations all over the Australian Outback, one of the world's most inhospitable locations.
"I was a boat builder in New Zealand for a long time—I worked on the America's Cup boats—and then one day someone called me up and asked, 'Can you make fiberglass rocks for our movie?' It turned out to be Road Warrior. And I thought, 'Well, that's kind of cool. I'm starting to enjoy this.'"
Helping to build a post-apocalyptic world was a nice run-up to planning and constructing a gypsy-style camp in the middle of South Coast Plaza country. After completing the 262-foot-by-394-foot performance area, Wadham's crew—23 local workers and some 15 French technicians from the Zingaro equestrian company—will quickly finish the large attached tent where the horses gather before entering the arena; another tent for the horses to exit and rearrange themselves during the performance; and a dozen or so tents for vendors, ticketing and the like. These are in addition to structures housing approximately 15 dressing rooms, offices, on-site laundry, restroom facilities, a full-service kitchen and stables for the company's 23 horses already under construction. When everything's complete, his team of half a dozen scenic artisans will dress the works with what he calls "a nice Hollywood treatment."
With opening night a week away and seemingly so much left to do, how does he stay calm? "The one thing we had in our back pocket was lead time," he explains. "I've spent this whole year looking far ahead for hiccups and problems." Even with unexpected hurdles like the Long Beach dock strike and European airfreight challenges, Wadham says that this long-range planning has freed 90 percent of his time to deal with the problems. Of course, keeping things in perspective doesn't hurt.
"If I can keep Hollywood movie stars happy, horses are no problem."
THÉÂTRE ZINGARO IN ZINGARO VILLAGE, ACROSS FROM THE ORANGE COUNTY PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, OPPOSITE SOUTH COAST PLAZA, COSTA MESA, (949) 553-2422; WWW.ECLECTICORANGE.ORG. OPENS SAT. TUES.-WED. & FRI.-SUN., 8:30 P.M. THROUGH NOV. 8. CALL FOR TICKET PRICES.