Graduate calls on Clemson for help on massive set

Jesus Christ Superstar setMike East’s Charleston-based company, TTS Studios, was contracted to create the Jesus Christ Superstar set for the musical’s 50th anniversary U.S. tour, beginning in September. Plans called for another company to build the set for the earlier London production. At almost the 11th hour, the producers asked East to build the set for the London performances — by late May, at least three months earlier than planned.

The new timeline created a challenge: The large spaces in Charleston that could be used to construct a theater set were occupied with productions for the city’s annual Spoleto Festival.

A 2007 performing arts alumnus, East called his former colleagues at the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts on the spur of the moment. Luckily, the Brooks Center was not being used during the last two weeks of May. Six Clemson students and two performing arts professors worked with six employees from TTS Studios to build the 32-foot-high set, one of the largest projects in the three-year history of the company.

The structure, designed by veteran set designers Tom Scutt and David Arsenault and which East describes as “post-apocalyptic,” has the appearance of an industrial steel grid — with a fallen steel cross in the center of the stage. The beams are actually aluminum covered by plywood.

On May 30, East’s massive set was disassembled and loaded into four tractor-trailers, driven to the Port of Charleston and shipped to London to be reassembled at the famed Barbican Centre.

The purpose of completely building the set only to disassemble it before it was shipped to London was “to make sure it’s going to work, that it’s safe,” East said. “It’s an abnormally high set.”

The set will return to the United States in the fall for a two-year national tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar” that journeys to major cities such as Philadelphia, Cleveland and Miami, and also swings by Greenville’s Peace Center for a week of performances in August 2020.

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