jakub | June 28, 2023

The Turntable May Be Popular on Broadway, But It Was Actually Invented in Japan

From the moment Jessica Chastain began slowly spinning on a bare turntable in the preshow of Jamie Lloyd's revival of A Doll's House, it became clear that the 2022-23 season was the season of the revolving stage.

Ranging from splashy musicals like & Juliet to genre-expanding plays like Life of Pi, turntables have been frequently deployed in show-stopping moments throughout the season. In the last decade, we have seen a notable uptick in productions utilizing the rotating technology as part of their set design, with megahit Hamilton even going so far as to utilize dual operational turntables—with actors spinning in opposite directions on the two turntables.

You'd be forgiven for thinking revolving stages were a relatively new advancement in stagecraft. In reality, the practice is more than 400 years old. In 1617, a fully revolving set was developed by a French hydraulics engineer named Tommaso Francini for the elaborate pageant Le ballet de la délivrance de Renaud on behalf of Queen Marie de Medici. Presented at the Palais du Louvre, the design was heavily admired by Francini's contemporaries, but it was a different, independently developed revolve design that would become the foundation of our modern turntable stage.

Believed to have been invented by Edo playwright Nakimi Shozo in 1729, the revolving stage as we now know it was developed in Japan. Called the mawari-butai, the design was devised to solve the problem of moving heavy and bulky scenery in the Kabuki theatre tradition. 

Manually operated by stage hands, the mawari-butai was a raised platform on which the scenery would be constructed: during scene changes, audiences could watch the stage hands push the platform in a circle, revealing a new aspect of the scenery that had previously been hidden. While the majority of mawari-butai had wheels installed to ease the labor of movement, most mawari-butai required at least four stage hands to shift the platform, with some being so heavy as to require the labor of 10 stage hands. By the 1800s, the mawari-butai was sunken into the stage, making the platform flush with the rest of the performance space, so it appeared that the stage was rotating on its own without interference. Some productions utilized inner and outer revolves, similar to what we now see in Hamilton, in order to produce special effects—like actors walking in the opposite direction of a revolving stage to indicate a great journey. 

Some later mawari-butai were also outfitted with lifts, which could (with great effort) elevate set pieces up through the floor, or bring them down and out of view of the audience. This design is similar to the revolving stage utilized at Hadestown, which includes a large circular lift at the center to depict the underworld of Hades.

Jewelle Blackman as Persephone and Patrick Page as Hades and the company of Hadestown
Matthew Murphy

When Japan ended its period of isolation and reopened trade with Western countries, Japanese art became immensely popular, as it had evolved independent from Western influence for centuries. The conventions of Kabuki theatre became important points of study for many European theatre producers. In 1896, German theatre designer Karl Lautenschlager built the first revolving stage in Western theatre for Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Munich's Residenz Theatre. 

The turntable at the Residenz was notably different from the mawari-butai in that it was partially automated: rather than being operated by laboring stage hands. The Residenz's revolve was electrically powered by motors that could turn the wheels of the revolve on a predetermined track. Spanning 50 feet in diameter, it was slightly elevated when compared to the rest of the stage floor, and was capable of displaying four different sets throughout a performance, doubling Kabuki's traditional limit of two sets per mawari-butai.

Lautenschlager's design was immensely popular, and was soon colloquially known as a “Shakespeare stage,” with the multiple set design becoming extremely popular with directors attempting to depict the numerous locations within any one Shakespeare play. With a revolve, a director of a play such as Richard III could easily move through the stately Royal court, the Tower of London, St. Paul's Cathedral, and the bloody battlefield—all depicted in equal detail (something that had previously been near impossible when presenting Shakespeare's work on a stage with a single set of scenery).

Lautenschlager's design was not perfect, however. The motors required to automate the revolves movement were often noisy, sending vibrations throughout the auditorium. And the angled walls of the four set structure made it impossible to depict something far off in the distance, such as a horizon. 

The turntable design was improved upon over the following century, with many Broadway productions utilizing turntables for various purposes. In the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, two revolves were utilized to rotate the set for particularly difficult set changes, harkening back to the original purpose of the mawari-butai. Note in the photo below, the two visible circular tracks in this photo from the 1956 production!

Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, and cast
Friedman-Abeles/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

The turntable became far more prominent, however, in the latter half of the 20th century, when it became a favorite trick of director Trevor Nunn. His utilization of a large automated revolve for the original production of CATS was hailed as revolutionary for its time, in part because of his decision to install audience seating on the revolve itself. When he directed Les Misérables, the revolving stage was considered an iconic piece of the production, rotating a grand total of 63times every performance. The use of the revolve in Les Misérables was a critical piece of Nunn's vision for the musical epic, and many regional theatres across the United States installed revolves in their stages in order to host the musical when it went out on tour. 

That original staging of Les Misérables has been retired by its producer, Cameron Mackintosh—the current London production is presented sans revolve. But its impact continues to be felt throughout the industry, particularly in productions that originate at London's National Theatre, where Nunn was the artistic director from 1997 to 2003. The National Theatre‘s Olivier Theatre has a revolve built into the stage floor, and the majority of productions that have originated in that space have utilized the revolve in one way or another.

The largest of the National's theatres, the Olivier, seats 1,100 people—roughly equivalent to a midsized Broadway theatre. The revolving stage within the Olivier is called a drum revolve, with two outer rim revolves and two inner platforms. Designed in the 1970s, the Olivier's system is something of a prototype for current revolve technology, with many productions looking to the Olivier for inspiration when devising revolving sets. Notable productions that utilized the revolve style of the Olivier include War Horse, the 1993 revival of Carousel, Angels in America, Follies, and more.

Kate Parr, Olivia Saunders, and Rumi Sutton in Hex at the National Theatre
Johan Persson

Modern revolves aren't just about spectacle, however. Stripped down and intimate productions such as Come From Away have utilized turntables to great effect. And larger productions such as Hamilton have used them to depict the internal life and themes of their characters.

When Hamilton‘s double-revolve system became the talk of the town, set designer David Korins was quick to cite the history of the design element, telling the United States Institute for Theatre Technology that “the turntable and the ring have gotten so much attention, but the truth is, I have not reinvented the wheel here. People have been using the turntable in stage productions for years.” While Hamilton has undoubtedly popularized the design for a new generation, just as Les Misérables had a generation prior, it is important to remember the foundation of the designs from which new ideas are extrapolated. 

Who knows, maybe another element from traditional Kabuki theatre, such as the hanamichi (a raised platform that runs through the audience), will become the next design trend!

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