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Reinventing the Wheel with Efren Delgadillo, Jr.

Progress photo, courtesy of Efren Delgadillo, Jr.
Progress photo, courtesy of Efren Delgadillo, Jr. 

In Partnership with The Getty Villa: The Getty Villa's annual outdoor theater performance is part of an innovative theater program that enhances the visitor's experience of the ancient world.

"Prometheus Bound," produced by CalArts' Center for New Performance (CNP), in association with Trans Arts, is the eighth annual outdoor theater production in the Getty Villa's Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, September 5-28, 2013.

By Liz Ohanesian

When Efren Delgadillo, Jr. first began work on his MFA at California Institute of the Arts, he caught a performance of Baal, the Bertolt Brecht play. By the end of the night, he had flipped over both the play and the school. "I have no idea what it was about. I was totally confused," says Delgadillo. "I felt excited, but totally inferior."

That's something that Delgadillo likes to impart on his students now. "It's okay not to know what happened," he says. "It's an event and it affects you."

Delgadillo's job is devising a visual plan to suck you into the drama or comedy on stage. He does this professionally. He shares his knowledge in the classes he teaches at CalArts and inside the scene shop he runs at California State University Northridge. Most recently, Delgadillo is known as the set designer responsible for Prometheus' wheel in Prometheus Bound. In this latest version of the ancient play, the great Titan appears before the audience tied to a massive wheel, his sentence for passing fire along to humans. The unusual approach to Prometheus Bound has won praise from critics. In part, that's due to Delgadillo's work in creating the stage's centerpiece. Director Travis Preston brought him into the project in May of 2012 and Delgadillo has spent more than a year obsessively crafting the perfect wheel. "It's been a crazy ride. Amazing, but crazy," says Delgadillo. It also took 15 designs to get that wheel just right.

Progress photo | Courtesy of Efren Delgadillo, Jr.

There are designs and models of various incarnations of the wheel inside Delgadillo's Mount Washington home office. The second one was an attention-grabber. It's thin spokes formed a series of overlapping angles. "That one, it went really far in terms of design, to see how far is too far," says Delgadillo. "It couldn't roll on its own." But even the most whimsical, and least practical, designs have their purpose. "Sometimes doing something that you know is not going to work is necessary to find out what not to do."

Delgadillo worked with few limitations on the project. He knew he had to make a wheel, but that could mean a lot of things. However, he knew what he didn't want to do. "The first reaction from people was a hamster wheel," says Delgadillo. "I tried really hard to not make it this hamster wheel looking structure." For a while, the Catherine wheel, a torture device, became a primary model for the project. With a Catherine wheel, Prometheus could remain restrained. It would recall the rock upon which the Titan received his punishment in Greek mythology.

Progress photo | Courtesy of Efren Delgadillo, Jr.
Progress photo | Courtesy of Efren Delgadillo, Jr.

Delgadillo compiled the 15 wheel designs on his website. He says it reminds him of "March of Progress," the illustration that depicts human evolution. With every new drawing, you can see the evolution of the design. Remnants of one design are evident in the those that immediately follow. Some ideas become more prominent in later designs. Each drawing is intrinsically tied to its predecessors. The first few drawings were designs unobstructed by things like practicality and technical specification. By the fourth version of the wheel, Delgadillo started to think in terms of actor interaction with the wheel. How could the chorus play with this piece? He started playing with size. At 23 feet, the wheel was big enough to accommodate the cast and appear well-proportioned. Points of reference-- Leonardo da Vinci drawings, celestial maps, Catherine wheels and clocks-- manifest and merge until it's difficult to see from where the inspiration stems. Ultimately, it's a photo of the Prague Astronomical Clock that inspired Delgadillo to move Prometheus' place on the wheel off-center and defines the look of this production of Prometheus Bound.

Progress photo | Courtesy of Efren Delgadillo, Jr.
Progress photo | Courtesy of Efren Delgadillo, Jr.

Raised in East L.A., Delgadillo's interest in building things goes back to his youth. He went to Don Bosco Tech, the Catholic high school where students learn a trade, and studied construction. There, he developed an interest in architecture and civil engineering. He thought he would take up the latter at University of California at Irvine, but ended up in the art department, where he eventually gravitated towards set design.

Delgadillo was still green when he applied to CalArts' graduate program to study scenic design. He did, however, make a pretty spectacular portfolio. It was 20" x 24" and crafted from galvanized sheet metal with corrugated cardboard serving as a sort of lining. He deburred the edges, save for one at the bottom of the portfolio, the one he grabbed with his left hand when his name was called. He sliced open his palm. "Trying not to bleed on Chris Barreca's floor was pretty distracting," he says, naming the department's head, who Delgadillo would go on to assist for six year. Still, Delgadillo's future mentor was impressed enough to take the student under his wing. "I think that what got me into Cal Arts was my portfolio, literally, the object," says Delgadillo.

Progress photo | Courtesy of Efren Delgadillo, Jr.
Progress photo | Courtesy of Efren Delgadillo, Jr.

Sometimes all it takes is one object to make a statement. As a graduate school prospect, Delgadillo did that with a portfolio. Now, as a seasoned professional, he's done it with something as simple, yet as grand and complex, as a wheel. The wheel may elicit a different response from those who see it, but that's what has pleased Delgadillo about the project. He says, "I love how people see it in different ways."

Progress photo | Courtesy of Efren Delgadillo, Jr.
Progress photo | Courtesy of Efren Delgadillo, Jr.


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