How Do They Make it Rain On Stage in The Notebook? | Playbill

Special Features How Do They Make it Rain On Stage in The Notebook?

We talk to scenic designer Brett J. Banakis about one of the most extensive stage rain systems yet devised.

Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez in The Notebook Julieta Cervantes

If you’re going to see a new Broadway show this season, you may want to make sure and bring an umbrella. It’s been raining an awful lot outside, but we’re far from safe indoors, at least on Broadway. The Notebook and The Outsiders both prominently feature rain scenes—and even Off-Broadway’s Teeth gets in on the trend, too!

But how exactly does one make it rain on a Broadway stage? For the answer, we turned to one of the guys making that happen in The Notebook, Brett J. Banakis, who co-designed the set with David Zinn.

According to Banakis, including the rain was not a forgone conclusion when he and Zinn joined the production, even as iconic as it is in the 2004 film adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel on which the musical is based. “I don’t know that we came in saying we have to do the rain,” Banakis says. “What was on everyone’s mind was just serving the scene.”

Spoiler alert: that ended up involving making it rain. But their focus on the storytelling meant it couldn’t just be turning on a faucet behind the theatre and watching the water pour down on the actors. “The rain is a metaphor,” says Banakis. “The build-up of the storm mirrors their emotional release. We had to hit that arc exactly like it is in the story.”

Brett J Banakis and Jessica Heerten Michaelah Reynolds

The Notebook is, if you’re not familiar, a love story. Allie and Noah meet as teenagers and fall in love one romantic summer. Noah goes to war, and the two fall out of touch, only to reunite several years later and find their passion hasn’t dimmed. In both the film and this musical version, that happens in a climactic scene that features the couple dancing and smooching in the sexiest of rainstorms imaginable.

Banakis says their custom-designed rain system, the work of J&M Special Effects, has three separate rain types that allow them to craft the sequence with extra precision. Some especially large droplets kick things off, signaling that a storm is a-brewin’. “It’s a particular system where each drop is released from a little nozzle and then hits some metal to break it up before it falls to the deck,” explains Banakis. Next up are some misters, which Banakis says look almost like a traditional showerhead nozzle to create the smallest droplets in The Notebook’s arsenal.

And then last but certainly not least, they also have rain bars, the most traditional stage rain setup, which creates a sort-of “curtain” of rain. Banakis explains that this system shoots water into a PVC pipe that’s been cut in half. Water collects in the pipe, and then drops form as that overflows and falls from either side of the setup.

Zinn and Banakis worked on the system first at J&M’s studios, getting out all the kinks before they got into a theatre. They also had the benefit of an out-of-town tryout in Chicago in 2022, which gave them a full go at doing the sequence on stage before hitting Broadway. But even with all that work beforehand, getting the timing and progression of the sequence exactly right took almost right up to opening night. “We were down to the day before we froze the show [when no more changes are allowed] and still adjusting the rain cues,” Banakis shares.

The other thing that makes The Notebook’s rain scene notable is when it happens. You’ll almost always see a rain scene executed right before intermission or at the end of the show, allowing technical staff to clean the stage directly after. The Notebook’s happens about 20 minutes into the second act, with around 30 minutes of show left after the rain has fallen.

The biggest challenge the rain created was regarding the stage floor—traditional wood warps when wet. “If you look at our stage, it looks like wooden floorboards. But it’s actually a thick, composite, plastic-like material that’s engineered,” explains Banakis. “It won’t warp, and it’s meant to be able to withstand moisture.” The floorboards had to be designed to also work with everything else happening on the stage, including automated set pieces and trap door elevators.

Another effect of having mid-show rain? That water has to go somewhere. Luckily, Zinn and Banakis’ set design has the perfect place for the show’s rain to drain: a tank of water under the stage. Included in the set design is a pool of water at the front of the stage that is visible throughout the show. It's not only functional for rainfall collection, but useful in establishing the show’s coastal setting.

That pond also ends up visually helping Zinn and Banakis with the rainfall. Their rain setup is placed specifically so that part of its downpour will land in the downstage pool, creating big, tall splashes that you can see even from the very back of the Schoenfeld.

Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza in The Notebook Julieta Cervantes

The pool also drives home the importance of water in The Notebook’s story. Older Allie suffers from Alzheimer’s. As she struggles to remember even the most pivotal moments in her own life story, water takes on new significance. From the ocean water she flirtatiously splashes at her lover Noah in the nascent days of their romance to the cathartic rainfall that falls when they finally realize the full depth of their love, water becomes something that the older Allie knows is important to her story, even without being able to remember why or how.

As a piece of theatrical design, it’s beautiful and moving. But functionally, that means The Notebook’s technical crew has to deal with a giant tank of water under the stage. Banakis says the water is non-chlorinated fresh tap water, but they’ve implemented a system that constantly UV filters all of it. Once a week, the entire tank is emptied so the system can be cleaned and maintained—no algae at The Notebook!

But there’s one last piece left to make The Notebook’s rain fully effective: the lighting design. “Water is clear, invisible,” says Banakis. “Much of the work of getting the rain to look right on stage falls to the lighting designer.” That job was handled by Ben Stanton, lighting his second water-filled show of the season, no less. Whilst lacking a rain scene, Days of Wine and Roses (for which Stanton contributed the lighting design) featured an onstage pool as well.

“Ben did such an incredible job lighting the rain,” Banakis says of the four-time Tony nominee’s work on The Notebook. “And the lights are an integral part of the build as the storm brews, too. Ben’s lights make the water really feel like it’s there, and almost as if it’s magnified.”

Oh—and don’t worry about water temperature. Actor and stage manager union Actors’ Equity Association require that water be heated so that wet actors aren’t stuck trying to sing while shivering. As a more ill-fated musical theatre romance taught us, a little fall of [Equity-approved] rain can hardly hurt us now.

Photos: The Notebook on Broadway

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