Pool reflects his talent

Behind a hit play at Gibbs High, a young man worked his magic.

Published February 11, 2007

His shoes and jeans are splattered with star paint. His fingernails are lined with the dirt of creation.

John Wilder, a senior in the arts program at Gibbs High, just constructed his own version of heaven, the Earth and the underworld.

After months of drawing, drafting and calculating against the risk of flooding an entire building of his high school, Wilder designed the set for a production of Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman’s retelling of classical mythology.

The centerpiece of his design is a shimmering, 23-ton pool of water that occupies almost the entire stage. Gods and mortals splash through it, commit incest there, fall in love there, are dragged under its surface to their deaths.

The other day, in the quiet hours before another performance, Wilder stood at the pool’s edge, marveling at the challenge of creating something of such beauty and terror.

“It’s a bare stage,” he said. “And then suddenly you’re just building this whole world.”

• • •

Metamorphoses required months of effort by more than 70 student actors and technicians, not to mention their teachers at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts, a magnet program at Gibbs.

If you talked to the students, the buzz always returned to the octagon-shaped pool, which was 22 feet wide and 2 1/2 feet deep at its center. The water was the star of the show — its main character, its defining element, a metaphor for love, the soul, death and rebirth. When people saw the pool for the first time, the effect was mesmerizing.

It was impossible not to wonder: How did John Wilder do it?

By all accounts, he is a quiet young man — he turned 18 yesterday   — with an intense focus and a capacity for working through the night.

“He just guzzled those energy drinks,’’ says Keven  Renken, the Gibbs teacher who directed Metamorphoses. “How he does it, I don’t know.”

The short version:

First Wilder brainstormed with the teachers, sharing his vision for the pool, a surrounding deck and a towering platform where Aphrodite and other gods would look down upon the mortals.

He made thumbnail sketches, painted a watercolor rendering, drafted plans. At night, he dreamed of the characters sailing across the ocean, losing their husbands, descending into the underworld.

Ovid, who wrote the original Metamorphoses two thousand years ago, appealed to the gods for help. Wilder found a pool guy. He showed him his plans for a heavily reinforced plywood mold. “Are we insane for even trying to do this?” Wilder remembers asking.

Refining the design took another month and a half. Building the actual set required another 19 days and a crew of 30 students. Finally, it was time to fill the pool. They used two garden hoses, one coming from the custodian’s closet and the other from a mop sink, to pour about 5,700 gallons. It took nearly nine hours.

“The first time I saw it,” says Wilder, “I wanted to go swimming.”

The water was cold at first, but once the actors got in for rehearsals, it warmed up. The crew sanitized the pool with bromine, but things took a disastrous turn on opening night, when a character fell face-first into the pool clutching a large bag of SunChips.

The plunge was in the script, but not the explosion of the bag, which sent chips and chip dust across the surface of the water. The chips grew soggy; the dust congealed into a floating film of grease that the actors could taste when they submerged.

The next morning, the crew began the long process of pumping out the pool and refilling it. They were still working that evening just before the show began. A hose snaked across the lobby floor as people arrived.

The rest of the week’s sold-out performances went smoothly. The gods materialized, high above the water, and emerged from underwater to wreak havoc. The mortals acted with both folly and grace. In the end, one old couple was bestowed with the gift of eternal love.

When the lights came up, some in the audience were crying.


Today,  the crew plans to drain the pool and dismantle the rest of the set with screw-guns and crowbars. Wilder won’t be there. He’s scheduled to be in Chicago, interviewing for college. He wants to stick with stage production.

Maybe something with lighting.

By the time he gets back to Gibbs, the water will be gone.

Staff writer Thomas French can be reached at (727) 893-8486 or french@sptimes.com. His son Nathaniel was among the 46 actors in the Metamorphoses cast. So was staff photographer Cherie Diez’s son Miles.