Archive for the 'design' Category

theatre without lighting

August 25, 2006

Lucas Krech, a lighting designer, blogger, collaborator, friend, and frequent commenter here, wrote on his blog the other day about a play I directed several years ago in a community center under the room’s flourescent lighting — he’s interested in why that worked, and in the idea that “Any show should be complete and dramatically compelling when performed under worklights and in rehearsal clothes.” Go read his post. I touched on this idea in a post a while back about the Richard Burton Hamlet.

Our production of Hamlet this summer had very minimal lighting — eight ungelled instruments on two poles. An actor with some tech background was in charge of hanging and focusing them during the setup each night, and his job was to make everything visible. We had no lighting cues — not even a blackout at the end of the show.

I love having good lighting in the shows I direct. But I also like the challenge of sucking the audience in without it. Shakespeare wrote for sunlight.


Music and Sound

June 24, 2006

I am not a music guy. When I was in the fifth grade play, the music teacher asked me if maybe I could sing a little quieter. In eighth grade, I was directed to speak the lines to my song while the cast danced behind me. I played Bernardo in West Side Story my senior year of high school, and they gave my solos to one of the other Sharks. I don't know if I'm tone-deaf or what, but I've never been able to understand what's really going on with music.

So I have a bit of a mental block about it. I listen to music all the time — indie rock, some electronica, a little hip-hop. But I have no background in classical music, and finding the right music for a play set in the past is always a big challenge.

My usual technique is to look up what composers were popular in the period, and then search the web for samples. I've heard it said that strings work best as score for live theatre, as opposed to a full orchestra — and that matches with my experience. So I often end up on Amazon, listening to the 30-second samples of a CD from a string quartet performing music from the period of the play.

Since Art Nouveau is already an influence on the design of the show, I tried to determine whether there was a musical side to the Art Nouveau movement. This didn't lead me very far — either there wasn't much of a corresponding musical movement, or I couldn't track it down. But Lucas advised me to check out Erik Satie, and that name came up in my research on the period as well. An Amazon search for Satie turns up all kinds of recordings. The one that caught my interest is an album recorded by a jazz saxophonist collaborating with a string quartet, in which they take French Impressionist music pieces and use them as a basis for jazz-like improvisations. The result is beautiful, haunting, melancholy, and just strange enough to place it outside the usual classical music sound.

Despite my inability to understand what's actually going on musically, I love sound design. The software programs available for editing and mixing sound are just incredible (the same part of my brain loves video editing on the computer as well). Whether using music that a friend has written for a production, or taking cuts from previously existing tracks, sound design software makes it possible even for someone like me to create professional-quality sound cues for a show.

The sound for Hamlet is relatively simple. There are no long transitions — one group of actors leaves as another enters. But I've put in very short (on the order of five seconds) bits of music between each scene; just using simple fade in and fade out functions in the sound software. In some plays, I mix in a "whoosh" or cymbal sound at the beginning or end of these kinds of clips to give it some extra oomph or to cover an awkward edit. Some of these transitional cues are longer, to cover a pause at the beginning or end of a scene (Laertes takes a moment at Ophelia's grave, for example). All of these short clips are chosen specifically to land the scene that has just ended, and to begin the following scene with the right energy.

There are also several sound effects in the show. The most annoying for me is the fanfares and flourishes; I've spent way too much time searching for trumpet fanfares that didn't sound too medieval or too ridiculous. When the Players arrive, Guildenstern hears a flourish and says, "There are the Players." Instead of another trumpet, I researched the kind of horn a car in the 1890s would use, and found a sample on the web — it's a little silly, but I think it works. And I'm using a spooky tonal sound underneath the ghost, and in Hamlet's freezes. That particular cue is one I've used in multiple shows in the past (Marisol and The Diary of Anne Frank); it comes in handy.

The last line of the play is, "Bid the soldiers shoot." It seems an odd way to end the story. But the King is also always shooting off the cannon as a toast, and Hamlet complains about the King's excessive drinking and toasting to Horatio. So ending the play with those same cannons being shot off in an ironically inappropriate memorial to Hamlet seems right. The cannons bang three times, very loud, and a bit of music from the end of a track fades in with the third bang. The music has a long tail; it should let the audience know very clearly that the play is over.

Chain of Command

May 30, 2006

As I've mentioned before, the set for this production is shared with the in-rep production of Comedy of Errors — all the same platforms and stairs in a completely different configuration. Every few days, we switch the set back and forth. It's a lot of ratcheting and wrenching bolts in and out, flipping platforms over to replace the legs, and moving stair units from place to place. The design is very clever; both sets are gorgeous, they're completely different, all the pieces fit in a truck, and the switch between them is in theory relatively simple.

But I asked for a complicated design — platforms on angles and lots of different levels. Getting each platform into the right position relative to the other platforms is difficult. It will get easier as the actors and stage managers get used to it, but Sunday we had a hard time.

I'm bringing this up here because this was an example of a type of situation that directors face all the time: something's not working, we're going past the allotted time, and there's no clear course of action for getting things back on track. You see this kind of situation a lot in tech rehearsals; in a way we were lucky to deal with this early.

During the changeover, the platforms were being placed in positions that didn't match the groundplan we had. We were eyeballing the positions instead of making exact measurements. No one could figure out how to make it all work. Eventually we realized we were using an old draft of the groundplan, which showed a couple of 4×6 platforms instead of the 4×8 platforms we were moving around. The stage managers had a great plan for dividing up the tasks between groups of actors, but before the various tasks could be accomplished we needed to solve some problems.

Here's how I fucked up: instead of going quietly to the stage manager, explaining the situation and its importance in light of upcoming fight rehearsals and so forth, and asking how she wanted to proceed, I just started telling people to stop and rejigger everything, trying to get everything back on track in as timely a manner as I could. In doing so, I risked undermining the stage manager's authority. In my mind, I was trying to be helpful and save time — but in reality, on some level at least, I was sending a message that the buck stops with me and not with her.

This is always tricky; there's a fine line that has to be walked. On the one hand, it's important that things get done quickly and correctly, and getting the set into the right configuration is a safety issue. On the other hand, it's vital that everyone be on the same page, working together, making contributions, and feeling valued and respected. Furthermore, the decision-making process needs to be clear and consistent — actors should never get mixed messages from directors and stage management.

There was a sense of frustration that I think everybody felt, especially in the thick of the realization that there was no simple answer. Ultimately, though, we worked everything out — we got the updated groundplan, the set designer was able to come in to clarify a few things, some of the actors volunteered to work through their dinner break and to stay past their call time, and we were able to adjust the schedule in order to get done almost everything we had planned. And afterwards, the stage manager and I talked it out; she's great at articulating what's going on for her while staying focused on finding positive ways forward. I stepped on her toes a little bit on Sunday; fortunately, I think the long-term damage was minimal.

Progress Report

May 26, 2006

Yesterday was a big, complicated day — we're in the thick of it now, and keeping up on everything requires a lot of focus and attention.  Here are some of the things that happened yesterday:

We had a production meeting before the rehearsal.  During rehearsals over the past week, the stage manager has been keeping track of design issues that have come up.  After the designers reported on how their processes are going, we went through the stage manager's list, and a similar list from the other show.  Mostly this was about new or more specific prop and costume needs — which costumes need pockets, whether a locket is a prop or costume responsibility, that kind of thing. 

Also, we talked with the set designer about finding more ways to stabilize the wooden platforms that make up the set.  Some of them have been shaking when the actors move too quickly or violently.  There's a balance that needs to be struck here — no set can be 100% sturdy, and the actors need to be able to control themselves to an extent.  But the set designer had some ideas for additional bracing.

As the production meeting was winding down, the actors were busy changing the set over from Hamlet to Comedy of Errors.  It will change back again in a few days.  This involves lots of work with wrenches, unbolting platforms and stairways from each other,  moving them around, swapping out some legs, and putting it all back together. Eventually, everyone will be assigned a specific task and it should go fairly quickly.  The stage manager and I taped out a map of our set on the ground so we could continue our work — all rehearsals are happening in the parking lot of the Little Fish Theater in San Pedro.

Also during this, the costume designer was having fittings.  She's built the first few costumes — just a couple for each show so that we can have an initial publicity photo shoot.  For Hamlet, that means Hamlet and Ophelia.  I'm flabbergasted by the quality of the costume designer's work so far; I'll post photos sometime soon.

We have hired a fight choreographer, and he came in yesterday and began working on the Hamlet/Laertes duel.  He brought some rapiers that we'll borrow for the show, and we had a great time talking through the story of the fight and figuring out the exact intentions of each character throughout (Laertes thinks he'll beat Hamlet easily because he doesn't know Hamlet has "been in continual practice," Hamlet specifically tries to get his hands on Laertes' sword after Laertes nicks him because Hamlet puts two and two together, the first moves are formal, sporting fencing on a line before all hell breaks loose and the fight becomes real and moves all over the stage, that kind of thing).  He choreographed the first sequence of moves, and will be back next week to continue.

We blocked more scenes, including the Players' arrival and the very end of the show.  It's tougher to stage scenes on a flat surface, even with tape marking the area of the platforms, but this is how it usually works anyway and we were very lucky to have started out on the set.  All the actors now have the experience of the set itself.  As I should have probably talked about in my long post the other day about staging, this organic way of blocking depends on having strong actors who can make good choices on their own, leaving the director free to observe and adjust.  With young student actors, this process can take more time because the actors are more hesitant, and tend not to move without being pushed to by the director.  With this cast, everyone is throwing themselves into it, knowing when to take focus and when to give it, and allowing their impulses to move them around the stage.

After rehearsal, the stage manager and I sat down with the stage manager and director of Comedy and planned next week's schedule.  Just scheduling around each other is a difficult task, as most actors (including five of the six leads in Comedy) are in both shows.  Add to this the inevitable conflicts (weddings, classes, etc) that make certain actors unavailable on certain days, and you have a clusterfuck of massive proportions.   Without amazing stage management, it would be more or less impossible.

Despite all the scheduling challenges, we're making good progress.  We'll be able to do a stumble-through of the full show on Thursday night, and then have another two full weeks of rehearsal to go back over everything and do at least a couple of run-thrus before we lose a week for Comedy of Errors tech and opening.  We open a week after that.  So far, so good.

Progress Report

May 4, 2006

The show is almost cast. A couple of people have been told that there are roles for them but that I'm not 100% sure which roles yet — it depends on how it all breaks down, and it hasn't entirely finished breaking down as of now. There is one role for which I'm still looking for the right actor. Several people who auditioned would have been great for it, but they all either had unresolvable scheduling conflicts or I ended up casting them in other roles.

All this is difficult to talk about in a public forum. But I think I can say this much without being inappropriate.

Again, if any actors who auditioned are reading this: there may still be a role for you! Even so, there were several wonderful actors that I just don't have a spot for this time around, and that's always a bummer.

Lots of other things are starting to happen as well:

The new stage manager is kicking ass thus far; we had a long phone conversation tonight about what the process will be like. She asked a bunch of great questions, starting with what were my best and worst experiences working with stage managers on past productions. I told her just a bit of my old story of The Worst Stage Manager in the History of the American Theatre — among many other escapades, this guy literally stole a watch from out of the valuables that he had collected from the actors for safekeeping during a performance, and was busted by his mom (with whom he lived, though he was at least 35) when he got her to give him a ride into town to take the watch to a pawn shop. He went to jail for that one, and I had to call the show for the rest of the run. Anyway, we also talked about how I like to handle breaks (longer breaks less often, give me plenty of warning), how we'll schedule rehearsals (I'll give her a list of scenes and actors and how much time I want with each, she'll coordinate with the Comedy of Errors stage manager and make up the schedule), blocking notation, paper tech, communication, etc etc etc. She wanted to be sure I would keep her in the loop in all my discussions with the designers — she's totally on it.

I sent a list of props to the props guy last night (props master? props designer?). In general, I tend to like a lot of props. More stuff for the actors to do. I asked for lots of documents and pens and briefcases and clipboards, also for a trunk for the Players filled with canes and hats and masks and umbrellas and what have you — I don't know how I'll use all this stuff yet, but I want to give the actors a chance to make discoveries. Plus swords, of course, and, of course, a skull.

I've been exchanging messages with the costume designer about casting women in a couple of men's roles (she seems to prefer phone calls to emails). These are among the not-yet-cast, but either Rosencrantz or Horatio will be played by a woman; maybe both. Both the costume designer and I like the idea of the character being a woman who chooses, for whatever reason, to wear men's clothes. I don't want to make a big deal out of it or call attention to it in any way — I might in another production, but this one isn't about that. And I want each audience member to be free to believe whatever they're most comfortable with about the character — that it's a woman playing a man, or that it's a woman playing a woman dressed as a man. The costume designer sounds excited about putting her in a man's suit that's maybe a little more fitted and maybe with slightly wider legs. She said it could be cute without being funny, and I told her I think that's exactly right.

We're having an initial meet-and-greet with all the actors and designers this weekend, then rehearsals proper begin a week later. So there's still time to iron out all the casting. I'll also keep meeting with the actor playing Hamlet next week.

Progress Report

April 21, 2006

Met with the costume designer this afternoon at her shop. She has a great set-up in a warehouse in Carson, several rooms filled with fabrics and costumes she’s made for past shows. She showed me suits and dresses from a recent production set in a similar period. We’ve been talking about using the play-within-the-play to really bring out the art nouveau look; she showed me some more research and possible fabrics for that. We chose a bunch of samples for the various characters, and talked through all the choices we’ve made so far. Good stuff.

Auditions are coming up this weekend. In addition to the headshots and resumes that people mailed in, we’ve been wading through a few hundred electronic submissions made through casting websites. Online submissions are great in theory, but these websites haven’t figured out the process yet in a way that makes identifying the people that fit our needs as quick and easy as it should be. In all fairness, though, I’m sure they’re designed for casting directors looking for hot people to be in commercials and sitcoms, and if all I needed to see was the headshot it would work fine.

I’m getting very excited about starting rehearsals. I always do. I’m such a geek about this that I’m even getting all excited about the prospect of getting to work with actors on scenes from the play during callbacks.

If anyone out there reading this is interested (or knows someone who might be), we’re still looking for a stage manager, a costume assistant, and a sound technician — there is pay. If you’re interested in auditioning, we may still have slots open — especially for people old enough for Gertrude, Polonius, the King, and the Ghost. Let me know.

Production Meeting #3

April 12, 2006

The design is really coming together now. Today's meeting was supposedly to finalize everything; of course there's still a lot of work to be done, but the main choices have been made and I think everyone is happy. I'm definitely thrilled with how everything is looking, and so far as I can tell the designers are pleased as well.

The set designer had a new groundplan, elevation, and sketch — he actually had two versions each for Hamlet and C of E, one for the initial run at a larger space and a smaller version for the tour. He's been working hard. He's incorporated my notes and our discussions from last week, and I think it's going to be a lot of fun to stage on. Lots of interconnected levels and stairways and diagonals. Nice art nouveau swirly patterns facing the platforms. He wasn't able to go as tall as he wanted. We won't be able to have an upstage platform high enough that the arras can be underneath it. Instead, he has a curtain rigged from one of three or foul tall poles. We talked about maybe adding similar curtains to two of the other poles to fill it in a bit — there's no backdrop or back wall of any kind. Ophelia's grave will be in a gap between a couple of the platforms.

The costume designer had colored sketches of most of the characters. We're now putting Claudius in a pre-WWI military dress uniform (like one of these guys in the image on the right). She had found some research with a lot of khaki; we want him in browns and oranges but khaki was too casual, so now she's thinking an off-white jacket with medals and an orange sash, and brown pants.

We're still up in the air about the play-within-the-play. I've been thinking that it should be an artificial, costumey late-18th century, so that it roughly corresponds to what we're doing with the ghost. She's going to show me some pieces they have in stock that might fit that. But on the way home, it struck me that it might be better to go very art nouveau with the players — many of the Mucha posters are advertisements for the theatre, after all, and this might be the best opportunity in the show to really play up the style.

production meeting #2

April 6, 2006

Met at the Little Fish Theatre tonight with the set designer, costume designer, props master, Artistic Director, and the stage manager for Comedy of Errors. They’re still looking for a stage manager for Hamlet.

The set designer had new groundplans for both shows. He’s got a tough job — design two very different shows using all the same pieces, and everything has to fit into a single truck. Plus not all the venues are the same size, so the set needs to be expandable and contractable. And I’ve made it harder by asking for platforms on diagonals and lots of interconnected levels.

He’s doing a great job. Lots of great ideas for incorporating Mucha-inspired curved lines without actually building lots of curved platforms. He wants to have a couple of tall platforms upstage, so that actors could enter from underneath — or hide there behind the arras. I gave him some quick feedback and notes on the groundplan he brought in, and he spent the costume part of the meeting quietly sketching new ideas. He and I stayed late after the meeting to talk some more about how to make it all work. He’s having to balance the logistical issues with my staging needs and with the need to make it all elegant and beautiful. Not an easy task!

The costume designer brought in sketches of the main characters, some actual costumes from previous shows, and lots of fabric swatches. She had a dress from some other project that was obviously built to match a Mucha poster — very cool, though it might not fit our color scheme for Ophelia. Polonius is looking very businesslike with a watch fob and bow tie and maybe a straw hat. Ophelia looks very chaste with the poofy shoulders in one drawing, then lets her hair down in a Mucha dress (and pose in the sketch) for the mad scene (though she may end up in more of a nightgown). Laertes is in a dapper plaid suit with a cravat, and gave us the most fun with the fabric-choosing — I want him to be a bit of a clothes-horse. Gertrude has a low neckline and a tight dress, looking elegant and just a little sexy. She has Claudius in a nice suit and bowler, though we talked about maybe switching to a pre-WWI military dress uniform for him instead. All of these are right around 1900 or so, but Hamlet himself is in a great 1870s coat, about knee-length, with a small top hat — holding on to the past. The ghost is a Napoleonic-era military dress uniform, and she had some ideas for either building it with all grey and white fabric, or washing the hell out of it to drain the colors almost entirely away. We also talked about some kind of fancy sash that the Ghost and Claudius could both wear in lieu of a crown. Hamlet might remove his coat at some point, and replace it with a coat (out of the Players’ trunk) from the same period as the Ghost, maybe even exactly the same coat but in color.

The next production meeting is less than a week away, and we’re supposed to finalize everything then. It’s nice to be working at a level that requires this — a lot of the shows I directed before grad school were minimalist-by-necessity, and didn’t have enough design to require making final decisions until tech. I liked being able to let the design grow organically out of the rehearsal process with the actors, but it’s also great to get these decisions made early and use them as a starting point in rehearsal.

done with the cut

April 6, 2006

All right. Got the script down to 71 pages, and fixed up the punctuation and word choice on every line. I’ll take another pass or two at it tomorrow before the production meeting — cleaning it up, looking for any more possible cuts, and wrapping my mind around the script as it is now.

The designers will have stuff to show tomorrow; probably fairly rough sketches. I’m excited to see what they’ve come up with and looking forward to the conversations about it all. We have another meeting scheduled for less than a week later to finalize the designs.

set design by email

April 3, 2006

I’ve been emailing back and forth with the set designer, preparing for the next production meeting this Thursday. I don’t want to step on his toes by posting specifics about his (wonderful) work just yet. But a quick bit about this process.

At the first production meeting, I talked about my analysis of the play and my fundamental design concept — the late Industrial Revolution going into Art Nouveau to get at a sense of change, as a metaphor for the change that Hamlet tries to deny. We looked at Art Nouveau posters and at drawings showing machinery and smokestacks and ducts attaching themselves to buildings, both exterior and interior. Soon after that meeting, I sent the set designer an email with specifics about the staging needs I had for the show — specifically I talked about a stage with many different interconnected levels (like in some photographs of Art Nouveau architecture) that could be played as a single large space or each level as an individual smaller space, depending on the needs of the scene. He sent me an email back with a groundplan and an elevation, taking this idea and adding to it in various creative and thoughtful ways. I emailed him some notes, and we’ve been emailing back and forth as he prepares a new groundplan for the meeting on Thursday.