Steampunk

I’ve been reading/listening to/thinking about Adding Machine for a few months now. I came into the project knowing a little something about the original 1923 play by Elmer Rice, but that didn’t prepare me for the power of the music of this piece. The first time I heard the score was pretty amazing. I put on the CD as I was going to do some menial drafting updates for another show, but when the music started I had to lean back in my chair and simply take the time to listen.

Adding Machine has the kind the kind of music that infiltrates your brain and takes neurons hostage. It demands your attention and won’t let go. I wake up in the middle of the night from dreams of shifting and rotating scenic pieces with the show’s finale, “Music of the Machine,” pulsing in my head. And I’m loving that. It’s not a common thing to work on a piece that is classic and new and compelling all at the same time. There are elements of exploration to it: you feel like you’re having some sort of grand adventure navigating the complexities of the piece.

It also helps to be working with people I really like. The cast and crew on this show are full of people I love, people I love working with, people I’ve always wanted to work with, and people I’m excited to have the chance to work with.

There is an energy around this project that is both hard to quantify and hard to pin to a specific source. Partly it comes from having all of these really great people in one room. Partly it comes from the strength of the material. And when it’s all put together the energy adds up to this: it feels like the theatre is firing on all cylinders right now, and that’s thrilling. We as a company have been building momentum through the course of the season and it’s only getting more satisfying to be a part of.

So, um, what does this have to do with design? Well, the people and the energy influence the process.

Early on, when director Michael Burnham and I sat down to talk about the show it started simply: two friends talking about the show. And then I pulled out some sketches I had done, not quite cocktail napkin sketches, but close. Sketches on the back of some paperwork from a previous show, rough thumbnails that I’d be embarrassed to show you (seriously). But over some years, Michael and I have developed some common vocabulary that’s really useful when talking about shows. And so from the pen scratches and simple shapes, he saw where I was headed, and then we worked together to craft that into a working environment.

Because this piece really needs a set that is a world to play in. It’s got a bunch of scenes in different locations, and two very distinct parts to the show. Rather than try to produce realistic settings, we’re going for something more, well, theatrical. A setting that is, in itself, a machine. This will make more sense when you see the show. Really.

In terms of period influence, as the costumes tell us, we’re sort of placing the show in the 1920’s. But for the scenic design, the period is a bit more of a mashup. We’ve got ideas of legacy Victorian and industrial revolution technology hanging around. It’s not a world that has sprung new and full formed from a vacuum.

I would not call the set “steampunk” inspired, because it’s not really. Still, I will write the word here because I think it’s useful to have rattling around in your head. It implies a conflation of technologies that allows for some really sweet story telling. And it’s just cool to say. Try it. “Steampunk.”

So this set design, it’s like the adding machines and Babbage’s difference engine, things that are the apex of that mechanical nineteenth century technology, have been working and functioning and gathering grime for say 25 years. And maybe they’ve been augmented with newfangled devices like lightbulbs and vacuum tubes. And so we have a machine. And the people on the stage are a part of it.

The design is simple, but ambitious. It’s that energy that I mentioned earlier that has fueled the ambition: we’re in a place where we all feel like we can totally pull this off.

I’m being mysterious on purpose. I’m trying not to give too much away, because, as I may have mentioned, I’m really excited about this show and I want there to be surprises. I hope that all of you reading this are excited about the show too. We, the cast and crew, director and designers are, I think, creating something pretty unique. We’re putting our all into doing this thing, and in a couple of weeks we’ll be ready for you to come be a part of it. I hope you’ll join in: it’s going to be quite an adventure.

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