Designing The Dragon (Part One): The Long, Twisting Road

In small theatre, we’re used to often having a quick and dirty design process: thorough but compressed, short and intense. We have a few high-octane meetings, we put together the design, and then we run with it because, well, rehearsals are about to begin.

The design for The Dragon, on the other hand, was a process that was both extended and intense: my first meeting with director Irina Niculescu was in December of 2009.

There are a number of reasons why the process began so far in advance. From an overall design perspective, there was more to do on this show than on many others. For most productions, you’re designing a world around actors, the light in which they perform, the costumes and accouterments that help define the characters they play. But in the case of The Dragon, we were also designing most of the characters themselves.

From a purely logistical perspective, the designs of the puppets needed to be complete by late 2010 in order to give sculptor Lisa Siders enough time to craft the heads of the puppets from my two-dimensional drawings, and the Madcap workshop enough time to build the puppets using a combination of my drawings, Lisa’s sculpting, and technical drawings of the puppets’ mechanisms made by John Lewandowski.

In another departure from standard procedure, we began the design process working more from the ideas of the play rather than the actual script we would use in performance. We had two translations of the original text by Eugene Schwartz on hand, and while they contained the essential action of the play, and many elements that we would keep, the text used for performance hadn’t even been started yet. Even once “finished,” the performance text would continue to evolve, as new plays do, through the rehearsal process.

Why adapt when there are multiple versions of the text available? For one, the play was written for human actors in the mid-twentieth century, and so the play is long, and with too many characters. It would be impossible with our time line, even a year out, to design and build the number of puppets that would be required to perform the complete text.

Beyond that, Irina’s conception of our play of The Dragon was to take the essence of the story and use puppets to explore other aspects of those ideas: themes of manipulation and shifting power. And, in one major shift from the original, Irina had conceived of Elsa, the damsel in distress, as not just a poor maiden, but as a torch singer of sorts, beloved by the town. This both elevated Elsa’s status within the world and allowed an integration of music into the play, something that would help to make our take on the play even more unique.

Finally, incorporating local playwright Alison Vodnoy into the process made the production a truly local collaboration, created from the foundation up for this one of a kind show.

From this starting point, these constraints and opportunities, we began a design journey that would last over a year, full of missteps and false starts, avenues explored and abandoned, leading finally to refined concepts that continued to evolve until the production became fully realized on the Know’s stage at the beginning of April.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be retracing the steps of that journey for each of the design elements. It’d be lovely if you’d like to come along. Just take my hand. What a warm little paw you have. That’s right. Follow me.

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