Adding Machine Afterthoughts

Bing! The image of a light bulb over one’s head evokes a sense of realization. I, myself, have recently come to a realization. Scenic design and lighting consists of more deliberate intentions and implementations than are realized by the typical audience member. Up until now, I thought the set and lighting only involved notes in the script such as “move table here” and “dim lights” when, in fact, it consists of much, much more. To effectively communicate a message, every aspect of a production must harmonize to create one fluid piece. This unity, however, does not always come natural. Each element must be thought out and then carefully positioned within the play as a whole. Scenic design and lighting are no different.

Let’s take a gander at some of these intentions scenic designer, Andrew Hungerford, and director, Michael Burnham, took to Adding Machine: A Musical’s production. “Rather than simply creating scenery, we were in pursuit of a world in which we could play. That led to a setting that is, in itself, a machine,” says Hungerford, “Scene changes are carried out by actors actually doing the work of cranking winches, shifting skeletal window units, and flipping open trapdoors. The look and construction is inspired by technology that ranges from the mechanisms of the original Victorian Adding machines through the electrical glow of early vacuum tubes.  There’s also a bit of the Bauhaus aesthetic in the shifting window units which initially form a back wall. The plan was to create a mechanism that evokes history without being fully tied to a single period: it’s been around for a while, and will continue to be here for a very long time indeed.” From the mobility of the physical set to the actors’ set interaction with it, the scenic design in Adding Machine effectively delivered connotations of technology.

Scenic design and lighting go together like peas and carrots. For each to look good, you need the other. “From the beginning, this was a scenic design created with lighting in mind: there are gratings in the floor to provide dramatic footlight and uplight positions, skeletal window units that track across the stage, and practical bare light bulbs that fill and surround the playing space.  Those are elements that call out to be treated or exploited in some way,” says Hungerford. Lighting helps set the mood, place, and time in a scene and must be carefully planned and executed, especially for important moments in the play.

For example, the character Daisy has a fantasy sequence that feels something like a classic movie musical number (the song continually references the movies and their “flickering lights”).  “To help evoke that feel, a light on a roving boom operated by an actor as a rudimentary followspot while another ensemble member spun a specially prepared umbrella in front of the light to theatrically create a flicker like an old projector.”

In another moment, when Mrs. Zero attempts to connect with her husband on the night before he’s executed, a single light bulb on a stand is placed before her.  As she begins the number, she leans into the light bulb, singing into like a microphone, her lips glowing in the light of the bare filament. These pictures create memorable, theatrical, and lovely images which capitalize on the actor’s delivery. Deliberate intentions. A professional theatre company’s season is packed full of deliberate intentions; one that requires a creative team, committed actors, and effective implementation. Next time your watching a play (preferably one of our shows) I ask you to make special note of the hidden secrets and imagery housed in the set and lighting design. I certainly will.

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Bloody Sunday

Hello, I’m the assistant stage manager and props master for Adding Machine. One of the more interesting projects that I’ve been working on is a formula for FAKE BLOOD! But not just any fake blood, this fake blood must be able to wash out of Bob’s white shirt every night for up to 20 nights (including tech rehearsals)!

So I’ve holed myself up in my “laboratory”, concocting a special washable blood recipe.

After some research, I came up with some recipes that used the following household ingredients:

Laundry detergent, dish soap, food coloring, corn syrup, and strawberry and chocolate syrups (yummy!)

My research said that I should mix these ingredients together (using mostly detergent/soap) until I get the desired color/texture, and hand wash to get it out.  So I did.  I tested it on a fabric scrap of the same color and material as the costume shirt… and it did not come out.

OH NO!

After 6 more trials with different balances, I determined a few interesting things:

  1. Strawberry syrup stains more than red food coloring
  2. Corn syrup is GROSS.
  3. Not only does this concoction (that’s supposed to wash out) stain clothes, but it also stains hands… tables… the coffee cups they were in…
  4. If you leave a fake blood recipe out overnight, it will not harden, but it will congeal into a very strange pseudo-gelatin consistency.
  5. This day-old blood is REALLY fun to play with
  6. I needed to get back to work and figure out how to wash this gunk out.

As I was sitting in the shop my “laboratory”, I had a revelation!  Or, to be more accurate, our costumer (Susan) came by and suggested something awesome. Maybe, I just suck at handwashing, and MAYBE, it would be best if I washed it in the machine.  Besides, I can wash in the machine with bleach without worrying about hurting myself!  So let’s be scientific about this.

I took my six best recipes…

Rubbed them on some scrap fabric…

And ran it through the wash.

I nervously waited.

Finally, the moment of truth! Would my blood come out?? Or would I have to start over? I didn’t know!!! So I opened, the washer, reached in, pulled out my fabric, and…

Taaa Daaaaa!  All clean!!!

Thanks for reading, if you ever need some fake blood made, you know who to call!

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.

Adding Machine: A Musical costume drawings

Below are some neat drawings done by costume designer Susan Toy. These are only 4 of the many costumes that Susan is putting together for the production. You can also see the inspiration for the look in the corners. Enjoy!

And now for the ladies…

Getting ready for the 1920s

As a costume designer, I love to do period shows.  And doing a show set in the 1920s is great.  There are just so many great things about this era.  The girls in their flapper dresses, rouged knees and cloche hats.  The boys with their sharp suits and spats.  This is a time when both men and women were experiencing freedom in what they wore and getting away from some of the formality of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

When working on a show, the first and most important step is doing the research.  This is how you get familiar with the time period you are working in and how you know that you are being true to the period in your design.  When designing costumes, it is so important to find the right clothes that will support the characters in the play and the world that the characters live in.  And doing research for this show was fun.  I hit the books, pulling great images and learning about the period.  I also used the internet to find more images and information.  And, there were a couple movies that helped out to.  Then, I sorted thru everything and decided what looks would best support the characters in Adding Machine.   And working with the director and other designers, developed a design for the show.  Now, to find everything that is needed, that is going to be fun.