On Building Metaphor out of Bridges

On my first read of Collapse, I got really excited about the script. It’s funny, timely, heartbreaking, and weaves together metaphor and events that are just crazy enough to feel real in a way that’s both powerful and entertaining.

Plus it has a couple of “how the heck are we going to do that?” moments that make theatrical design in quirky spaces particularly exciting.

For the characters in Collapse, the I-35 Bridges (both the old one and its replacement) are a constant presence in their lives. In creating the world of the play, we wanted the structure of the bridge to be an omnipresent visual for the audience, physicalizing the psychological presence.

The design of the bridge structure that forms the set is a bit of a mashup between the old Bridge and the New.  The old bridge was quite complicated visually, with crisscrossing girders that affect the play of light and shadow.  It’s a twentieth century bridge, with all the hopes and dreams that carries.

The I-35 Bridge Before its Collapse

The New I-35 Bridge

The New Bridge, on the other hand, is sleek and contemporary, a bridge for the 21st century. With it’s pale colors, it’s a canvas for other light, and has a way of fitting in with the landscape rather than imposing itself.

With it’s elegant concrete arches, it would be extremely difficult for us to replicate the majesty of the new I-35 Bridge in our space with a 12 foot ceiling.

And the design of new bridge doesn’t really work for one of the scenes in the play.

So, rather than being slavish to either the old or new reality, the bridge that we put on stage draws elements from both structures (the design of the guardrail is, for example, based on drawings from the approval process for the new bridge).  Our bridge has complicated crisscrossing elements while maintaining a 21st century feel.

The elements of I-beams and girders also make our bridge multipurpose: it’s the exposed industrial beams of David and Hannah’s Loft Condo; it’s the pipes and girders of the basement where a support group meets; and it’s the bridge itself, whether illuminated and present or as a shadowy reminder.  We also kept the color story of the bridge in pale grays as a nod to the new I-35 Bridge, that way, as with the new bridge, we could wash the structure in colored light to give it a very different feel.

A rendering of the stage layout for a scene from Collapse.

Here you can see a rendering done in my drafting software, Vectorworks.  As a designer who’s continually travelling, I always use these kind of 3d renderings to communicate with the director and other members of the production team.  This way I could be working in California while sending drawings to Jason Bruffy in Florida.  We would talk, I would tweak some things, and then by the end of the day we could have updates to the rest of the Know team in Cincinnati.  Working with a traditional physical model, this process could take weeks.

Collapse Floor Treatment

The final overall visual element for the show is the floor, which you can get a sense of in the above rendering. I wanted the floor treatment to be evocative of light coming through the twisted girders of the wreckage of the old bridge, as though even though the structure we see is pristine, the shadow it casts is a continual reminder of the accident.  Here’s a quick view of my concept for the stage from above.

And here it is, when all of those elements come together.

Collapse, Onstage.

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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.

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.

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.

Designing the Boom: notes on scenic design by Andrew Hungerford

In two years as resident designer for Know theatre, I’ve gotten to work on some amazing scripts.

But beyond the basic element of overall quality, on occasion a script comes along that appeals to me on a number of levels other than standard literary stuff and design potential.  It’s got things that connect with me personally, moments where I go, “wow, I am that guy.”

I’m speaking, of course, of Noah Haidle’s ‘Vigils,’ because I have a fiery building collapse on me five times each day.

Not really.

‘Boom’ was one of those scripts.  As an undergrad, I spent a fair amount of time in university labs; in physics classrooms with my graphing calculator.  On computers processing data, trying to get information off of ancient magnetic tapes (from the eighties!).  Counting globular clusters in NGC 1487.  Watching Star Trek.  So I could totally relate to biology graduate student Jules, the instigator of the events of Boom, and the idea that he’s retrofitted his lab to be some sort of living space.

Throw in some post-apocalyptic wackiness and this script had me very excited for the process as a whole.

So here are some things about my general approach when designing at the Know (and elsewhere):

After I first read a script, I just think about it for a while.  Maybe I’ll jot down some notes about elements that really caught my attention, but mostly I’ll just think about it.  And then I’ll read it again.  This time around, I’ll make notes of images of significance, some compelling metaphor.  And it’s on the third read that I’ll do a more detailed list of all of the things that are actually required for the action of the play.

Then I’ll do a metric tonne (1000 kg) of visual research. If I’m in one place for long enough, I’ll camp out in the photography section of a library.  If I’m traveling, as is often the case, I’ll do research on-line.  All of this is to crystallize aspects of the play in my head and, in the case of realistic details, to make sure my brain isn’t making things up.  To verify that, say, the sinks in labs still look like I remember them.

Either before, after, or simultaneous with the research, I’ll do some thumbnail sketches of different ways of using space.  Sometimes they’re just lines or light and shadow, sometimes they’re more detailed.  (I’m in Detroit as I’m writing this, and my notebook from Boom is in Cincinnati…  I’ll upload my initial sketch for Boom on Wednesday).

And I generally do all this before I even talk with the director about the show in a concrete fashion.  This is to make sure that I understand the show on my own terms before the true collaboration begins; it’s always exciting when everyone can bring their own perspective to the table.

Often that initial conversation will lead me to revisit of a number of the above steps as I refine my interpretation of the play based on the director’s approach: more readings, more notes, more research, more sketches.  Which can feed into another conversation.  And this may repeat several times before the more formal process of drafting the set begins.

Drew and I first talked about the show at the beginning of August.  At a larger theatre, this would be considered really late – they would already have their final designs done by that point. But at Know Theatre with smaller staff and smaller budgets, 6 weeks out is totally reasonable.

In that first conversation, it became clear that there were some big things that we instantly agreed on.  Here are a few of them:

1) Two of the really crucial elements in the playing space are Jules’ fish tank and the door to the outside world.  Both of these needed to have really strong stage positions.

2) Barbara’s control console needed a peculiar retro-sci-fi look that was pretty sweet but didn’t entirely draw focus

3) The lab shouldn’t look too clinical.  After all, Jules has been living here on and off for a number of years.  And at one point Jo remarks, “What is this, a lab?”  So it definitely needs to be a lab, but it also needs to have sufficient alteration to feel homey enough that the automatic response to Jo’s question isn’t “duh.”

4) This show was going to be a lot of fun.

We also talked about technical requirements of the blocking, some features of the set that had the potential to be great (if we could find a way to do them), and a little bit about the lighting, since I would be responsible for that as well.

And then I started drafting.