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.


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.

boom Opening

(From Thursday, October 8)

BOOM rehearsals, Thursday.  Two days and counting…..

Well here we go, it’s two days from opening and we’re slamming this puppy up. Everyone is busting their butts to get things wonderful and amazing for opening; so far so good.  We’ve been in the theatre for about a week, working on the set as it materializes before our eyes on a daily basis.  The big challenge is creating magic with the reality of small budgets, trying to make it look right and in this case, “prop it” properly (the show is very prop heavy in terms of set dressing).  I say challenge, but at the same time, it’s one of the things I love the best about working for places like Know Theatre.  A great deal of imagination goes into developing a look for a show like this, lots of creative thinking from designers to make it look right and still stay within budget, which is a huge deal these days.

The blocking we worked on in the rehearsal hall fit pretty well once we moved into the theatre, there are always adjustments to make, but all in all the staging seems to be working.  Then, as we continue to work on the set, lots of new options come to the fore and so we change things and adjust and tweak things until the pictures are interesting and driving the story forward and the actors are comfortable with movement in terms of their own needs and desires.  Blocking, simple proximity of bodies in space is kind of amazing in terms of how it can make or break what an actor is feeling….so we continue to evolve the staging so that we arrive on what best illuminates what the actors are going after.  Our bodies are pretty smart if we just get out of the way and much of my job right now is trying to feel when the actors are uncomfortable and to help them find a “better place to be” when need be.

We spent last weekend teching the shows, adding lights and sound and props etc.  With most of the designers doing double duty and wearing several hats at once, there are always things that are there when we want them to be; it’s simply a matter of not enough bodies to accomplish it all.  But we got there and we all felt good after the 10 out of 12’s, which were Sat. and Sun. (10 out of 12’s are technical rehearsals where the actors and crew work 10 out of 12 hours in a day in order to build all of the light cues, sound cues, work scene changes, entrances, exits, etc.  These are loved by some, dreaded by many but absolutely essential to the process of creating a show.)

As things come together, it becomes super important for us (the designers and me) to get things happening and done on the tech side of the production so we can get back to the play and give the actors time to work with all the new stuff and get comfortable in what will be their home for the next five weeks.  This is ever a challenge, whether it be here or the Guthrie or the National Theatre in London….getting all the tech finished and polished so the story, the relationships, the people can become the focus again.  We’ve almost gotten to that point by now and we take a few hours in the afternoons to work on tech stuff and little moments that need tweaking and then run the show at night.

Tonight we will have our first real audience, a preview, which we are all very ready and anxious for.  With a show like this, a comedy that depends a lot on timing and landing jokes and snappy patter, the audience becomes an additional cast member and we REALLY need some folks in the seats to tell us what is or isn’t working.  Can’t wait to see how people react to the show and this is a great time for me to see what needs work, what isn’t clear, what needs attention.  Observing the body language of the audience is very helpful, it tells you tons about how the show is working.  Are they sitting up and hopefully on the edge of their seats? GOOD! Are they relaxed back into the chairs and thought watching, not necessarily taking an active part in the play?  NOT SO GOOD.  Are they shuffling and unengaged?  TERRIBLE!   I’ll be doing a lot of audience watching in the next two nights and making careful notes about when various reactions are happening.  The audience will tell me much of what I need to know and without their input we are really operating in a vacuum.

In the realm of things, we’ve still got lots of time and I will continue to change and adjust things right up until Saturday afternoon if need be.  Hope it’s funny….


Boom opens Saturday, October 10 and runs through Saturday, November 7.

Director Drew Fracher talks about boom

From Tuesday, September 22, 2009

(late posting…sorry)

When I first read the script for boom, one of the things I thought would be most fun would be trying to figure out with designers how to make the end of the world happen in the Know space, on a budget!  (That’s one of the things I love about the theatre, is creating worlds and illusions with just some light and fake walls and humans.)  Trying to make the event theatrical and avoiding the literal are so important to me.  I love going to the theatre and being asked as an audience member to use my own imagination, to take an active part in the event; nothing pleases me more and I want this to do that for our audience. I think Andrew, the set and light designer, and Doug, the sound designer and all around make-it-happen-guy, have brought a lot to the party already and so now we have to put it all together and allow the myriad ideas to coalesce into an event worth watching.  That’s the plan anyway….

So we started rehearsals on Thursday last with the cast (Liz, Allison and Josh) and SM, Becky.  We spent a couple of days at the table, reading thru the play and then going back thru line by line and talking about it in context.  This table work is oh so important for many reasons.  For me, it’s a chance to hash out questions we all might have about the play:  What is the overall theme of the play?  What does the playwright want us to take away from viewing it on stage?  What do individual lines mean in that context?  Etc.  It’s also a way for me to guide the actors toward a common viewpoint, to put all of the above questions under one umbrella and to eventually agree on some common answers.  The great thing is that while I may have one idea of what a particular scene or line is saying often the clear heads of the actors show me that I was totally off base and it’s actually about something else.  This is a very creative time in the rehearsal process, it’s us all agreeing to agree what the play is about and clarifying each plot point and making sure we’re interpreting it clearly and succinctly.  I LOVE table work and depending on how long the rehearsal process is, I’ll spend sometimes four or five days on this work.  It is invaluable and ends up saving lots of time in the long run.  For this project, we spent about 12 hours on this and I felt ready to get on our feet and start to block the show.

One of the things I find most challenging about the script, as well as most interesting, is the fact that it is full of such snappy dialogue and how we bring the comedy out while still telling the story clearly and succinctly.  Comedy is really difficult to get right so that in and of itself is a huge challenge.  Timing is VERY important and at the same time it’s not something you can really teach someone – they’ve either got it or they don’t.  Luckily I think we’ve got actors involved that have good comic timing.  Then it becomes my job to continually refine and tweak it so that we’re getting the most boom for our buck.  This is the time in the process where we’re starting to go over things with a little more of a fine toothed comb and throwing out anything that isn’t working and searching for alternatives.

The challenges of staging are really the challenges of trying to clarify the story and get to the essence of the funny!

The next several days have been spent on blocking – figuring out where the actors are on stage at any particular time during a particular scene.  I like to do so chronologically; we start at the top and slowly work thru the play, on our feet and bringing it to life.  We’ve been at this part of the process for a couple of days now and as of today, Tuesday (September 22), we’re about 2/3 thru the play.  This rough blocking allows us to loosely set the action with the understanding that any and all of it can and probably will change as we continue to refine and clarify what is going on.  By end of day tomorrow we should have the show rough blocked and can begin the real work of honing in on the truth of what we’re doing.  That process will continue thru opening and beyond for the actors, it really shouldn’t stop until the closing night.  Once we get things roughed in, I’ll be back with more on the process.  Peace.