Andrew Jackson’s Second Blog, or Filling the Space Between Profanities

Jackson here.

American presidents have to stick by a lot of tough goddamn decisions, and I’m often asked by my wife how I could force so much “back-asswards, xenophobic policy pigfuckery” on the Indians, the National Bank, various states and territories, the Legislative and Judicial branches of government and the American people in general. Conquering large swaths of continent ain’t always easy, folks, especially when you’re attempting to usher in a shiny new era of populism in direct opposition to a fully feckless Congress, fiscally manic Washington aristocrats and an entire race of people whose most enduring legacy to this country is leather fringe and fucking rain sticks.

Pictured here; a fucking rain stick.

Keeping America safe is about keeping America informed. Information is what puts food in our mouths, bullets in our guns and freedom in our mouths and our guns. Despite the media’s misinterpretation of the facts about me, I trust the public eye will see me for what I am. Everyone makes mistakes; everyone has a little blood on their hands, everyone feels a little guilty watching the commercial with the Indian crying because someone threw food on his moccasins.

Maybe I’ve been hasty in my decisions for the sake of this country, maybe the Trail of Tears amounts to genocide and a gross misappropriation of executive power, but the important thing is fuck youAndrew Jackson doesn’t just do the will of the people, he is the will of the people. Listen. I’m a flawed guy, admittedly, and that’s why I’m doing this whole Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson thing. Now, more than ever, the American people should understand the current politics of their nation, the politics that can be traced through the long colon of American history, all the way back to my ass, which is where I pulled them out of in the first goddamn place.

Entertainment is the key to reaching the masses, and though my usual way to the heart of a person is by shooting it with bullets, the way to the heart of a civilized people is through art, through the theatre. Because I’m also a person, a really sensitive person. Plus, Rachel is getting tired of my war stories and bedtime roleplay requests.

"Let's cut each other with my knife. Just the tip."

Really hope she doesn’t read this blog.

Essentially, the goal here is just to entertain the masses. Stuff got hella complicated when I tried to actually change this country and it looks like things aren’t getting any easier. Hate-mongering politishits have only gotten politishittier and there’s no room in the modern world for me, a man of ideas so old they predate the Democratic party. Example; I had some minor issues with the way the banking industry made its profits at the expense of the American people, so I shut it down. Really, honestly, does the idea of revamping a corrupt American banking system resonate with anyone anymore?

Thought not.

It seems like politicians have either pumped my ideas full of bovine steroids or forgot about them entirely. Every precedent I set has either been swept under the rug or expanded to the point of absolute cock-boggling absurdity. Even I didn’t see the Patriot Act coming, and I invented the idea of an uberpowered executive branch.

I’m just spitballing here, but when was the last time a new party asserted itself in this country? Come on, people. Kowtowing to the Washington elite isn’t only unpatriotic, it’s goddamn boring. Can’t believe I’m writing this, but I’m starting to miss the frontier. Hell, at least you could smoke inside in 1828.

Everybody out there in cyberspace, listen up. Even if politics aren’t your thing, even if you don’t like music, even if you’re not a human, come see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Sex, rock n’ roll, war, leather, weasels; this show is everything you never knew you always wanted. Everything and more.

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.

The Little Isaac Chronicles: Second Semester

Our audiences can smell summer vacation, but before they get to lay out in the sun or play video games, they have a little thing called the AP test to get through. It’s a drastic change from where our high school students were two months ago in their understanding of Calculus. Every show more and more people are understanding and reacting to the math jokes with more ease. No longer is there a delay where the audience is getting a joke after the fact, they are becoming more familiar with the material. I love talking with the audience after the shows, and finding students who are so excited that we have shown them a musical that is meant for them.

In the last week I’ve met three students in particular, who have been so eager to thank us for coming, all three of them were quite a bit younger than their peers. The youngest was in the 8th grade and I could tell that this student may not always be accepted for his intellect and love of calculus. It’s so exciting to provide an alternate expression for their passion, and open up eyes to a whole other medium. We are ready for the rest of this busy and fast semester, and hope to spread the love of Calculus to hearts all across the country.

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.

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.