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.

Immigration Forms

Aliens With Extraordinary Skills is a sweet story of hope, dreams, and trying to make good on the promise of a better life. It’s also about a young woman’s love affair with New York, with America, an initial infatuation that develops into something more profound.

And it’s also a story about clowns.

On a first read of Aliens, a first pass of design thoughts, there might be a temptation to go overboard with the circus imagery, to really pump up the clowning on all fronts. But we on the creative team thought in that approach lay a danger: we might obscure the simple story and hide the very real people of the play under the trappings of a circus tent. There’s already a fair amount of clowning within the piece itself, not to mention the reality bending element of the INS agents, without the actors having to contend with red and white stripes.

So we decided to go in a somewhat different direction.

The first time I read the script, with its multiple locations and the relentless specters of both INS agents and the requisite paperwork, an image popped into my head that was counter to the circus route: what if the characters were literally surrounded by the paperwork that plaugues them?

And so we came up with this set, made from various immigration forms. The most prominent is the I-129, the 35 page application for a work visa (this is the one that includes an O-classification for “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities”).

But there’s also the familiar I-9 and the not so familiar G-325 and G-1041.

Building a set out of paper provided some unique staging opportunities which we try to exploit within the context of the show. It also presented some challenges. Standard copy paper is, after all, not particularly structural.

So within the set we have some structural pieces, standard theatrical “soft flats” (muslin stretched over a wood frame) that were then covered with the paper as a treatment.

Coming into the project, I wasn’t entirely sure how we were going to manage it, getting all of this paper on the walls. I speculated that we’d use some sort of weak glue solution and post the pages like a Shepherd Fairey mural.

But then one night I was perusing my Twitter feed and came across a posting from another theatre that was doing a similar treatment (their set had pages from the Bible plastered across a back wall) and their secret weapon was Super 77 spray adhesive. And, bingo, we had our technique (thanks @lekogirl!).

Now that we knew how we would attach the paper, another consideration was, of course, how to make sure our paper as a scenic treatment was safe. We knew that the all of the forms would need to be treated with a fire retardant product, and we knew that such treatment would probably alter the original appearance of the paper. So with that in mind, we papered the walls not with strict rows, but in such a way as to suggest a haphazard stack of papers, a stack that had been rifled through, bent, dogeared, and at times a little crumpled. Then after we soaked the paper in Rosco Flamex, the paper dried and wrinkled in a way that supported the design intention.

As we applied the paper in an assembly line, me on a ladder, the fearless Eric Vosmeier applying spray adhesive, and Doug Borntrager doing, well, any of the many things that Doug does to keep the tides running and the laws of causality functioning, I’d occasionally read out some of the more ridiculous requirements of the forms. Particularly amusing were any sections that cited the “Paperwork Reduction Act.”

Once the walls were complete, we had basically created a white box for the action of the play that could act as a neutral space and take on the qualities needed for each particular scene. It also allowed the actors to float in space in a way that is very theatrical.

As the walls of the set move in and out, the physical relationship of the forms to Nadia and Borat changes in an almost taunting way: these pages and pages of documentation could result in deportation or a path to a new and better future.

Simple and effective

As a lighting designer, one often strives for the lighting not to be noticed: that is, to not get in the way of the essential action of a play, to help tell the story without being too flashy.

As a scenic designer, one often aims to create a beautiful environment that is spatially elegant, with just the right amount of detail, but feels incomplete without the presence of actors.

In service of these ends there’s often a heck of a lot of work.

Take for example, our recent production of Skin Tight.

Skin Tight

The set was very simple: Some boards, a floor, a backdrop.

Here’s how some reviewers saw it:

“Roughhewn boards suggest a barn…” – Rick Pender, City Beat

“The simple scenery keeps the focus where it belongs on the characters and their actions. Rough, weathered boards in the back add a feeling of rusticity.” – Jill Siekman, Broadway World.

I feel like those reviews say we accomplished exactly what we were after.

Here’s what went into creating that stage space:

First, because of the movement in the piece we needed a surface that would be safe and comfortable for the actors. After much searching, we found some wrestling mats which would work perfectly.

Except that they were bright green.

In order to control the look of the mats, we covered them with muslin that was stretched tight over the surface. And to get the muslin to have the color of a field drying at the end of summer, the fabric spent some time in a giant garbage can full of tea. Once the fabric was stretched over the mats, scenic artist (and stage manager) Becky Heldt used watered down dye to paint the muslin to match the original scenic rendering.

So there’s the playing surface.

Then we had those rough hewn boards. We did indeed want the boards to suggest the barn on Tom and Elizabeth’s farm, the place that lingers most strongly in their collective memory. But we also wanted it to suggest something more of the larger landscape… so the cut out of the boards was designed to roughly match the countours of the Southern Alps, a mountain range that plays prominently in the play’s sense of place. The boards that hung from above were cut to suggest a bank of clouds. And the boards themselves were reclaimed lumber, possibly coming from a demolished barn in our own area. It’s wood with its own sense of history.

Behind the wooden frame we had our sky drop. Rather than providing a traditional theatrical “cyclorama” that pretended to be the actual sky, we wanted a canvas tarp that looked as though it came from the farm but could be transformed into a sky through lighting. So we got a big old canvas tarp, Becky treated it to match the floor, and our set was complete.

Except for the rain. Which was done through magic.

And then we come to the lighting. One of the challenges here was that we were performing the play in a full thrust, with an audience on three sides of the stage. In large part this was to bring the audience close in to the intimate story we had to tell.

Thrusts are wonderfully intimate, but do provide a bit of a challenge in terms of lighting with limited equipment: they demand that the lighting designer create a fully lit, dimensional space in which the actors can live. And the show may look different from each angle, but it always has to look good.  All of this was factored in to the layout of the lighting plot, the drawing that dictates which lighting instruments are hung where.

Then came the process of cueing the lighting, that is, setting the individual lighting states and changes that happen throughout the show.   In many ways the lighting for Skin Tight was incredibly complicated: once the show began, the lighting rarely stopped moving. A cue would be called, and over the course of the next 2 minutes the lights would subtly shift in color and angle; as soon as a shift was complete another would begin.

There were times in the show when these changes were quite dramatic and the audience clearly marked them. But more often they were conceived as subtle, almost imperceptible, movements that reflected the changing emotional landscape of the story.

And I think these final two quotations from reviews sum it all up:

“”The sets and lighting are simple yet effective, drawing the viewer into rural farmland without distracting from the action.” – Jenny Kessler, UrbanCincy

“Subtle design elements – the occasional sound of birds, changing light and weathered boards suggest a hardscrabble life and miles of emptiness.” – Jackie Demaline, Cincinnati Enquirer

Sometimes achieving simple and effective is far more complicated than bright and flashy… and even more satisfying.

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.