The coolest part of my job is the design and production process – the part that happens behind closed doors months in advance of audiences walking into our theatre to see a play. I often get asked about this seemingly Masonic period of time when the director, designers, technicians and I are hunkered down figuring what the heck things are going to look like, sound like, feel like; I could give you a timeline of what happens when…but timelines are BORING! So instead I thought I’d share fresh experiences from the show we’ve got on Stage in November – THE HISTORY OF LIGHT. This is the first blog in a four part series that will take you through the design process leading up to the first performance, by plunking you down smack in the middle of design meetings. Ready?
PART I: THE CONCEPT
It’s early August, a warm summer evening – muggy, actually. I’m sitting at June’s kitchen table and we’re intently peering at the five little video feeds on my laptop that show each of our designers and our director in their homes in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York. It is our first design meeting – the “concept” meeting where we talk in big ideas, big themes, and images about the play.
What’s remarkable is not that we’re doing this via Skype (the first design meeting I’ve conducted this way), but that, unlike any other concept meeting I’ve been at before, everyone’s landing on the same ideas, feeding off of each other, riffing on what the sound designer says about texture, or the costume designer says about color and light. It’s a playful piece, The History of Light by Eisa Davis; we move in and out of time, dreams, memories – one moment we’re in the 1960s, the next 2002, the next the early eighties. We’re talking about how old faded photographs often have one color that remains vibrant, how our memories of times past are often viewed through the lens of old photographs – “Do you remember that red sweater Aunt Marnie always used to wear? I always picture her that way when I think of her…” We’re talking about how songs and the color of light can immediately transport us to a different time and place; how fluid this play is as it weaves through time and space, and how the design team can support that physically. What kind of set will help the actors change locations instantly? We all agree projections will help with the fluidity immensely. Then, the costume designer says, “I’m not sure why, but every time I read The History of Light, I think of The Glass Menagerie.”
Immediately, the videos fall silent. A second later everyone – literally everyone – is agreeing whole-heartedly: it’s the nostalgia, how we see things the way we want to, the fragile dreams and the heartbreak and how we heal after a dream has been broken, how we make ourselves whole again… The words are flying through my tinny speakers and then I watch as five little videos show our designers and director each with their own dog-eared copy of Tennessee Williams’ classic in their hands. Jade, our director, reads a portion of the opening stage directions aloud, describing the set, the house that the Wingfields live in:
The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic licence. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic.
The entire story of the glass figurines and fabled gentleman caller are viewed through Tom, the narrator’s eyes. The journey that SOPH is on in The History of Light is similar – the worlds we follow her through are from her perspective, her memories. From that one comment by our designer, that one quote from Williams’ masterpiece, we have a synthesis in the design concept: it’s SOPH’s story and the lights, the costumes, the playground of a set will be as she envisions and remembers them and will have a distinct feeling from the “reality” of the present time.
With that realization, the designers and the director are elated, some have already started sketching while we talk schedule and logistics for our next meeting; some are clicking away on their computers pulling up images, colors, and other research for inspiration. When we meet next, we’ll have sketches, ground plans, color palettes and where we’ll run into the practicalities of design, where we’ll struggle with what we’d like to do and what we can afford to do. The next phases brings us to the point where we decide to “throw out the babies”, but keep the bathwater: we toss the physical ideas that are less interesting but keep the concept until we find a baby that’s just the right size to fit in the tub.
See you in Part II: STROKE OF GENIUS, where practical challenges lead to surprising artistic solutions.