The design process of a play is so important to any production. It can literally make or break a work… apart from the direction or performances. Design is that often unspeakable something that takes your breath away when the curtain parts. It is a feast for the eyes (or ears) that works together with actors to bring the playwright’s world to life.
Design often starts with a concept–a sort of unifying theme or principle that will drive the vision of the play—normally proposed by the director or the team as a whole. An audience will usually be unaware of this concept except for its subconscious weight. However, if a design concept works and is well executed, then the patron will have a sense that something elevated the production to a whole new level.
For ETBU’s production of Eurydice (a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth), our approach was the mythological and the mundane conceptualized by transforming the underworld into a sewer complete with the river Styx and a Greek mosaic in the shape of a manhole cover. The surface was scenically rendered as a boardwalk and lit with a bright daylight look. This concept was rather easy to formulate; the work was rife with imagery that demands an otherworldly design. Every aspect would adhere to the concept. The costumes would circumvent the globe and the centuries to help pull in iconic looks from different cultures and time periods—both heroic and common. The sound design permeated the air with drips, rainfall, and flowing currents as well as music from various centuries. Lighting complimented the atmosphere, distinguishing between the world of the living and the realm of the dead. The result was an environment that engulfed the audience through its proximity and substance.
For our production of Pride and Prejudice, it wasn’t easy to articulate a concept for the simple fact that Jane Austen isn’t known for her imagery. In fact, the only recurring “symbol” in the adaptation were personal letters. We were also tasked with time-period realism, multiple outdoor and indoor scenes, and a need for simplicity because of the number of set changes. Our concept became that of “an open book”—honoring Austen’s work as a novelist. The set was designed to look like an open book (complete with title page inscribed on the center panel) while at the same time resembling a structure that could serve as both interior walls and exterior buildings. Each Bennet sister was given a “color of ink” in which their costumes would be predominantly designed: Jane was blue, Elizabeth was green, Mary was brown, Kitty was yellow, and Lydia was pink and red; the goal was that they would stand out from the parchment color of the set, representing their respective personalities.
Ultimately, a designer must give as much to the production as the director and actors. When I queried my colleagues about their responsibility to a play, one responded: “As a designer, my task is threefold: to give the audience as much information as possible about the environment, the characters, the purpose of the story; supporting the director’s vision of how the story should be told; and giving the actors a safe environment where they can play.”
A designer should therefore be a strong communicator both in conversations with the director and in their designs; they must also be imminently practical with the budget and protective of the artists on stage.
To achieve their goals, designers must be able to analyze the script for imagery as well as necessity. Obviously, research is of paramount importance… Designers must be armed with a broad knowledge of architecture, furniture, fabric, texture, music, shape, line, color, and décor throughout the centuries. They must be able to problem solve quick scenic or costume changes (or know how to cover them with lighting and sound effects). Technology in the field is constantly changing as well, so understanding how to program the newest light board or edit sound with the latest software can often be a real challenge.
And what breaks my heart is that so often their hard work goes on behind the scenes without much in the way of applause. Or understanding. Or appreciation. It bears repeating: it is a massively time intensive collaboration to go from director’s approach to finished product involving the cooperation and investment of many, many people.
The next time you venture to see a show, I would encourage you to stop for a second and appreciate the details: the scenic elements, the subtleties and intricacies of the lighting design, the color and contour of the costumes, the personality contained within the makeup and hairstyle of each character, the aural environment of sound, and the nuances that complete the world through set dressing or props. Then look for their names in the program. After the conclusion, seek them out if they are onsite. Shake their hand. Acknowledge the product or praise their talent. Spread a good word about the work they do.
Their labor and partnership are invaluable to me, and the results dependent upon their talent and efforts.
So to all the designers out there… thank you.