Could you explain how we might approach and understand the role of set design in a play?
Set design creates an environment within which a play can occur. It can act as a frame, but that really depends on the production. Black box theatre space surrounds the audience with the set design. A proscenium production has the stage in front, and everyone sees the play from the same direction or angle. Here we create the world that the audience looks at.
The theatre is different from any other art or endeavor in that it's alive, it's a collaboration between the actors and the audience.
Can you address the role of writing in your field?
There are three aspects of writing when it comes to set design:
1. Personal writings, almost like a journal – about the design. This is usually informal. Depending on the production, it can be almost stream-of-conscious writing, my thoughts about the script.
2. At other times the writing may be more formal – a concept may have been created, to which I respond. In this case, the writing is not only about the play itself, but includes the vision, how it feels and sounds; this writing will emphasize a specific mood or feeling. It's up to me which kind of writing is called for.
The decision is influenced by the play and the nature of the collaboration on that particular production. A more visual approach [to set design] is sometimes called for, or the demand may be more theoretical. It all depends on the director. I use photoshop – set design is, in the end, a visual medium. The final result will always be visual. Writing supports that journey as a form of communication.
3. There's also writing as a form of communication with the other members of the team. However, if all the designers & the director are on site, typically we don't write.
With the advent of email, long distance design is more prevalent. For instance, I did a show in Chicago and did not meet with the rest of the team until a couple of weeks before the show. A lot of my work goes on-line because it allows me to work at home or on the road.
What sorts of writing do you do? What types of documents do you produce?
Sometimes, depending on the production, I may create a design statement for advertisement and dramaturgy (the research component of the production). In that case, I condense the writing into a 2-3 paragraph statement. That writing may be posted in the lobby or in the playbill. Set design, like all art, speaks for itself. Writing in this instance is an educational tool.
How important is it for actors to write well as members of a community that uses performance to communicate ideas?
Writing is extremely important as part of the communicative process because our work is collaborative. Those notes & emails we send act as an archive of the production. The team includes the director, the actors and the scene designers. It takes so many people to get that production on stage. However, the director is the captain of the ship. Ideally, the collaboration follows the director's vision of the production.
Writing is also important because we are concerned with the playwright's intentions, with the play itself, with layers of the production's vision of that play, and with integrating all of these ideas into an authentic production of that work. The playwright had an intention in writing that play. We respect that intentionality. Arthur Miller, for example, stopped the production of versions of his play because he did not feel they were serving his vision.
Directors weigh the playwright's intentions differently. Sometimes the words are simply a scaffolding. Others feel that the play is gospel. It all depends on the intent of the production. If the playwright is living, they can object. However, I've had an experience where the playwright allowed for a different ending. We pay to use the works, but we always respect the intentions of the playwright.
Do you see written responses to plays and performances by students as beneficial? If so, how?
Yes, for every class that I teach, whether it's Intro to Theatre, Stagecraft, or Scenic Design, my students always write responses to the production they are required to see. I want personal reflection, but the response also needs to be objective: what was successful and what was not? It is important to be critically analytical, to look at the play and consider its scale or scope. We don't judge what we do here at EIU against what they can do at U of I, for instance, or against local theatre. The intent and scale or scope of the production has to be considered.
What are the characteristics of “good writing” within and about the theatre?
Literature in the theatre is performed. The writing serves that end. The play, though written, is designed to be seen and not read. However, it is also true that if it reads well, the reader gets a sense of what that play is. There are plays that are challenging to read that also play very well. The plays of George Bernard Shaw, for example, read as dry, but are good in production because, when added to the human element, they take on a new life. The same is true for Shakespeare. In the end plays are written to be performed.
[O]n paper, a comedic scene in a play...usually reads as boring. However, when it is played, it comes to life. Noises Off is an example of that kind of play. We did it here three years ago. It's a farce. It contains a lot of site gags. The script itself is not really funny and in this sense it's only a technical description. Reading it can be funny but it's in the action that the comedy takes off.
How does one describe, through writing, acting methods, means, movements and ideologies?
The N.Y. Times is a best archive of the American Theatre. Not criticism, but reviews, taken at a yearly basis, allow one to see the shape and evolution of the theatre. The genre of theatre criticism tells us where we've been and where we're going. One of our faculty members, Dr. Mitchell, has a doctorate in theatre criticism – it's a separate genre. It's very theoretical. Practical application is different.
That's where dramaturge is important. Critical research looks at past productions, considers the audience and the intent of the production. Costume design must matter to the scope of the production, to the audience, the director and the designers. If we're doing a piece set in the 1940s, for instance, and my budget is only $1000, I make things work. It's about resources.
What are some of the key ways that you might articulate a complicated ideas about the theatre to incoming students?
When I teach Intro. to Theatre my students run the gamut. Some know a bit about the theatre and others have never seen a play. I reduce the amount of jargon I use and speak in ways that are more accessible to them. I also find common experiences to help build on an idea. Although it may not be correct to use cinema as an example, it may be the only way to get across an idea about theatre.
That's one reason why I require all students to see the productions here on campus. Once they do, we are able to get on the same page more quickly. This is because the theatre is a one-time, live performance medium. It is meant to be experienced. Moreover, even if we all see the same play, if we go on different nights, or sit in different parts of the theatre, we do not all see the same show. The play changes with every performance. There's no way to record that experience for “play back.”
There is an intimacy and an immediacy to the performance that cannot be relived. How do we talk about something so ethereal? The only way I know is to rely on personal reflection. Each person has to answer the question for themselves. What was your experience? It will always be individual. The immediate feedback loop is a magical part of theatre.
What can we do to become more informed about the role of theatre in the community, and about the preforming arts in general, and better able to understand and appreciate the work that goes into theatrical productions?
The most important thing is to see a production. As theatre artists, we are challenged to keep theatre relevant. It is a different experience from other mediums, different than watching TV or seeing a movie. Theatre investigates the human condition and it will touch something different in each of us. The audience has an influence on the production.
The theatre works hard to keep current in those topics that we, as Americans, and the world, are facing. A full theatrical release is an event. It takes so much work to comment on, write a script for, create a set, and still keep the play current. Susan Lori Parks, for instance, writes about the African American experience. Her work is both visceral and gut wrenching. The theatre is a very diverse culture. Plays are written from all perspectives: feminist, gay, gender identity – each is a genre within the theatre.
Looking ahead, Macbeth will play February 26 through March 2, 2014.