Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A quick visit to the other side of my life

One of many things that has had me terribly busy all the past month is that I designed the set for Vintage Theatre's production of the play version of THE JOY LUCK CLUB. (If you're based in Denver you really should see it; it's the first show in their new space. As I write there are three weekends left.  Tickets here if you're interested).

What follows is sort of a rough draft of the artist's statement for my portfolio.  It may or may not make any sense to anyone who doesn't design sets.

Over the years I've come to realize that I'm an indifferent actor and director, and that design is really what I love, most especially scene.  This particular set was one of those gifts of the gods where the original idea, pursued passionately and systematically and kept in charge of the whole process, was the key to everything.

In this case, it was the idea of organizing the platforming, and a system of mini-cycloramas, into variations on the yin-yang curve, and then making everything proportional to the existing space.  The deck-to-grid height in the space was 11'6", so I drew the big, governing yin-yang curve of the platforms with a radius of 11'6"; visually that made the set "square," i.e. the dominant diagonal was the same length as the proscenium height.  It also meant that the secondary curve -- which created the upper platform where the mah jong table was -- had to be a radius exactly half that, i.e. 5'9", about an actor height, so since the platform showed the whole curve (2 radii), there was a nice 2:1 integer ratio between horizontal and vertical there.  Once that was decided, all the other proportions -- heights, radii, distances -- could be simple integer ratios applied to that basic 11'6" dimension (I made heavy use of 2:3 and 1:4 ratios), and the mass and planes of the set just naturally hung together.

A pleasant secondary effect was that because everything was in circular and semicircular curves, entrances, exits, and changes of level tended to align with tangents to the curves (naturally enough, if you were coming in from behind a mini-cyc, you pretty much had to come in tangent to it; if it shared a center with the curve of the platform, there you were, moving at the tangent angle to the platform curve too.  So actors naturally fell into curving, indirect entrances that were compositionally very pleasing and also tended to emphasize movements like inward and outward spirals and "double star" circular orbits of each other -- which worked extremely well with the themes of frustating, rarely consummated communication that is nevertheless unable to escape its social frame.

Painting the set in light gray and setting the mini-cycs up in costume satin (despite its name, a very cheap poly fabric) made it take Jen Orf's highly saturated light really well, so the whole set could change instantly to another look while preserving the unity of those curves, whose dimensions united the human proportion to the size of the stage.

And here are some pictures I shot with my phone:

You can see what a difference the light can make on surfaces like that; part of the scene designer's job is giving the lighting designer a place to play.  Another is giving the actors a place to play, and you can find some of them playing on this set here.

And that, my friends, is where I was for much of the past month, when I wasn't typing about undead Republicans.