For complicated reasons, tech week comes early to our Shakespeare Festival--after two weeks of rehearsal--well ahead of normal procedure around here. And tech, that time when the scenic elements first encounter each other, is always fraught with peril. That's partly because lights and sound and scenic design are all discrete disciplines. And it's also because, in regional theater these days, the lighting and scenic designers are likely to come from different places and to have communicated only by fax, internet and tele-conferences. Not so bad--but there's nothing like the real thing, the moment when the the theoretical becomes the actual. So when lights meet sound during tech, to quote our play, sometimes it's as violent and "sudden as the fight of two rams."
That was not quite the case this weekend, which we spent in the dark together, trying to shape two visual elements of the production. Shakespeare, of course, would never have had a tech week. His plays were performed on the universal set of his Globe Theater, which varied not at all from The Comedy of Errors to King Lear. The performances took place at 2:00 p.m., in daylight. So there were no design "problems." The only lighting difficulties were gray skies; the only scenic variation was rain---which never fell on the canopied actors.
Quite apart from avoiding train wrecks, there's a lot to be said for performing Shakespeare's plays in the conditions for which they were written. I learned this from directing at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, at a replica of the Blackfriars, Shakespeare's indoor playhouse. The universal lighting (at the Blackfriars it is from chandeliers approximating candlelight) illuminates both actors and audience, which encourages a lot of direct contact between actors and audience. (The company sells bumper stickers which say "We Do It With The Lights On"). When I directed Hamlet there three years ago I was astonished how the no set playhouse served the play. Two doors, a trap door, a raised balcony, a central "discovery" space, and a stage which put the actor in the center of the theater turned out to be all you needed or might ever want. At the Blackfriars, Hamlet almost staged itself. You might almost think the play had been written for the space it was playing in.
But we live in a different world now, and audiences come to the theater with different expectations. They've all been to the movies. They don't watch anything that hasn't been carefully lit or designed or lacks a soundtrack. We have the technology--and because we have it, it must be used and will be used (I think this is a nearly universal law which explains much of everything). Even though the theatre remains relatively primitive compared to other media, we have come a long ways since the candles or English skies which graced every production in Shakespeare's time. Look up at the ceiling of any decently equipped regional theater these days and you'll see a dense thicket of complicated instruments, a nebula of light. The opportunities are irresistible. As effortless and satisfying as Hamlet was at the Blackfriars, it seemed much more interesting, varied and particular last summer in our space. And any theater which used the same set for its next production (The Blackfriars being the faubluous exception) would soon see a huge drop in attendence. At the Bon Vivant Theater we are fortunate in having a truly flexible space which can be, and usually is, re-arranged for every production. With each play, we literally create a whole new world.
With Shakespeare, we have followed the playwright's own practice of keeping it simple. We generally create a single set for the entire production--exactly what Shakespeare used--but tailored specifically to the particular play we are doing. But simple is never easy. For As You Like It, Michael Stansbery created a thrust planked floor---the kind you see on half the Shakespeare productions anywhere--but with a difference. This floor, shaped like a large leaf, ripples gently over its surface, creating small hills and dales. It's a brilliant solution to creating the "natural" world of the forest of Arden. I love it. I asked Michael to put a tree in the middle of the stage, up center, as our only strong vertical element. I was worried about the tree. Most stage trees I've seen look like stage trees--painted muslin over chicken wire. Or fiberglass. Only God can make a tree,and with limited resources I didn't want Michael and Roy, our technical director, to compete with Him. So we arrived at a much more abstract and sculptural sort of tree, compounded of metal rods and mesh screening, which I also think is brilliant and beautiful. It speaks to the frankly fantasical and imaginary world of Arden (a most magical forest) without relapsing into the tired and heavy cliches of realism.
That was pretty much the set I wanted and the set I got. But what to do with the sides of the stage, which extend broadly in our theater space?
I saw a lovely Roy Lichenstein cartoon dot Chinese landscape Lichtenstein which I though might work as sides screens, blending with the screen mesh tree. Michael and our scenic artist dutifully created an approximation of these on eight giant flats, and up they went last week. I went into the theater, and lo, instant landscape! I hated it. The painting wasn't nearly as detailed as Lichtenstein's (this would have only taken about 500 hours to create), and the flats intruded on to the stage, making our lovely tree look crowded and pinched. The flats looked they came from another world. Once they were up. Michael didn't like them either. But we didn't know what to do.
Enter Japhy Weideman, lighting designer. He flew in for our first run through on Friday night to have a look at the shape of things. He didn't much like the flats either. So, after a conference--and the first in person meeting between designers and directors--we decided to take all those carefully painted flats down. They were all dismantled and in the theater hall the next morning. A waste of time and thought and energy? Yes. The right decision? Absolutely. We've replaced the flats by extending our scrim and backcloth to cover the full width of the theatre, which now creates a billowing field of fabic for Japhy to paint with light, and leaves the tree presiding over our stage in delicate majesty.
But tech is not over. It's happening as I write. We've just spent 24 hours over the weekend in the theatre exploring different looks for the show. Japhy comes to us directlly from designing two operas at La Scala in Milan, one of the best equipped theaters in the world. The Bon Vivant is a great little space, but not quite La Scala. So he has at least one hand tied behind his back. But he has the other free. Michael has given the floor a slighter darker wash so the clear light bounces a little less. We're adjusting the cloth for the best ripples. rehanging lights for the best angles. At this point the production is molten but congealing fast, as it must. I feel we are all glassworkers, molding and shaping and turning our show while it's still pliant and in the fire. Is that fun? You bet it is. Hot too. It will getter even hotter when set and lights meet the costumes, which appear on Wednesday. Since they're the work of my wife, I am hoping, as I do most every summer, that my marriage can survive our first dress rehearsal.
As for train wrecks, so far we've had only a slight derailing. Last year Japhy designed lights for a production of Troilus and Cressida which featured a giant moving wall. It travelled downstage at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and broke its winches. Opening night was cancelled. And La Scala? The invited dress preview was a complete disaster, he said. That makes our discarded flats look like chicken feed---though given world, time and money enough there's probably no limit to the havoc we might reap. Thank heaven we've only got a tree.