Pulp Vérité

Started by scenicdesign71, Mar 10, 2021, 03:38 pm

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Mar 10, 2021, 03:38 pm Last Edit: Mar 13, 2021, 07:17 pm by scenicdesign71
Sorry, folks... I had meant to write a little about this while it was happening, and maybe even cajole (or at least properly invite) you to watch the "finished" Zoom reading last Wednesday night.  :'(

Before crying too loudly over spilt milk, I should mention that this was an unusual job by nature -- partly because of the pandemic, partly not -- in that there was no physical (nor really even any digital) production to design: it was a developmental reading, rehearsed for a week "virtually" (by a cast hailing from all over the country) with rewrites happening daily, and capped off by a one-night public Zoom presentation which viewers were encouraged (by the company's AD, in his introduction) to regard more as an open rehearsal than as a polished product.  No fancy virtual backgrounds or clever Zoomography, and no at-home costume- or prop-wrangling; in total, maybe 30 minutes of the play's allotted 29-hour rehearsal time was spent managing actors' laptop mic settings and finessing backgrounds (white or pale-neutral walls, mostly) and webcam framing, to make the presentation as smooth and unobtrusive as possible.

My own part in all this was deliberately vague and open-ended: I was hired as a "design dramaturg," not to organize or embellish the online visual experience for last Wednesday's presentation, but to help the playwright and director, and their cast, imagine how this work-in-progress might eventually operate in actual 3D physical space, and how visual design elements might support it, in some real live-in-person future production.  This position is apparently a standard hire for readings at Playwrights' Center (which, as far as I can tell, isn't in the business of mounting full productions themselves, but only of helping playwrights develop their scripts); their uncommon idea of involving a designer during the writing process apparently predates the age of Covid-19 and Zoom theatre, and I have to say, it was a joyful experience from start to finish.  (Imagine: all the fun and "creative" aspects of scenic design -- talking, researching, brainstorming, talking, designing, talking some more -- with none of the hassles of having to actually get a set built on time and under budget!  ;D)  And while the paycheck was modest by pre-pandemic standards, given the ease and brevity of the gig and the catastrophic overall financial state of the performing arts right now, I was moved and impressed to be offered any pay at all, on top of being honored to participate.

The initial offer came with a suggestion that the tangible results of all this conversation and "design dramaturgy" might amount to a few sketches or mood-boards, to be shared with the cast and creators during the rehearsal process, and with viewers of the final reading in a manner and to an extent TBD by us (if at all).  Given the Center's mission to serve playwrights, we opted to first let Wednesday's audience experience the entire reading uninfluenced by any visual suggestions beyond the stage directions in the script (read aloud by one of our actors), and only afterward do a quick five-minute design presentation for those who wanted to stay and watch.  (Between my stage fright and inexperience with Zoom screen-sharing, said presentation was a mixed bag at best, but for better or worse my attempt at "winging it" did end up keeping things fairly brief).

But given how starved I've been for design work lately, it was probably predictable that I'd exceed my brief and end up designing a full-on Broadway-scale set for this play.  :))  And given how inspiring I found the Zoom rehearsals, I don't regret having done just that; I came away from the experience with deeper-than-ever respect for Kareem and brand-new appreciation for the mysterious process of playwriting, as well as a reminder that really good actors are in many ways, contra stereotype, breathtakingly intelligent beings.  The incisive and laser-focused work they all did on this play in just a week was truly dazzling to witness.  And while my own thoughts were very much focused on visual storytelling rather than spectacle, it was exciting, in a purely-hypothetical situation like this, to be able to show Crystal and Kareem a kind of budget-is-no-object "dream production".  Getting my more extravagant fantasies out onto paper often has the effect of clarifying what's crucial and what's not, but in a real production there's seldom time to get that dream-design out of my system before facing the realities of an off-Off Broadway budget and schedule.  So it was startling to find out just how far I was able to get with this one in only about ten days, all the while learning how the play works and how it might behave in real space, whether on a million-dollar set or a thousand-dollar one.  The result isn't at all a finished design, but I was able to explore a lot further and get my ideas down in more detail than I would ever have expected in such a brief period.

More to follow, including pics...