Contemporary Set Design

Started by scenicdesign71, Aug 16, 2023, 08:32 AM

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scenicdesign71 what I will call this thread, for lack of anything better.

Last week's NYT Magazine included an article by Isaac Butler about the "minimalist" aesthetic that has supposedly overtaken Broadway in the past decade or so (pegged, with surpassing arbitrariness, to the 2014 BAM import of Ivo van Hove's Angels In America, as though consciously austere stage design were a 21st-century invention previously unknown to New York theatergoers).

It made my head spin a bit, since, as recently as the very tag-end of 2021, the NYT's Jesse Green had been airing his concern about the supposed recent proliferation of "hyperdesign" that he saw as arrogating to itself -- or being obliged to pick up the slack for -- too much of the theatrical storytelling process that ought properly to fall to playwrights/composers, directors and performers.

To be fair, neither writer actually seems to be saying anything as simple as "there's too much (or too little) scenery on Broadway stages these days" (though both still manage to court the comments-section self-righteousness of theatergoer/consumers feeling confirmed in their intuitions of the profligacy and/or miserliness of Broadway producers, and the pandering and/or pretension of directors and designers).  It's actually rather hard to tell just what either writer is trying to say, since the trends they're ostensibly spotting are dubious, their explanations vague and cursory, and their pet examples no more persuasive than any number of counterexamples would be in each case.  Each makes a few astute observations about the handful of shows they choose to cite; neither succeeds in pegging those instances to any plausible shift or movement governing modern set design more broadly -- or indeed, even in usefully defining such a shift or movement, in either case.  (Apparently you'll know this alleged "hyperdesign" and "minimalism", respectively, when you see them.  But, given their reliance on wholly subjective calibrations of excess or insufficiency relative to some chimerical Goldilocks ideal, your mileage will almost certainly vary enough to call these terms' usefulness into question).

Butler allows that his so-called theatrical "minimalism" can be done well or badly, and that it's not really (or not just) a question of quantity.  Further clouding the issue, he shoehorns in this season's Camelot and Shucked, quite bizarrely in both cases*, as supposed instances of a trend that might better be described as "design that strikes some unspecified audience segment -- approvingly or not, but with notably little understanding of the subject in any case -- as 'simple' by some nebulous, incoherent definition that even its slightly-more-knowledgable avatar in the NYT fails hard at articulating."  Cramming all that into the shorter and chic-er "minimalism" does not, unfortunately, make it any less scattershot or more meaningful as a way of describing what's been happening on New York stages over the past decade -- though it does muddy an already woefully-misunderstood term into near-meaninglessness.

What has been happening here -- as might be inferred from the publication of two such seemingly diametrically-opposed essays in such relative proximity by the paper of record -- is more interesting and less easy to summarize in a provocative (and, in each case, too brief for its own good) think-piece. If anything, the reality of contemporary B'way scenography suggests a relative absence of broadly-identifiable trends and a plurality of design approaches that ought to be cause for celebration rather than concern, and ought to inspire expansive critical approaches rather than reductive ones.

More to follow, probably...

*Shucked gets dinged, in passing, for its "skeletal" set (designed by Scott Pask) -- very minimalist, no? ::) and yet, curiously enough, Tony-nominated.  Meanwhile, Camelot's heavy use of projections (by 59 Productions, on Michael Yeargan's set, both also Tony-nominated) suggests to Butler a dearth of both budget and imagination -- since, as everyone knows, projections don't count as "real" design.  (Sorry, what year are we in?).  If these are our top contenders, he seems to imply, then spectacle is clearly in weirdly short supply on B'way -- except that, beyond lazily flashing the code-words "skeletal" and "projections," he hasn't even begun to support his (pretty much insupportable, imo) point.  It may or may not have been a banner year for Broadway set design; but a glance at these very examples -- despite both being obvious long shots against precisely the lavish old-school spectacles he somehow seems to imagine sinking out of fashion (Some Like It Hot [Pask again] and the eventual winner New York, New York [Beowulf Boritt]) -- is enough to show that "minimalism," or anything that could even loosely fit under that sloppy rubric, has absolutely nothing to do with it.


Quote from: scenicdesign71 on Aug 16, 2023, 08:32 AM[Contemporary Set Design] what I will call this thread, for lack of anything better.

...or "Contemporary Design for Live Performance," maybe, just to broaden things a bit...  (And even "live" might need rethinking if at some point I decide to start rattling on about motion-picture production/costume design)...

...also, "contemporary" might be a slight stretch for Bread and Puppet -- which is apparently still going strong, but which turns 60 this year.  Nevertheless, I'll post this here, because where else?

Scanning their Wikipedia entry, I'm reminded of B&P's psychedelic stilt-walking Uncle Sam, an icon of Vietnam-era political street theatre.  Thirty-odd years ago as an NYU sophomore, I recall using an old Life magazine photo of him as research for Hair in Gregg Barnes's costume design class at Playwrights Horizons.  (I probably still have the costume sketch that resulted, kicking around somewhere.  My memory is fuzzy, but I likely meant for him to appear at some point during the first-act "Be-In," the lengthy second-act acid trip, and/or the final sequence).


For no identifiable reason*, this evening I got onto one of my occasionally-recurring Arcadia obsessions -- it may be my favorite nonmusical play ever, certainly among the top handful, probably in part because I saw its American premiere at a particularly fraught and impressionable time near the end of my final year of grad school, but also because it just objectively is a masterpiece.

(In an even more random twist of the wormhole -- maybe thinking about Buñuel and Here We Are, and because YouTube's algorithm wanted to steer me from the video embedded below to this SJS interview -- just now I started wondering what a musical based on Arcadia might be like, and specifically what Sondheim would've made of it.  Probably nothing, because it's probably a really terrible idea, but the thought still intrigued me for all of ten or fifteen starry-eyed seconds).

Anyway, after reading this entire school study guide a little while ago, and lamenting, for the umpteenth time, the fact that no major production (of what is widely regarded as Stoppard's masterwork) has ever been captured for Great Performances or NTLive or BroadwayHD or the like, I started looking for YouTube clips -- or, who knows, maybe even a decent full-length "slime tutorial" -- and instead came across this elegant three-minute featurette for a 2016 regional production:

I don't have a whole lot to say about it, except that it's a beautiful set, smartly designed around its gorgeous central piece of prop carpentry, and I would love to have seen this production (at an outdoor classical theatre in Wisconsin that I don't think I'd previously been aware of; but, judging by this video and their website, they seem to do lovely work).

Jesse Green would presumably cite this production for "hyperdesign": its director gushes, not without justification, that "you could probably talk about this table for hours" (well, yes, I probably could) -- but, Green might chide, shouldn't we be talking about Stoppard's ideas, or the cast's performances, instead?  As "a kind of symbol of deterministic chaos," is the table's slow accumulation of two centuries'-worth of historical detritus perhaps an over-eager visual analog for what the playwright already has quite well-covered in words? 

Meanwhile, Isaac Butler would clock the very same design as an example of high scenographic "minimalism" (if also, as he might mistakenly imagine, suspiciously inexpensive-looking): it encompasses two separate periods and plotlines, and a host of cosmic Big Ideas, within a single static space so spare and minimally-dressed -- the room's side walls and even its two frequently-used interior side doors both reduced to the barest fragmentary suggestions of doorframes -- that it scarcely qualifies as even a very simple traditional "box" set. 

Yes, I'm still rolling my eyes at both Green's and Butler's NYT pieces, linked in the OP above.  And yes, the joke here is: Andrew Boyce's set, and my description of it, both track rather closely with Stoppard's own specification in Arcadia's published script -- as have probably dozens of other productions over the past thirty years.  This particular iteration is hardly cutting-edge, but whatever it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in grace and intelligence: unlike the ego-mad, emptily grandiose theatre-makers of popular imagination, Boyce is clearly both an artist and a professional, with a keen eye for detail and proportion -- and a judicious sense of when to step out of the playwright's way.

*Ed.: ...Identified it!, finally, after just now closing a dozen browser windows to reveal the one that had been patiently waiting all evening to reclaim my attention: this review of Zadie Smith's new novel Fraud.  I had been derailed almost immediately by its mention of a ha-ha, because my first (and still very-nearly only) exposure to both the term and the concept of blind fences was in 1995, among all the talk of neoclassical landscape design in Arcadia.  That single word was enough to send me hurtling from Smith to Stoppard earlier tonight; hours later, I'm just now finally getting back to the Fraud review after having slipped away barely a single paragraph in.


I am shamed to admit I never saw a show at ATP when I was living in Wisconsin.  It was just a little too far away for me to make that happen. 

The Madison Square Garden concert by The 1975 has a wonderful set.  Spoiler, it changes a little short of half-way through the show.  Since this is about live performance set design, I thought I would include it here.  I recently became aware of the self described pop-band and I love their 80s inspired sound.  The concert is split roughly in half with a sort of story based show to start and a more traditional concert to end.  They are tied together (?) by a performance piece halfway through.  It is strange and odd and absolutely wonderful.  

I no longer long for the old view!


Thanks for this, @DiveMilw !  I should pay more attention to concert design, and to music more generally.  I watched the whole thing last night and read a little online about The 1975, who had heretofore only been a name to me.  It reminded me how narrow my little wheelhouse has become over the years, so it was nice to step out of my comfort zone.


From the NYT Magazine:

The Genius Behind Hollywood's Most Indelible Sets
How Jack Fisk, the master production designer behind Killers of the Flower Moon and many other films, brings the past to life.

Articles like this pop up rarely: elegantly written in-depth explainers, for a general readership, of this weird discipline on whose outermost fringes I've spent most of my life stubbornly encamped.  Invariably focused on a single notable practitioner, they just as invariably err toward breathlessly crediting their individual subjects with having all but invented a new art form.  It's been a few years since the last time a piece like this, from a major outlet, struck me with such sharply ambivalent fascination.

I'll leave it at that for now, but it is definitely worth a read.  And if nothing else, it bumped Killers of the Flower Moon from my "probably" to my "definitely" must-see list.


A short clip of the opening of the 1975 concert in Sacramento.  You get a really good view of the entire set and see how the beginning of the show is almost a little play.  Plus, I LOVE the music underscoring the moments after Matt Healy takes the stage.  
I no longer long for the old view!


Thanks, @DiveMilw, the long view does clarify a lot!
Some random noticings:

  • [01:58]  I like how the "spotlit" 1975 logo dissolves-out-of-focus as it fades.  And I always love a kabuki drop.
  • [02:05]  I wish Merrily had such a beautiful expanse of fiber-optic (or programmable LED) stars!  (Speaking of which, now that you've seen it, how did the stars at the Hudson look, onstage and in the house?  Did they give the show's ending the visual support it deserves?)
  • [02:30]  The set lives nicely in this really large dark space (larger, or at least more evident here, than in the tighter-framed MSG full-concert video).
  • [02:57]  The preshow haze buildup serves, among other things, to accent the arriving car headlights.  Haze is of course a concert mainstay, but here it's also used to bolster a "theatrical"/realistic-narrative effect; without it, those headlights wouldn't register nearly so strongly.  Sound of course also helps to sell the moment.
  • [03:10]  The jumbotron "opening credits" add a playful cinematic touch, staged and live-captured/-edited with elegant simplicity.
  • [03:55]  The piano underscore here is John Williams's "Flying Theme" from E.T. (preceded by "Aura Lea", a.k.a. "Love Me Tender," here used as a sort of blandly cozy, scene-setting, "just an ordinary night at Matty's house" introduction to the space, before segueing into the "Flying Theme" after Healy enters.  In the full concert video we can see that he keeps an original 1982 vintage plastic E.T. kids' juice tumbler, seven years older than he is, near his keyboard.  How that all manages to lead effortlessly into The 1975's own music is beyond me, but somehow it works.
  • [08:00]  The upstage sunrise projection has a deeply vignetted edge (softened further still by the haze) which really enhances its effectiveness in relation to the rest of the set.  In combination with the dark surround -- which, again, is much more noticeable here, given the wider perspective, than it was in the full MSG video -- this super-soft projection edge really sets off the crisp white shapes of the architecture.  There's a brief flash of light at [07:22] that shows how much of the cyc they're not using -- and while the projection will expand to fill almost its entire surface later on, for the moment it's a smart choice to keep the focus more intimate and let Healy's "house" define the space.  Allowing plenty of room for the image to grow also makes the pull-down at the end of the song (from fully "daylit" cyc back to just stars) much more effective.

Looking back through the 2022 MSG full concert video you posted above, I can't find a trace of any stars or cyc projections anywhere; it just looks like blank darkness upstage, throughout the show.  And I'm pretty sure the two additional "distant" upstage streetlight/telephone poles shown in the Sacramento clip are newer additions, too.  These three elements (stars, projections, additional lampposts) may come and go, depending on the venue -- they're missing again, along with the show curtain, from this recent full phone-capture taken two weeks ago at an outdoor amphitheater in Colorado -- but all three strike me as very worthwhile additions, so I would hope that they're there more often than not.


Not meaning to turn this into a The 1975 concert thread but......

Here is the concert I attended in Milwaukee last month.  Unlike the person who took the video, I was not on the floor in the general admission section.  I was to house left and waaay up high.  Being on the floor, there are sometimes some phones in the way and sound isn't as good as in others.  What this video brings to the table is a much closer, direct view of the set.  You also get a good look at "Stage B". I love this set more every time I see more of it.  (sometimes I wonder which I like better, the set or the music?) If they ever tour without a set of some sort I will be very sad.  My hope is that they reuse this set for the next few tours, making changes to fit their mood, message, and storyline. 

I no longer long for the old view!