The Mecca Tales, Oct. 20 - Nov. 4 in NYC

Started by scenicdesign71, Oct 18, 2017, 11:45 PM

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Come see, come see!

We're currently in the middle of a fairly intense tech week, so it'll be a few days before my customary (from the old site; first time on the new one!) posting of pics and blathering-on about the design.  But here are the basics:

The Mecca Tales is the story of five contemporary women of varying ages, backgrounds and nationalities, all undertaking the Hajj together.  Strangers at the outset, they gradually bond as each shares the personal journey -- a remarkably diverse quintet of tales, in tone and style as well as content -- that brought her to this spiritual crossroads.  The play is written by Chicago-based playwright Rohina Malik (Unveiled; Yasmina's Necklace, beginning previews at the Goodman this Saturday -- the same night as TMT opens here in New York).  This will be TMT's second production; it was originally produced in 2015 at Chicago Dramatists, where it was nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Play.

The Mecca Tales runs for two weeks, October 20-November 4 at the Sheen Center on Manhattan's Lower East Side, then moves to the Crossroads Theatre Company for six performances at Middlesex College, November 8-12.

This is my third collaboration with director Kareem Fahmy, and I'm as impressed by his work as ever.  Our cast struck me as remarkably good even at the first table read last month, and downright extraordinary at the designer run-through last week (well before we even moved into the theatre).  And in spite of the usual challenges of off-Off B'way, I'm very pleased with how the physical production is coming together in tech -- on all fronts (sets, costumes, lighting, sound, projections).  I haven't yet worked on a show with Kareem where I didn't come away feeling lucky to have been involved, and The Mecca Tales is thus far only confirming that happy trend.


Here's a great interview with Rohina and Kareem, posted a couple of weeks ago on Culturebot:


The Mecca Tales, rendering:

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The Sheen Center blackbox is a lovely but somewhat odd space, with a gallery running around three sides of the room, accessed by two staircases -- one of which can be seen at the right-hand (stage left) side of this rendering, stubbornly thwarting any attempt to make the standard end-stage configuration feel like a proper proscenium.  Fortunately, I think this rendering tends, if anything, to slightly oversell that staircase's intrusiveness; the greater issue is simply the amount of valuable on- and backstage real-estate it kills in an already rather "intimate" venue.

Our backdrop, upstage, is actually a small, curved (wraparound) muslin cyc -- really more like a half-cyc, or a low border -- with a jagged hem floating some 6 to 8 feet off the floor.  The negative space below it forms an upstage playing area behind the raked disc, with black velour curtains at the very back of the space through which the actors can visibly enter or exit at strategically-placed breaks in the curtains.  This produces some interesting effects:

First, the jagged skyline suggesting distant mountains against a yellow-orange (in this rendering) sky creates a subtle optical illusion: the black "mountains" are actually just the empty space below and behind the jagged-bottomed (half-)cyc, which is hung four to eight feet downstage of the black velour.  Thus, the solid, curved "sky" is actually in front of the empty-void "mountains," by a substantial distance; foreground and background are reversed -- though this may not be entirely obvious at first glance, even when viewed in person, as the darkness far-upstage tends to obscure the "horizon" where the black curtains meet the black floor, somewhat confounding our sense of real distances and depths.

Second, the black background allows the women in their white hajj attire to stand out starkly against an inky void, and to seem as though they literally appear or disappear whenever they enter or exit upstage through the black velour -- a rather striking visual effect, or an elegantly subtle one, depending how they're lit.  I always envisioned this effect as an important feature of the design, but it depends upon the tricky feat -- in a space this small -- of keeping light off of those velours as much as possible, even when actors are standing quite close to them in steep side- or downlight.  Thankfully, our lighting designer has pulled it off remarkably effectively in spite of the limited lighting angles available in the tight space upstage.

And third, the floating "half-cyc" is used as a projection surface throughout the show: sometimes establishing locations in and around Mecca, with painterly skies and distant minarets, as the women perform the various rituals of the hajj; at other moments providing intensely-colored subjective imagery for "memory" flashbacks depicting the characters' backstories; and even dissolving at times into total abstraction, with subtly shifting patterns or calligraphic surtitles, including text from the Qur'an, during poetic interludes.  The projections were created by the same talented young designer who did the lighting, and I have to say, she's created miracles.


The Mecca Tales, "astrolabe" paint treatment on 16'-diameter raked disc:

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The rake rises -- gently, but not quite so invisibly-subtle as it may appear in the rendering -- from +6" at the downstage lip to +18" upstage.  The disc is a static platform, not a turntable (though Kareem jokes that someday "in the Broadway version" he'd like to see it revolve, with the rim and the inner circles all rotating independently -- adjusting the astrolabe's coordinates, I guess, according to the locations depicted in various flashbacks?).

The open space in the downstage chord of the disc (lower-right quadrant of this photo) is a sandbox whose bottom surface had yet to be installed when this pic was taken in the shop in New Jersey.  It contains colored sand, mixed from several different varieties from a sand-art supplier in Florida to suggest a heightened approximation of reddish desert sand.  Unfortunately the limited color selection was such that I couldn't seem to come up with a recipe that doesn't read, to my eye at least, rather more like orange Kool-Aid powder (or perhaps Tang -- remember that stuff?).

I should mention that, while I have been known to draw inspiration from the graphic designers on one or two shows I've worked on over the years, in this case the astrolabe was a scenic concept first, and was only added to the poster art later on.


Random coincidence:

Two Sundays ago, I was working on The Mecca Tales with -- and in the home of -- my dear friend Isabel. At one point while working, we turned on that week's episode (402) of Madam Secretary: as it happened, an episode on which my boss had hired Isabel (at my suggestion)1 for some paint help when we were shorthanded a few months ago.2

So we're sewing a tent for Mecca Tales and watching Mme. Sec'y and half my attention is focused on the scenery onscreen (and half of Isabel's, a gifted costume designer, is probably on the clothes), when who should pop up -- on TV, that is -- but one of our brilliant Mecca actresses, playing a Libyan translator.

I generally operate under the assumption that the fabled smallness (as in "small world") of this industry is overhyped by a fairly wide margin.  But once in awhile a coincidence like this makes me pause to reconsider.  (Then again, it turns out that our lone male actor in Mecca has also played a translator on Mme. Sec'y, late last season.  Given, on one hand, the amount of television being made in NYC these days; and, on the other, the ongoing scarcity of roles for performers of Middle Eastern heritage, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised).

1. This has recently become one of the ways in which I try to repay Isabel for her occasional, invaluable, and altogether saintly sewing assistance for various designs of mine dating back at least to Assassins five years ago.
2. Elizabeth and Henry repainting their kitchen, and Stevie and Jareth their apartment, turned out to be more complicated than I can even concisely summarize here.


No reviews yet, but a smattering of audience members on give us an 82 average so far.  Two of the commenters even mention my work, with one citing the "genius strikingly simple sets" and another opining, despite misgivings about the show overall (and a correspondingly low score :( ), that "there is so much potential here – especially with the aid of the beautiful set design."

Overall, there are no "bad" (<50) scores and only two (out of fourteen, currently) "middling" ones (50-75).  The other twelve are all "good" (75-100), mostly 80s-90s; and most of the responses are very positive indeed.

Some performances are reportedly selling out...  :)


Some actual reviews have come out:

"The multivalent narrative unspools on a terrific set designed by David Esler, featuring an intricately decorated circular stage augmented by images projected on a curved area at the rear."

"For a touching, humorous look at a transformative religious journey, as seen through the eyes of women, make your pilgrimage to the Sheen Center to see The Mecca Tales."

Here's a sample of the beautiful production photos taken by Beowulf Sheehan:

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ARAFAT: Alma shares yerba mate.

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First interlude: Maya.

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Alma's flashback.

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MUSDALIFAH: Collecting pebbles to "stone the Devil".          Grace (Kimberly S. Fairbanks).

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Maya (Mariam Habib).                                                              Maya's flashback: Hasan (Louis Sallan).

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Bina (Gulshan Mia).                              Alma (Cynthia Bastidas).                      Malika (Jade Radford).

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MINA: Nearing the end of the pilgrimage.

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Grace cuts her hair.


Thank you for sharing everything with us. This sounds like an amazing experience, and I love reading about the process. Your set is beautiful (not that I'd expect anything else).


Gorgeous, gorgeous sets.  What amazing work.
Self indulgence is better than no indulgence!


Thank you both, Kathy and Leighton, for the kind words!  It has indeed been a wonderful experience, and I'm always delighted to share.  Next up: the tricky transfer, immediately after closing at the Sheen next weekend, out to New Jersey.  I'm curious to see what this will look like on a much larger stage, so I'll be sure and take more pics.


Beautiful work as always!  How in the world did you make those perfect tics all the way around the circle?
I was born to ask "why was I born?"


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I knew the circle was 16' (=192") in diameter, giving it a circumference of about 603 inches (c = πd), and I knew I needed to divide that outermost ring into 72 equal segments, each containing an Arabic character.  603" / 72 segments = 8 3/8" per segment.

First I ran masking tape around one-quarter of the circle's plywood-and-masonite edge (handily denoted by seams in the masonite surface, since the 16' dia. platform was built in standard 4' x 8' sections for transport and reassembly at the theatre).  My thinking was that I could measure and mark out just a quarter of the segments (18 of 72), then move the tape to the next quadrant to quickly tick off the next 18, and so on.

To further ensure against any slight variance (the 8 3/8" figure involves some very slight rounding) compounding itself over 72 iterations, I actually marked the tape by dividing the quadrant (150 3/4" to be divided into 18 segments) in half (75 3/8", 9 segments), then into thirds (25 1/8", 3 segments) and into thirds again.

Finally, to make sure the dividing lines between segments stayed truly radial and didn't start torquing one way or the other (which, at best, would've looked really sloppy, and at worst might've created a distractingly weird directional "pinwheel" effect), I took the time to strike a radius -- or rather, 72 radii -- with a length of wood loosely screwed, at one end, into the center of the circle; the same piece of wood I had earlier used like a giant compass to draw the inner rings.

When it came to the next ring in -- the 288 smaller "tics" just inside the outer rim of Arabic characters (or actually fewer than that, since this inner ring is interrupted by the sandbox) -- I just eyeballed it, dividing each of the outer segments roughly in half, and then in half again, to make four tics per segment.  This was admittedly a timesaving cheat on my part, as the research actually shows five tics per segment (360 altogether, each being one degree of the circle):

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My main regret, however, is not having had enough time to reproduce the rest of the text that is engraved all over the original astrolabe:

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It would have added at least another half-day (and probably more, since I don't read or write Arabic and would've had to painstakingly copy each letterform by eye) to a process which had already swollen from two days to three.  But I feel as though that additional text might have helped drive home the idea that this is an instrument of navigation, not just some generically-decorated abstract circular pattern.  (At least one of the reviews has described it in more or less those latter terms, to my mild chagrin).

Bookman George

It is a stunning design, David --and it looks like an amazing production. I can imagine it is an unforgettable evening of theater.


Thank you, George!  Audiences have responded powerfully to this play, and I do think everyone involved in the production feels uncommonly proud and happy to have been a part of it.  It's been an eye-opening and truly lovely experience, and not least among its joys has been Rohina herself -- by reputation, a very strong and no-nonsense personality, but in my few interactions with her, never less than effusively warm and encouraging.
Here are a few process shots of the astrolabe:

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Cartoon (sketched in charcoal, then clarified in Sharpie and the charcoal erased).

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First glaze color: watered-down umber to push away the "background".

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Additional colors, highlight and shadow.

This last pic shows the last phase before sponge-rolling and spatter-spraying with translucent colors to "age" and soften the whole thing, give it some texture, and counterpoint the orangey-redness of the base colors with some yellower, beige-ier, and even some subtly greenish tones.  ("Sunday... on the red, yellow-orange-green disc..."? Scroll up for previously-posted photos of the finished "aged" deck, under both shop lighting and various "show" looks onstage).

Planning ahead for the layers of "age" and texture still to come, the paint treatment in this third photo has an intentionally more contrast-y and heavy-handed quality (somewhat cartoonishly so) than the finished piece was ever meant to look -- so that the final sprays etc. could in turn be fairly heavy without entirely effacing the intricate detail and sense of dimensional bas-relief.  Essentially, I "went too far" (with the highlight and shadow, especially) on purpose, so that I would have enough leeway to "knock it back down" without losing too much of the design.

In retrospect, this next-to-last phase isn't too bad a rough approximation of the original (shiny, polished-brass) research image -- but it definitely needed the aging/softening: left in this state, it would've competed too "loudly" with the actors.  The idea was always for it to have a sandy, gritty, weathered texture (quite unrelated to the research image, which I selected more for the geometry and detail of the astrolabe itself than for color or texture).


A rave from Broadway World -- just published on Friday (the day before closing at the Sheen Center) -- but we'd already been selling out houses for much of the final week anyway, apparently mostly through word of mouth:

"Kareem Fahmy's direction, David Esler's scenic design, and Devorah Kengmana's lighting embrace [the writing's] seamless quality by treating the show as if it were one beautiful dream sequence: what is seen is blurred with what is felt in perfect modulation, giving the play a cinematic feel while maintaining verisimilitude. Flashbacks unfurl as a character relives the past, and then recede as she is called back to the land of the living. Within this framework, Fahmy does an incredible job of charting the ever-shifting power dynamics between Mecca's characters by adjusting their positions and facings across the stage as if they were brushstrokes comprising a master painting. This vision is ably assisted by Fan Zhang's sensitive sound design and Theara Ward's deft choreography. Zhang and Ward treat their work with sparse religiosity that is effectively understated. One feels the sadness without hearing Zhang's subtle music until after tears have fallen; we recognize the dance behind each prayerful gesture only after its invocation has been completed."

...And also one from the Theatre Times, likewise published Friday morning and likewise a rave ("an essential new work of theatre ... a jewel ... a timely, compelling play [that] should be seen far and wide") -- but sensitively written-around a rather major opening-night technical snafu: shortly before the house was due to open, our projectors stopped "talking to" their computer and, despite holding the curtain to search (in vain) for an immediate solution, our press-opening performance ended up having to be entirely projection-free.  After a brief and impressively graceful-under-fire preshow curtain speech by VTC's Artistic Director explaining the 20-minute delay, it was actually interesting to see the show without them (but with lighting, sound, etc. all intact); as the review suggests, the script and performances carried the evening more than capably on their own:

Even while recusing himself, in the complete absence of the projection element, from "a more thorough evaluation" of the design aspects -- the reviewer still spills a fair amount of ink admiring the costumes, lighting, sound, movement, set, and especially Kareem's staging.

(Immediately after the performance, a more thorough inspection by Devorah revealed that a cable connection had been jostled. :o
The relevant cords were subsequently rerouted to the grid, out of the way of such mishaps, and the problem never recurred).