When Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s Artistic Director Robert Rosen recently gave instructions to “create the universe” for the show Lettice and Lovage, he didn’t intend it philosophically, like words of encouragement penned optimistically on a graduation card.
Instead, Rosen wanted a model of the universe to peek through the bay windows of a medieval mansion. He didn’t give any further instruction, which afforded master electrician/designer Christopher Heilman some creative independence.
However, the notion of the universe stumped Heilman at first. After all, how does one go about filling such a grandiose request, simplify it and make it recognizable to an audience? What exactly does Rosen mean when he says “the universe?”
Eventually, Heilman taped 12 strings of Christmas lights wall-to-wall. The modest lights twinkled like distant stars. Then he wrapped fabric across it, teasing it in some corners to create wrinkles that draped elegantly across the improvised luminaries. Satisfyingly, he stapled it in place.
Unfortunately, the universe was later cut from the show because it didn’t quite mesh with everything else in the show. Or, he just didn’t like it. That’s just one case in a typical series of trials and errors, part of an artistic process continually subject to revision.
Everything we see as an audience is premeditated even when it includes spontaneity. Heilman ponders stuff like the universe daily. Like a construction worker whose structures are purely abstract, Heilman must think through where to place a raised platform, calculating the action that takes place around it, its symbolic weight and also, whether or not it’ll be visually appealing.
All in all, he said that attempts to make the technical aspects as minimal and as “live” as possible, so that they occur primarily during the show’s run time. Pushing a button on a soundtrack would be “too obvious.”
Essentially, set, light and sound make theater visceral: Lighting helps us to “see” the characters and their actions. A set lends environment while sound helps us to “hear” their movements, he said.
Even though the universe is pretty innocuous design-wise, other design issues can sometimes be dangerous. For example, Heilman’s latest assignment is to make a couple of kids fly in a community theater production of “Peter Pan.”
Before that, Heilman fashioned an aquarium that contained Jeune Lune Artistic Director Steve Epp’s 11-year-old daughter Nora in one striking scene of “Maria de Buenos Aires.”
While Nora combated the waves, another character peered through the tank's translucent walls, a stark image evident only after ambient lights within the tank were cued. Heilman’s challenge was to ensure that Nora wouldn’t be electrocuted.
Heilman’s crucial efforts are frequently invisible. Sure, audiences observed the tank, for instance, but “People generally aren’t curious about how a technical effect was produced. They appreciate it and expect it, but they aren’t usually curious about how it was done,” said Heilman.
That is, theatergoers readily swap out reality for a more glamorous version, yet are unaware of the ordinary objects that produce the sensational. For example, a painted rock is actually a chunk of foam carved with a household iron. Rain drips down from holes in a PVC pipe. Strobe lights become lightning.
The nitty-gritty details underscore that, “Theater is ugly up close. Design can be anything. It’s all about your own interpretation and imagination. Speaking from techie land, it’s a very misunderstood form,” said Heilman.
A group art
If an ensemble’s strides are cohesive, then settings or actions seem like a matter of fact. In real life it would be counterintuitive to enter someone else’s living room at an odd hour, join a picnic atop an oversized croquet ball or retreat to a bed marooned in the jungle.
But within the context of theater, logic is malleable. Surreal scenarios are legitimate, even likely. Because it’s a group effort, technicians’ individual handiwork becomes even more imperceptible. On one hand, the more difficult it is to pull out a certain achievement, the more organic the production is, said Theater Latte Da’s Artistic Director Peter Rothstein.
“It [theater] reflects or resonates culture in a certain way. A director instigates a unified voice,” said Rothstein.
Most theatergoers are oblivious to the fact that so many choices contributed to the simplicity of the living room, he said. For example, the audience is probably unaware of the intricacy of a lighting plot. While lighting may glamorize a setting or a character’s appearance, mood or identity (or disclose it), “Lights are all about movement. It’s not so visual but it’s about the rhythm of the evening. It transitions the show scene to scene,” said Rothstein.
“The best designers see a set, lights or sound not as an installation but as a living, breathing thing that moves with the actor. I love a designer who thinks moment to moment and helps build the world with you,” Rothstein added.
Frequently, paintings or other images determine the palette for the light. Sometimes lighting becomes a set, depending on budget stipulations or interpretation.
Local designer/director John Clarke Donahue, whose design and direction can be currently witnessed at the Jungle Theater’s “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” agreed that the most rewarding and effective designs come from close cooperation between director and designer (among others).
Donahue worked closely for a year with Director Joel Sass in the Guthrie Theater’s production of “Pericles” this past year. The resulting set was a large circle of sand that included the portion of a ruined wall. The positive feedback that they’ve received can be attributed to concentrated teamwork, possible when people are willing, he said.
While sets are profoundly influenced by the nature of the space itself, since a proscenium arch demands a different approach than a thrust or a stage in the round, the same concept can be applied to the soundscape, he said.
Most don’t think of actors’ conversations as a part of the soundscape’s continuum, he said.
Other noises, such as the wind blowing, a telephone ring, birds chirping, a fire burning, radio wailing or thunder crashing are all dimensional elements.
Technical designers might be compared to children playing house, he said. Like children with a card table, “They’ll turn the card table into anything. A table becomes the mast of a ship which becomes the bank of a river. It’s a simple element that’s only limited by imagination, ”said Donahue.