May 20, 2008

More Notes - Design elements

I know this seems like I'm writing more about the play than the play itself, but this is a working draft. I suspect much of this will find its way into rewrites and updates. As it stands, take it as it is: working ideas about a developing piece.

Last time I touched briefly on style, pretty much allowing any rendition of this play that isn't parody, realism, or Disney. What follows will probably seem fairly obvious, especially to those used to avant-garde theater. However, what is obvious to me won't necessarily be obvious to the people producing this piece. So, in consideration for the people who actually have to do the work, these are some of the things I often imagine that don't necessarily translate well in a script - at least, not in the first draft stage.

I'll address each aspect of the work in turn.

TEXT (incl. notes)
The text is a springboard for performance. That's it. I establish firm boundaries not to limit your input, but to free you from the shackles of convention. What fairy tales and theater both have in common is that many people come to them with preconceived notions about their form, content, and meaning. There is a lot of inertia to overcome at the outset, and much of what I write are tools you can use to do that.

Movement is indispensable to performing this piece. The main challenge for performers is finding and/or creating a language of movement that conveys the sense of events without defaulting to pantomime. This play definitely lends itself to a more stylized performance that draws from many sources: non-Western drama, various forms of dance, and all kinds of rituals and liturgy, to name a few. Regardless of what you do, strive to avoid the mundane, everyday, and any-old-how.

The thing to keep in mind is that you are not portraying ordinary people. The inhabitants in the world of the play are barely human at all. They are more like entities, forces, concepts and essences given humanoid form. These beings are sentient but not necessarily rational. They may not even have free will as we understand it. Perhaps characters are as they are because they are destined to be so. Maybe events happen because they are fated to do so.

Next to performance, costume plays the biggest role in defining the characters. How the characters look should reveal a lot about who they are. It doesn't need to be extravagant or expensive, but it must be expressive. Simple but suggestive concepts go further than more elaborate designs that inhibit performance.

For instance, the Mirror can simply be the actor wearing black leotards and carrying a mirror on her torso. The Wolf doesn't need to be covered in fur from head to toe. He could also be the actor wearing regular clothes and a half-mask like a wolf's head.

SET DESIGN (incl. lighting)
A fixed set would make a lot of what happens difficult to pull off because the scenes change very suddenly and drastically. I don't imagine the play needing an actual set, but don't let that stop you from doing what you can to establish mood and atmosphere, as well as to suggest a sense of place. Whatever you decide, it should be easy to quickly and discreetly move various pieces as scenes change.

SOUND DESIGN (incl. music)
I don't believe the play will need sound effects, but music is another matter. Music can enhance the performance by giving the actors a rhythm to work with. It can also time the piece better than the page count. Whether you use the music of other artists or create your own, the general idea is that each scene lasts for the duration of one song.

Later on, I may note the songs I often listen to when imagining certain scenes. Suffice it to say, they veer toward the mysterious, hypnotic, creepy, haunting, disturbing and erotic: goth, metal, trance/acid, new wave (shut up), world music, and classical. Stuff like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Velvet Underground ("Venus in Furs"), Danzig, Type O Negative (esp. "Bloody Kisses" and "October Rust" albums), The Eurhythmics ("Sweet Dreams are Made of These"), Depeche Mode (esp. "Violator" album), Bjork, Danny Elfman, Mussorgsky (esp. "Hut on Fowl's Legs"), Camille Saint-Saens ("Danse Macabre"), Kronos Quartet, Kodo, etc.

Although the above seems like I should direct this play, it's frankly impossible for me because I can imagine a thousand different ways to stage it and can't really make a decision because it changes each time I get back to it.


  1. Are you trying to make a play that you would like?

    Are you trying to make a play that some other people would like?

    Would you like your to help improve people's lives, or improve the world?

    Would you like your play to communicate something?

  2. Wow! What thoughtful questions! I'll try my best to answer.

    "Are you trying to make a play you would like?"

    Of course. Otherwise there'd really be no point to me doing it.

    "Are you trying to make a play that some other people would like?"

    Yes and no. Yes for the audience member(s) who crave enchantment (here I'm defining it as a direct engagement with that which is mysterious, imaginative, intuitive, right-brained, etc.). No for the audience member(s) who only want a well-made play and have a mental checklist of Aristotelian traits that a play "must have."

    "Would you like your play to communicate something?"

    Sure. But I want the audience to decide for themselves exactly what it communicates. I'll elaborate on another question you presented in the previous post.