Re-Visioning

In my life in the theatre, I have had a few chances to revisit shows I had done before.   Sometimes in the same capacity, sometimes in a different capacity.   I was the lighting designer on Oleana three times, I’ve also worked on Laramie Project three times (once each on Sets, Lights, and Sound); Pippin (actor, master electrician) and several others.  I’ve been asked to design Twelfth Night three times , created three very different designs to go with the directors vision (and none of them were produced).  By the third time I lit Oleana, I was miserable and sick of the show.   Most other shows I’ve revisited, I have revisited in completely different circumstances.   Repeating a show has rarely excited me.

All of that changed recently.   One of the shows I lit in grad school was The Illusion (Tony Kushner’s adaptation of the Corneille classic), and the school I’m teaching at has decided to stage it.   The Illusion was the first I felt like I was lighting “my way” and not mimicking my teachers (and it got the attention of many of the faculty).  The design wasn’t perfect, but it profoundly changed me.   This time around, I am designing both the scenery and the lighting.

When revisiting a show, there is a great temptation to copy what was done before (especially if it was a success).   Knowing this temptation, I worked very hard to create a different set.  Of course there are certain things that will remain similar (it is after all the same play).      The Illusion is set inside of a wizard’s cave.  Our original designer created a cave out of window screen that was beautiful and it took light well.    I also designed a set that was a cave.  The director stopped by my scene shop as I was experimenting with different  types of construction techniques for the  cave texture, she saw a scrap of untreated window screen, and said “that grey one… I think that’s the best.”    I feel slightly guilty stealing the construction technique, but as was pointed out to me, my original designer didn’t invent the technique either.

The other biggest challenge I’m finding is that I’m solving my last production’s problems.   Before anyone involved with the last production says “WHAT PROBLEMS, IT WAS FABULOUS”  Yes it was, but every show has challenges, things that didn’t work as well as those involved with the show had wished.  A few minor points that I “fixed” totally cramped the directors style (and she quite rightly didn’t follow my suggestions.)  Instead this production has its own challenges.

I think part of the reason I’m so excited about this production is that I am once again blessed with great collaborators.  The first time around I thought I had the perfect director, fellow designers, stage manager etc.  This time I have a very different team with very different visions of the show, and they are just as fabulous.

I’m working very hard to keep approaching the show freshly.  I feared it would be so difficult to be fresh, but it hasn’t been.  Finding new visions of a play I enjoyed, is like catching up with an old friend again.   Our past association makes me feel comfortable, but like a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, there is so much catching up to do.  I’m not the same artist who did The Illusion the last time, and The Illusion has changed too.   I find different meaning its pages.  I no longer fancy myself as the heroic young lover,  I now feel much more like the wizard, the cunning old fake who knows how to please his audience.

I hope I have succeeded.

Click Track, The Positives and Negatives

Over the weekend I saw a local, community theatre production of a fairly recent popular musical.  There were several of my current and (recently) former students involved.  I’m glad I saw the show.  It sparked several things I want to write about over the next few weeks.

The theatre where I saw the show has not used a live band for years (or at least that’s what was explained to me).  Typically they use (according to some in the know) some sort of click track — sometimes locally produced with a full orchestra, or a small combo (pre-recorded) or MIDI/Synthesizer tracks

The show used tracks from a company called the MT Pit, which provides this service.   On one hand, these tracks were some of the best backing tracks I have ever heard.  The orchestra sounded very professional, they had a nice swing, and a good tone and sound.

That said, the lack of a live orchestra hurts a musical so much.  I used to think, “well the tracks aren’t very good, but if they were….”  However, this showed me, that no matter how high quality the tracks, it sucks some of the life out of a show.   The recording can’t vamp while the audience laughs (or move ahead when they don’t).   The recording can’t feel when the performer wants a little ritardando or accellerando or whatever the performer needs to connect with that specific audience on that specific night.  The fact that theatre is live is what makes it magical.  Taking away the live musicians hurts a show so much.

The flip side, theatre is so expensive to produce.  Rights, physical production, staff, insurance, advertising etc. all cost a lot (and those costs are rising constantly).   I understand while theatres look at the orchestra and think it is a needless expense — or at least where the cost doesn’t equal the benefits.    Click tracks, especially beautifully  sounding tracks tempt producers to think this is better.  I’d rather hear a small combo, or even piano only so long as it is live, and there, and present with the actors.  Those few musicians make such a difference.

In educational theatre, while my over all opinion holds, if given the choice between students not learning about musical theatre, or doing theatre with a click track, I guess I would choose the click track — but really, I can’t imagine that the click track is cheaper than a small combo.

It was so frustrating in the theatre — great tracks backing the singers, but they were still tracks, plodding on at the predetermined tempo.   A machine trying to do the job of an artist.  It ends up being disappointing.

Of Goose poop and egg shaped moons

“To be a good designer, you need to study the real world,” said I to my students today.  Those of us charged with inventing an imagined reality for the entertainment of others need to be familiar with real reality.   This got me thinking about what I have observed recently.

On Saturday I had a last “Hurrah” before instruction began for the fall semester.   My husband and I went SCUBA diving in Monterey.  While suiting up, I looked around the charming park with its concrete steps leading down to the sand and eventually the water.   It reminded one of an idyllic scene –green grass, gentle slopes, a few artistically placed benches, an atmospheric pier, with a few charming buildings from a bygone era.   Perfectly beautiful, right out of post card.  Except, of course for the goose poop.  Before anyone accuses me of objecting in anyway to the goose poop or blaming it on the geese or the city or anyone else, that isn’t the point.  The point is reality has goose poop in it.  It’s ugly, it’s slimy, it’s all kinds of different colors, and (by now) it’s all over my dive boots.  When asked to design a set for a sea-side park, most designers would consult carefully airbrushed post cards, a few artists’ renderings, maybe a lovely long shot someone posted to Flickr.   But who would consider the goose poop?  Should the goose poop even be considered?

I hope that I consider the goose poop because it should be considered.    I’m not advocating covering sets with goose poop, but as part of the reality, it needs to be considered.   Ugliness born of necessity invades our real world all the time.  I worked with a scenic designer who seemed to include an unexplained jog in a wall to give a sense of reality.   Walls in homes jump left or right to accommodate supports, or water lines, or closets or whatever — in much the same way that parks have goose poop.

During the drive home, I had little to do but read the directions to the driver and stare at the moon.  The moon that night was large, and amber, with a faint glow around it.   And it wasn’t all there.  I don’t know my waxing from my waning moon, or my full from my new.   But I can identify a circle, and it wasn’t.  As I studied it, I could make out how, in reality it had just a little shaved from the full circle, but it really gave more of the feeling of an egg than a slightly lumpy circle.   It was striking.  It was real.  And I’d never put it on stage.  Much like the goose poop, the egg shape moon goes against all my instincts as a designer.  I like a world that is pretty.   Much like Cervantes says in Wasserman’s “Man of La Mancha”:  “Why see the world as it in, when you can see it as it should be?”    In design we have the ability to “fix” reality.  Our moons can be a perfect circle, or a jaunty crescent, and our parks lack goose poop.

But I come back to my question:  Should they?   On one hand, reality is not our job.  If people want to see real life they should leave the theatre and go outside.   On the other hand, most plays are set in some sort of reality.  How real is real?  Does the audience want the smell of rotting food in the gutter, graffiti on the walls, broken windows and babies crying that would be in the real world of “Rent” or “West Side Story”?  Or does the audience want it sanitized, cleaned up, made pretty.

In the end it comes down to the show, and the production.   Could either show above show the rot, the stink, the destruction of a city that we believe was once beautiful?  Yes it could, but it could also not.  The city of remembrance may be the perfect setting for the production that focuses on the love stories of the plays.  The gritty city of reality might be appropriate for a production about how life goes on despite the hardships of the world.   There is a time for reality in our entertainment, and  time for ignoring it.   But when creating any production’s imagined reality, the goose poop and egg shaped moon must be considered.

The Levels of Lighting

I teach at a community college.  This semester I teach the rather grandly titled: Introduction to Stage Lighting.   Community college is only the first two years of post-high school education, and at the end of the class, the goal is not to have a whole bunch of little Theron Mussers and Kenneth Posners running around Fresno.  We do light plots (2 of them), we cue, we analyze, we think, we talk — but it is merely a first step on the road to becoming a designer.

Grading “art” is always a challenge (and maybe sometime I’ll write on my methodology), but before going into the class this semester (and this is the last time I’ll teach this version, next year it will be replaced by the state “C-ID” version — which doesn’t change much, but a bit), I want to think about what the steps are from barely acceptable lighting design to  “Oh, wow, you are good.”

1. Visibility:  The base line minimal acceptable level for something to go from a bunch of lights in the air to a design is visibility.   This means even lighting on the face and hands that allows the audience to see and hear the play.  (As one studies light one learns that when the director complains he can’t hear — if you turn up the lights, you may fix the problem — unless the cast mumbles)

2. Sculpture:  The next level of lighting highlights the three-dimensional form.   Classically, this is the warm and cool front light of the McCandles system, but may be achieved in many other ways.   If we only have visibility, it is a lecture hall or sporting match, when we move to this step we start to reveal art.

3. Selective Visibility:  At this step I feel like we move to actually theatrical lighting.   The ability to see what everything is (brought about by our first two steps), is heightened when we begin to take away light where we don’t want it.    Oddly enough, at this level of skill, things may actually be darker than they were at step one.  Imagine a shadowy room where an unknown-to-the-audience murder is about to kill our leading lady, with selective visibility we can see the dark shape but not who it is.

**(And once we get to this point, I feel that students have achieved “C” level lighting design for an introduction class — Note to students reading this, I grade projects on much more than just your design skills, so design alone won’t earn you a “C” in the class)**

4. Sense of Place: The light inside a cubical farm is very different than the light just after sun rise on the beach.   Visually re-enforcing the play as to location is the next step to great design.  In rudimentary design, this is often expressed as the addition of a window or tree pattern,  but in more advanced design is expressed through color choice, angle, and intensity (as well as patterns).  This step also includes lighting (or not lighting) the set as appropriate.

5. Focus:  The lighting designer in theatre is much like the editor in film  The editor chooses the shots that force the audience to look at the important bits of the story.  So does the lighting designer.  It may be subtle compositional tricks that bring the audiences eye to the right place, it may be hard edged obnoxious follow spots, but either way the audience needs be aided in knowing where to look at any one moment.

6. A sense of time or change:  Most environments are not static over the course of a play, or even a scene. Even the cubical farms lighting changes as people come and go, turn on and off computers, adjust task lighting etc.   As designers conceive the lighting, they must understand and provide for the natural changes in light.  These might be earth shatteringly obvious, or profoundly subtle.

**(And in my class, this is where I hope the “A” students will get.)**

7. An overall style:  Too many designers seem to start with the feel or atmosphere of the show, and then try to do everything else, but really that overall style is a high level.   Even as a show’s plot moves through many times, and locations — bright and dark, interior and exterior, etc. the design itself needs to have a unifying feel to it.

8. Storytelling:  Beyond just telling the audience where and when we are, lighting designers (like all the other designers, director, and actors) are charged with helping tell the playwright’s story to the audience.  When I’m working on a play, I try to run through all the cues, in order without any actors on stage.   While doing this, I should be able to see the emotional journey of the play expressed in the lighting.

9. Commenting on the play:   I dread even mentioning this as too many designers think this is their moment to mock the play they are doing.   The term “commenting” is one from my time in school, but it is not the designer expressing his or her opinion.   Instead, commenting is about punching up the greater themes in the play.  This step involves tweaking the lighting that is right for the moment, so that the audience can be made aware of where the story is coming from or where the story is going.  This is where a designer might try to light two moments in a similar manner to emphasize the emotional relationship between the two.   This might also involve mimicking a famous piece of art, or moment from a film to make the audience consider the similarities (or differences) between the two.

10. Breaking the rules:  Selective visibility often breaks the rule of visibility.  Storytelling and commenting may break many of the rules about time and place.  The great designers break the rules as they work to achieve the most clear communication to the audience about the production’s understanding of the play.  Sometimes this means an un-unified style, sometimes this means general rather than specific focus… regardless of what it means it comes from a clear understanding of the script, the analysis, the director’s goals, and the audience’s expectations.  It is always risky, but truly great design cannot be great without it.  (And yes, I think that sometimes sticking to the rules is the most radical thing that can be done — if it supports the show).

 

 

Blast From the Past: Pippin and Minsky’s

This blast from the past comes from 2009 Feb-18.  This had a lot of typos in it… it probably still has some, but I hope it is now readable.  Re-reading this, I’m disappointed that I haven’t heard anything else form “Minsky’s”  I really enjoyed the show, and while it needed some work, I wanted to see it go on and be a success.

Two Theatre Reviews
On Sunday, I had a day of major musical productions. SO, here are my long involved reviews.

Minsky’s, The New Musical Comedy
Minsky’s is still being worked on. The program included a revised song list, and a new cast member. The song stack (as it was on Sunday) was:

Workin Hot (Billy and the Girls)

Cleopatra (Girls)

Happy (Billy)

Someone (Mary, Billy, Doctors)

Keep It Clean (Girls)

Bananas (Girls)

You Gotta Get Up When You’re Down (Maisie, Ensemble)

Ees Like That (Billy, mary)

God Bless the USA (Maisie, Scratch, Ensemble)

Every Number Needs a Button (Buster, Maisie, Billy, Scratch, Ensemble)

Act II

Tap Happy (Buster, Mary, Ensemble)

Bananas (Girls)

I’ve Got Better Things to Do (Billy, Waiters)

Red Hot Lobsters (Girls)

Home (Maisie, Ensemble)

I Want a Live (Jason, Beula)

Workin Hot/Cleopatra/Bananas (Girls)

Nothing Lasts Forever (Billy, Company)

Home (Billy, Mary)

The basic plot is Billy Minskey, and his choreographer Maisie trying to save his burlesque theatre from the”clean up the city” ploys of politician Randolph Sumner. Meanwhile, Billy has met a beautiful girl on the street — who he later learns is Sumner’s daughter. Hilarity ensues.

The play has a script by Bob Martin, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead with direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw. All these folks, and the cast are have done some really really good work. The show isn’t hit material yet — but it has many of the traits that could make it one. First off, the script is funny, full of corney jokes, romantic moments etc. The songs are catchy and funny. So, what is the problem with the script.

There are some minor structural problems. The first two songs are diagetic (meaning they are songs in which the characters in the real world would be singing). Because this is not one of the shows over all where people on sing when people in the world sing, they really shouldn’t have 2 numbers prior to someone “breaking out into song.” It would be really wonderful if the show could start with Billy, alone on stage, giving us a taste of “Happy,” perhaps while putting the Ghost light away. (the ghost light is a light left on on stage over night for safety and tradition reasons — and the show ends with Billy setting the light, but most audience members have no idea what it is.) Then launching into the the first seen (which otherwise is very good).

The next major scene is set in two shrink’s offices where Billy and Mary express their need for love (in a hilarious scene and number). Outside on the street Billy and Mary meet, and Billy discovers who daddy is. Back at the theatre Sumner threatens to close down the theatre, and Billy cons him into thinking that the stage hand is Billy Minskey, and the real Billy wants to help shut down the theatre.

The company retires to the Cafe to plot and plan. Billy has a great plan, but first he has to protect Mary, and prevent her from interfering. Back at the theatre, they shows Sumner their new “patriotic number,” which he loves. He poses for a picture with the girls, who quickly move their props revealing that they are topless. They send the photo off to the paper, do a great but misplaced number), Mary shows up, having figured out what happend and hits Billy.

OK, the emotional/plot high point of the act is the boob shot, and Mary hitting Billy. Separating them by a number (even as fantastic as “Every number Needs a Button”) kills the ending. They really ought to re-write, to make “Every Number” the second to last number as the group prepares to doop the Councilman. Then the patriotic number, boob shot, Mary hits Billy, short one line tag of “Every Number” and Curtain — this would be a far stronger act I ending.

Act II, opens with a ok number that has no business in the show. “Tap Happy” has no connection to the plot. At one point it is implied that it is a rehearsal number from the burlesque, yet the crew is dancing along. What this number should be is about the fall out from the photo being splashed over the press. Concretely getting the plot moving again from the first moment. Also, while the cast is wonderful singers and dancers, this tap number is not that impressive compared to the rest of the dancing in the show — and a weak Act II opener is killer.

Anyway, a great plot devise is entered into when Sumner and Mary decide to infiltrate the burlesque both dressed as chorus girls. Billy recognizes them, casts them and prepares to set up Sumner again. Billy heads back to the cafe where Mary tries to find out what illegal acts are going on, and Billy sings a song of sacrificing his chances of love to save the show and the jobs of all his employees. This scene is fine, but the fact that it is at the cafe smacks of “we built this expensive set for act I, and so we need to use it a second time.” There is no reason for this scene not to be backstage at the theatre. The scene change (which is fairly quick) kills the momentum at a moment where the show needs to move along — unless the writers can find a good reason to leave backstage, they shouldn’t go anywhere.

Back at the theatre more rehearsals are continuing. Here is a great scene where they work out a pie in the face scene with Sumner (in drag) keeps getting hit with a pie in the face. The cast slips fake information to the Sumners that a stripper will be appearing on stage (Stripping is illegal). Sumner passes the info to the cops. Billy’s show is saved. With rumors of a real stripper, he is sold out for the first time in months. Meanwhile, two minor characters have a brilliant number about hating theatre, with the world’s funniest dance break (which has to be seen to be believed)!

Back on stage Mary discovers that Billy recognized her, and that there is no stripper. Her dad is about to be humiliated again. Billy explains he has to take care of his people, even if that means giving up the woman he loves. Just as Mary begins to understand, she finds out that an illegel act is about to happen, and under age girl is about to perform (Billy doesn’t know his new dancer is under age). Mary attempts to save the day by knocking out the dancer and doing the number herself. But she doesn’t know the choreography and ends up becoming flustered and taking all of her cloths off.

Now an illegal act has been committed, and Billy is arrested. In a (not great) courtroom seen, their is an argument about if nudity is illegal, and Sumner ends up not pressing charges. Finale, short reprise, Billy and Mary set the ghost light end of show.

The court room scene is weak, as is Mary’s breakdown leading her to strip undermines her character. She needs to save both Billy and her father in one very clever move. Cut the court room scene (which is way to reminiscent of Hello Dolly) and move into the finale.

The other thing is that Mr. Nicholaw needs to bring in another pair of eyes. There is a bit too much (or unmotivated) dancing in a few numbers (Every Number needs a Button, Tap happy and Nothing Lasts Forever to name three– simplify and tighten!)

As to the cast, Christopher Ritzgerald, and Beth Leavel as Billy and Maise are knockouts! Also great is George Wendt as Sumner (although, I’d love it if he had a song, or part of a song or something — I mean it is a musical — but don’t try to musicalize the pie in the face scene because it is perfect as it is). Katherine Leonard as Mary is good, but they need to strengthen her character a bit to make it the stand out role the actress deserves. There were some mic/sound problems during the performance, especially with Gerry Vichi as the shows comic. He always sounded over miced and like he was speaking from in side a cave. Also as the two who want out of theatre, Rachel Dratch and John Cariani were hysterical. A last shout out to Paul Vogt, in the very funny role of Billy’s stagehand who “impersonates” Billy.

The show is funny, the score is good, if they can fix the structure, and strengthen the characters a bit it should be a good old fashioned heart warming dirty little musical

Pippin

Pippin (Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Roger O. Hirson) has gone through the script revisions since I’ve worked on the show a few years ago. The other cool thing with this, is as a co-production with Deaf -West was simultaneously spoken and signed.

First some comments on the revised script. Schwartz has replaced the lovely, but never quite successful “Welcome Home Son” with a better (for the show) number called “Back Home Again,” which has a vaguely calypso flavor (similar in style to “Generations” from Schwartz’s Children of Eden). “War is a Science” had some lyrical revisions (beyond those revisions heard in the William Katt touring production that was video-taped for television). This production cut a lot of the dance music (I especially missed the “Manson Trio” section of “Glory” and most of the “Orgy” music from “With You”) I hope these music cuts were production cuts and that they are left in the show for future productions. Also cut was “Extra-Ordinary.” Looking at the program, I understand that scene 7 is very very music heavy, and cutting the song gives it only slightly more music than the next longest scene but I feel that “Extra-Ordinary” is important to setting up Pippin’s transformation from jerk to actually ok guy. Lastly the one verse reprise of “Corner of the Sky” by Theo that ended East-West Player’s production. Brilliant, chilling, amazing, I’m so hopeful that it will be in the performance script!

This production used new orchestrations for 7 members were fine. My only major complaint is in “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man.” It started off accapella (beautiful), and gradually a guitar came in (although I would have liked it as a piano to tie in with the orchestrations in the finale). Then more instruments added in, and it would have been nice to keep it with only on instrument.

Production wise, Tobin Ost’s sets and costumes were nicely integrated (although perhaps not the direction I would have gone with it.) Donald Holder’s lights were great, however the calling of the cues during “On The Right Track” was terrible: ruining the choreography by completely distracting the audience.

The leading role of Pippin was (litterally) split between Michale Arden and Tyrone Giodano. The production used a very heavy Magic metaphore for the production. When the “cast” “discovered” that Pippin was deaf, the leading player “sawed him in half” and created a singing half that spoke Pippin’s lines. The two Pippins had similar, but slightly different objectives and goals through out the play, first revealed in scene 4, and brought to a head in the Finale! Amazing!

Anthony Natale was subbing for Troy Kotsur as the King. His voice was provided Dan Callaway. I want to give a toss out to Callaway. When Natale miss-spoke (miss-signed?) one of his lines, and Callaway delivered the line as signed instead of as written — it is wonderful to see an actor completely in the moment and not just doing the show by rote. (By the way, Natale was excellent and if I hadn’t done the show twice I probably wouldn’t have caught the missed line).

Ty Taylor as the Leading Player was great, supportive, evil, oozing sex. Sara Gettelfinger as Festrada and James Royce Edwards as Lewis were fine, but were costumed and directed without the usual (or in my opinion requisite) sex-appeal. In fact sex seemed to be largely lacking in this production, which I felt was a huge problem (more on that later). Catherine (Played by Melissa van der Schyff) was the best Catherine I have ever seen (and I thought the actress I saw last summer in the role was fabulous). She demonstrated a keen understanding of the complexities of the role, and has a great voice. (Her sexiness was also stripped from her role). Lastly, Harriet Harris as Berthe. I don’t know what is wrong with this role. It should be funny, cute, and sexy. It has been forever since I have seen it pulled off. She was fine, but I didn’t buy that she had had sex with her leather clad and harnessed boys that hung out under her skirt.

Director/Choreographer Jeff Calhoon (who did such a remarkable job on Big River) seems to have set out to make a family friendly Pippin and I ask “Why?” Taking the sex out of Pippin seems to make it, well empty. Pippin is about a young man exploring many of the vices of life, and then discovering that a simple family is more fulfilling than the sin. The war bit was silly, and without all the dancing, not as horrific as other productions. The sex was almost non-existent. Revolution/Politics fine I guess, but it didn’t have the scumminess of politics that is often presence. And without Extra-Ordinary, home life didn’t quite have the turn around that helps really drive the point home.

I don’t want to see a clean Pippin, nor do I want to see a Pippin that cuts most of the dance. Overall, I recomend seeing the production — especially for the cast. But this Pippin fails to have the depth of depravity to lift Pippin out of.

By the way, between shows I saw my friend Trevor who was on dinner break from teching LA Operas Ring Cycle, and my former co-worker Richard. Its great seeing friends when I go to the theatre.

Blast from the Past: Words to the Actor

This blog post is from 2009-July-07.  However, what it is about is from 2001, or so.  I had found a scrap of paper with some advice to the actor on it.  These notes are probably from Sabin Epstein.  If so, they are certainly guidance to actors in Tony Kushner’s “Illusion.”  Are there exceptions to these rules?  Of course.  (Honestly can one think of a good rule that doesn’t have some sort of exception some where?  Don’t answer that)   Anyway, I find these to be good for actors and designers of theatre, and probably directors too!

Advice to Actors
I was cleaning out some old theatre records and found a set of notes partially typed from the director, and partially notes I took (I’m sure from the directors speech). Anyway, as I thought the notes were particularly inspiring to those who work in theatre, so I’m reproducing them. I suspect (from other notes I’m not including here) that the director was Sabin Epstein

Typed Notes:
When Speaking on Stage:
1. Stress not the negative. “No” and “not” are almost never operative. The operative word is instead, the word that is being negated. “Go not till you hear from me.” “I love thee not; therefore pursue me not.”

2. Verbs of being are never operative. The operative words are the words that explain the kind of quality of being. “I am happy.” “He is my brother.”

3. Avoid stressing pronouns whenever it is possible to do so (“he” “she” “it” etc.). Whenever there is any alternative that makes sense use it. This includes possessive (“His” “Her” etc.)

4. Possessive nouns are never less important than the word the possess (“My father’s house.”)

5. Articles (“a” “an” and “the”) prepositions (“to” “from” “on” “in” etc.) and conjunctions (“and “but” and “or”) are never operative. They contain no images, but serve to show the relationships between images. Find the words with the images.

6. Adjectives and adverbs are treated as part of the noun or the verb they modify. The key operative word is the noun or verb, with the adjective or adverb incorporated in the images as a modifier.

7. An image that is repeated is not operative. What is operative is any new quality that is added in the repetition. This is called repetitive contrast. Stress the new information.

My hand written notes

Follow the text. Every choice made on the production must be based on the text.

Focus on nouns and action verbs.

Find the action

What is reality? What is illusion? That is the nature of the question of theatre.

Love is often both the sickness and the cure.

Pain is always more interesting anger.

Blast from the Past: Pippin

This post is from 2008- June -19.  It is in regaruds to a fabulous production of “Pippin” at east west players.   I wanted to include it for its (brief) discussions on projection as a design media and new adaptations of older plays.

Last night, I had the good fortune to see Pippin( by Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz) at East West players. This production was certainly a rethinking of the original play for a modern audience. A brief note: I’ve worked on 2 productions of Pippin and have seen several others.


Tim Dang directs this new production in an urban Manga/Hip-Hop style. Certain places this re-thinking works amazingly well (especially in the so-called “Manson Trio” dance during the song “Glory”, and all of the number “Right Track”). Some moments were actually hurt by the approach (I found the new version of “Extraordinary” to be very akward and just…. Loud).

Lets start by discussing the cast. Tim Dang’s cast of 13 is probably the hardest working cast I have seen on stage in a very long time. The ensemble of 6 only seemed to leave the stage for brief moments to do massive costume changes. Otherwise they were on stage singing, dancing, moving scenery and running follow spot. All of them were exceedingly talented (and on a side note very attractive).

Marcus Choi, as the leading player, was dark, mysterious, and always “on.” His strong presence was felt even when lurking in the shadows observing the action. Pippin, Ethan Le Phong, as Pippin was passionate and clueless carefully navigating his way between the empathy his character needs to create with the audience and the utter selfishness and irresponsibility of many of his actions. Mike Hagiwara, as Charles, was not the boldest biggest Charles I have ever seen, but he brought an interesting humanity to the struggle between what is best for his son, his family and his kingdom. The strong but stupid Lewis was played by Cesar Cipriano, who was amazingly the sexiest of a very sexy cast. On top of that, his martial arts moves and dancing were top notch. And unlike many other Lewis’s I’ve seen in my life, he was an excellent actor on top of it all. (The role of Lewis has to be in amazing physical shape, and a decent dancer — and most productions stop there in the casting process figuring that this is a very tall order in and of itself, and this is only the second skilled actor I have seen play the role). Fastrada, the devious queen, was performed with aplomb by Jenn Aedo who seemed to be channeling a slutty version of Carol Burnett all evening. She was both an wonderful singer and a quite capable dancer, but for some reason was never permitted to do both at once (I’ll have a longer discussion on this issue later).

Without a doubt the one actor whose performance stole every scene he was in (even if the audience didn’t recognize him in all his roles) was Gedde Watanabe. His main role was in drag as Pippin’s Grandmother Berthe, but I found his easy going acting style captivating in his ensemble moments as well. While I don’t know Dang pushed everyone far enough on the drag role nature of the part, his acting was fun. I know Watanabe to be a gifted performer of songs, but somehow this song didn’t live up the the scene around it (and it usually is a complete show stopper). I’m not sure where the problem was — but despite the wonderful performance, it is one of the weakest versions of this scene I have ever seen. (Boy do the last few sentences read like a contradiction!) In the role of Catherine, we saw the understudy Chloe Stewart, who was fine, but had some trouble finding her light and ended up delivering chunks of lines where the light stopped at her chin. William Jay, in the almost thankless role of Theo, managed to make something of it. The role is typically cast as a bratty 4-7 year old, and casting it as an early teenager did quite a lot to justify many of the lines of the character. Add to that Jay’s petulant sulkiness at his de-facto step-dad, and his heartbreak when his duck dies, and for the first time, the role really comes across as a winner.

The production design was ancient asia meets manga meets urban life. Much of it worked. Alan E. Muraoka’s scenery and projections were fun and functional and simple. The set was a basic unit set with some stairs on wheels. The only added scenery was the bed for parts of Act II. The projections both created scenery and commented on the action. They were a blast.

Dan Weingarten’s lighting was serviceable, but had some issues. His design was very unforgiving to actors who failed to place themselves correctly. Many tight specials, and odd-angled side light meant that if an actor was off his or her mark by a few inches they could be utterly in the dark. I also felt that many times the lights were coming up “late” for the actors — This may have been an actor, or stage manager issue, or maybe just how Weingarten programed the show (In addition, I know the light board they are using is not ideal for controlling all the intelligent lighting that was being used. My last criticism of the lighting has more to do with the scenery. Any show relying on projections to tell the story (as this one did) runs huge risks. Projection design is still a relatively young field and there is always a fear of it failing on shows. Weingarten’s design worked very hard to differentiate the movements of the story (possibly sacrificing enough lights for each lighting wash along the way). Because the projections were so successful, I wish had had given up some of the extras used to differentiate the movements of the story to use on getting more even washes over the stage. That said, I would err in the same way myself (and when designing projections, I often encourage the lighting designer in the same direction Weingarten went.)

Naomi Yoshida’s costumes were an irreverent smash up of many styles, and exceedingly fun, and smart, and very sexy. The shirtless Hakama(-esque) costume designed for Lewis was a perfect example of innocence and sex all rolled into one. Her work on the ensemble costumes showed a level of commitment to excellence not usually found on work for the ensemble — and it was well appreciated. I have but two complaints with the costumes (and one is more personal). While Yoshida was not afraid to show skin, it is a constant pet peeve of mine that the women’s sexy costumes are always more exposing then the mens (in this case not by much… but it is something I notice). The more real complaint were the shoes. The Geta Sandals worn by Bertha severely inhibited the actors ability to dance (part of what may have hurt that scene). Also the manga-esque boots worn by Faustrada may also have been the reason she could not dance and sing at the same time.

A last design mention should be made to Jacki Phillips Hair and Make up Design, which never let reality get in the way of style. The wigs were fabulous and fun, and the make up moody and evocative.

Marc Macalintal served as both the adaptor of the score and music director. I need to confess I am neither a big fan of Hip-Hop music or dance (though I have a good amount of experience working with both). Pippin‘s original orchestrations are hopelessly bound in the 1970s, when the show was written, and Dang wanted this to have a more modern feel. My biggest feeling through the show was somehow that the tempos were way to slow, and yet I question if it would have been possible for the cast to dance any faster. (I should note that this production had hands-down the best diction I have ever seen with this show, and that might be partially due to the slower tempos.) The songs I thought worked the best with the new arrangements were “Glory”, “On the Right Track,” and “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” which had an absolutely heart braking arrangement of largely solo guitar. While the rest of it was serviceable, I only found “Extraordinary” to be… well not right. This surprises me because I also don’t like the original arrangement at all… It is possible I just don’t like that song.

This production had permission to make some textual change, most of which I thought were minor but fine. The only odd choice for me was utilizing the scene with the “head” after the battle, but cutting “the headless man” later on. This is not the first time I have seen this, and I agree that the Headless man never quite works due to the costume issue (although I have an idea of how it could), one without the other seems like a set up with no pay off. The last change (that I have been told is now or soon will be a part of the script) was the ending. The ending of Pippin has always been a bit contentious. I have read that the original writers and the original directors argued over the ending (and it is noted that the original cast album featured a slightly different ending than the original stage production, which if memory serves are both slightly different than the scripts had on the productions I worked on). In this production (like normal), the cast turn on Pippin and Catherine and Theo when they refuse to go through with the “planned” finale. They strip our three heros of their costumes, scenery and colored lights. The cast pushes them off the stage, and the three stand in the first row. Catherine asks Pippin what he’s thinking, and he sings the final verse as heard on the original cast album. The family turns to walk up the aisle and out the theatre, when the Leading player resurrects the Duck. A delighted Theo brakes away from the adults and runs onto the stage, picking it up, and begins to sing an A Cappella “Corner of the Sky.” As he sings, the lights are restored and an excited cast begins to close in on him. –hauntingly powerful.

Overall a fantastic production. It closes saturday, but if you can get to East West Players in Los Angeles, it is more than worth your time and money.


Blast from the Past: Curtains

This is my review of the pre-broadway, out-of-town tryout of “Curtain” by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Rupert Holmes.   This was before it went to New York (and probably before the show was locked.)  It ended up running 15 months, so my prediction wasn’t far off.  The original review was posted 2006 – August –  02.

Last night (August 1, 2006) I saw “Curtains” at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. The show is being presented in Los Angeles prior to a planed New York run, and as such it should be noted that changes may exist between the performance I saw and any subsequent performan ce.

For More …

First off, the play is a very enjoyable night at the theatre. I don’t remember having as much fun since I saw “Drowsy Chaperone” at the Ahmanson seven months ago. What is also evident from the performances is the cast is loving being on stage in the show. (Additionally as there was no traffic I made it to the theatre very early and several lof the cast were having dinner in the courtyard outside the theatre, they were discussing the usual issues of a show — missed costume changes, late entreneces etc. but they were so excited about the work they were doing. Having seen several shows recently where the cast was simply walking through the show, it is delightful to see one where they are truly excited.)

Most of the score is wonderful. There is a wonderful play between the songs of ‘Robbin Hood,’ the play within the play, and the book numbers from “Curtains.” My biggest concern that the act I closer (of both “Curtains” and ‘Robbin Hood’), a song called ‘Thataway!’ is a fairly weak song. The dance and staging save most of the audience from noticing, but as a song, it did not send me joyfully into intermission. My second worry is the opening number, “Wide Open Spaces,’ which is supposed to be the Finale of ‘Robbin Hood.’ Again, the staging is fun, and Eventually the audience figures out that it is supposed to be bad — but I worry that some audience members may be turned off at the very top of the show.

My theatre going partner had issues with the number “It’s a Business,” although much more on the staging than the song. (Debra Monk sings the song, and frankly I’d listen to her sing the phone book if John Kander scored it, so I may be a bit biased.)

The score includes some great numbers, “What Kind of Man”, “He Did It”, “The Woman’s Dead”, “Tough Act to Follow”, and “I miss the Music.” It also includes a song called “Show People” that I swear I’ve heard before with slightly altered lyrics, but I cannot for the life of me place where I have heard it — its been driving me mad since the melody first hit my ears last night (the altered lyrics are along the same lines, more like I’ve heard an earlier draft of the lyrics)

Rupert Holmes’ book is fast moving, intelligent and witty. My biggest concern with the book is that it is theatre about theatre. I worry that many audience members (especially as it attempts to maintain a long run in New York) will not inherently know what Equity is or what an Equity Deputy is or what much of the “stage lingo” is about. The script seems to explain understudy well before the understudy jokes, but several others (like Equity) are not explained. The teenagers behind me were asking questions about that to their chaperone, who also didn’t know the answer.

From a production stand point, William Ivey Long’s costumes are (as always) right on the money. The only exception to this is that Patty Goble (as the dead leading lady) looks more of a “star” than Karen Ziemba as her replacement. (I think it is the red wig that Goble wears — it makes her stand out in the ‘Robbin Hood’ bits visually that Ziemba does not). Ana Louizos’ set makes a nice distintion between “back stage” and “Robbin Hood.” Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting was effective (especially the first entrence of David Hyde Pierce — what a cue, what staging, what moment!). My only suggestion to Louizos and Kaczorowski (and frankly director Scott Ellis) is to take a performance and sit in the upper levels (Our seats were mid lower balcony, and there were some moments in staging, and design that might want to be reconsidered — nothing outrageously awful, but some moments that show cracks in an otherwise carefully constructed evening). William David Brohn’s orchestrations are fine, but nothing special. His work is best during the ‘Robbin Hood’ numbers and merely serviceable otherwise. Rob Ashford’s choreography is great both in ‘Robbin Hood’ and in the book songs. In the book songs, he allows the individual characters to color the choreography, where as in ‘Robbin Hood’ the dancing is tight and together, like a classic Broadway chorus. Scott Ellis’s direction plays up the “romance set during a murder mystery back stage at a theatre” side of the show. I worry that future productions will forget that and emphasize the back stage aspects much to the detriment of the play. (And if I have any suggestions to the Holmes, it would be to play up the characters and the romance a bit more in the script, and allow backstage to be the backdrop and not the focus of the story — and what needs to be included due to plot, have it explained to the audience a bit clearer)

Now to talk about the cast. In a word, Wonderful. Everyone on that stage from the leads to the ensemble are fully developed characters fully commited to the show, and having lots of fun. Their excitement certainly translates across the footlights to those of us in the dark. Patty Goble is delectably horrid as (soon to be dead) star Jessica Cranshaw. Megan Sikora stands out as the producers daughter who wants to be a star more than anything else. Jason Danieley’s big voice and big heart make a big impression. Edward Hibbert steals almost every scene he is in as a conceited egotistical director (By the way, how is Drowsy doing without him — he was a stand out there as well). Jill Paice, as Niki (Pierce’s love interest), is charming and daffy and lovely with a great voice. Our three stars: David Hyde Pierce, Debra Monk and Karen Ziemba sparkle the entire night. (Pierce forgot his Boston accent in a few moments during the show — but I didn’t notice until it suddenly “came back”).

With some minor book revisions, and possibly some song revisions the song should do very well in NYC (probably not the record breaking run of Phantom, but a healthy 18 months or so — more if it can snag a few Tonys (especially for Ms. Monk), and keep (or replace well) the talented and excited cast — there is no room for slackers anywhere in the show).

One final note — David Loud, the music director, has a charming “cameo” as Sasha, ‘Robin Hood’ s musical director — and a delightful solo.


From the Blogmeister

Welcome to my blog. I’m a nice guy, I’m a smart guy, but I’m also a guy who is dyslexic. I try very hard to see the red squiggly lines indicating bad typing… but sometimes…. sometimes my typing is so bad that a right word pops up in place of *the* right word I want. So if you see a typo, don’t be shy, let me know!

OK, on to more important stuff. This is my little place on the web where I write about the stuff that interests me. What interests me is live entertainment, especially theatre, especially scenery and lighting design. It’s what I do, and its what I care about. I also teach about it, and so I may talk about methods of teaching it. I’m also writing a book about it, so I may wax philosophical once a while.

If you have an opinion, share it. I’m not shy. I do ask, however that all folks who comment be excellent representatives of the ladies and gentlemen of the theatre community.

Inspiration Spots

One of my pet peeves from student designers is “I didn’t do my assignment because I wasn’t inspired, and you have to be inspired to design.”

I remind them that if they want to make this their profession they either have to be able to design when not inspired, or inspire themselves.  (The muse only really comes to those who hunt her down and capture her themselves).  That said, I do not poo-poo the value of inspiration.  One of the things I have discovered in my life is that, in this world there are inspirational places.   Places where you sit down, and the karma, or feng-shui or whatever magically align all your creative juices.

There was a particular tree I used to sit under during my undergrad years, and under that tree for the first time Shakespeare made sense and for the first time I could sketch design ideas for hours. (They still looked like random squiggles, but they were very meaningful squiggles to me).  By the time I got to grad school I could usually inspire myself without external aids.  (If you read the previous “Blast from the Past” the fear of Ritchie was very inspirational.)

Since my dearest husband completed his design for the back yard, I have found a spot out there that inspires me.   Oddly enough, it currently only seems to work from about sunset until eight or so in the morning.  After that the Fresno heat saps the inspiring characteristics from the spot.

I began to wonder what this, and that marvelous tree in front of the library at USC have in common.  They are outside.  They both have a bit of a breeze.  And although both near high traffic areas, provide one with a sense of solitude.  This feeling eases my emotions.  For me, once my emotions are level, and I am calm, the ideas flow freely.

Will this location work for everyone … or even anyone else?  Probably not. I know designers who have to be stressed out for the muse to awaken.   I know designers who can’t work unless they have a #2 American Naturals pencil in their hand.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  If you are a creative person, you need to find that moment, location, smell. and/or action that frees your mind from everything else and focuses it on the work.  If a designer was successful at acting class (I wasn’t) and mastered emotional recall (I could barely comprehend it, much less do it), so much the better — you have your creative spot with you where ever you go.  If you are like me and don’t have the ability to conjure it anywhere, study it, learn about it, figure out what the key ingredients are.   Then when you need it, you can find it — or a pretty good substitue, and once you have that, you can be inspired when ever you need to.