In praise of the design team

I watch very little television … and most of what I do watch is via Netflix, Hulu or similar.    I have been so disappointed by so many shows, that I can’t get excited by some new show that everyone is talking about.   My husband bullied me into watching a new show on ABC called “Once Upon a Time.”   I hate to tell the world, that the show won’t last — I like it, and anything I like is canceled.

But I’m not hear to talk about the show, in particular, but what it demonstrates.  The show concerns fairy tale characters trapped in present day Maine.    One (of many) thing(s) I loved about the show last night was the way the design team came together to offer up some little clues, cheeky character tags, etc relating the present-day characters to their fairy-tale counterparts:   A red scarf for goth-girl Little Red Riding Hood, A bowl of apples cheekily placed on the coffee table of the Evil Queens modern residence, etc.

In “Once Upon a Time,”  these touches were present with all the characters but never over the top.   I’m sure several winks and nods went by me completely — as they should (little touches are fabulous but they should not be the focus of the story).   All of this work, the coordinating of cheeky details, making sure it doesn’t go over the top is the work of a lot of talented individuals working closely together.

The magic of a good design team is that each individual or department takes part of the story, takes a cheeky detail, a bit of plot and character revelation.  Then, when the show  is all complete we have the a story revealed through action, dialogue, camera work, and design.

I have been blessed with lots of great teammates as a designer.


I have been debating about posting reviews of my work on my blog.    It seems, well, self-aggrandizing.   BUT, this is a blog about me, and my views on design, so I feel like I need to allow others to express their views of my work.

My thoughts on reviews is that they can be instructive about one primary thing — what the reviewer thinks.    The reviewer is not part of the process of creating a show.  Reviews may blame the director for problems that might be caused by a designer…. and I have frequently been blamed or complimented for that which was truly someone else’s idea.    Reviews can give some sense of the communities feeling about types of theatre, design decisions etc.

With all of that said, the batch of reviews from my recently closed production of “THE ILLUSION” by Tony Kushner (by way of Corneille) are here:

From the Fresno Bee (Full review here):

“Drawing on the powerhouse design strengths of Fresno City College, the play offers a visually sumptuous rendition of playwright Tony Kushner’s adaptation of classic playwright’s Pierre Corneille’s “L’Illusion Comique.”
Christopher R. Boltz’s lighting superbly sets the mood — the opening is a stunner as the cave throbs with flashes of various hues, setting a mystical scene — and his impeccable set, on which those lights seem to dance, offers a heft and solidity that serves as a counterbalance to the airy nature of the prose. Jeff Barrett’s sound design is integral to the effect. Debbi Shapazian’s ravishing period costumes feel both luxurious and yet, well, theatrical. And Janine Christl’s smart and adept direction steers us time and again back to Kushner’s wonderful wordplay”

Donald Munro

And from Valley Theatre Reviews (full review here):

“The magic is really where the heart of this FCC production lies. The power of the staging and lighting is integral to the work and is executed flawlessly. Set design by Christopher R Boltz successfully creates the appropriate atmosphere for an otherworldly magician’s cave, while his rich and specific lighting design provides some of the best magic tricks in the show– complete with misdirection and magical reveal. Debbi Shapazian’s luxe period costumes, which are incredibly well researched and executed beautifully, also highlight the classic form while looking very appealing to the modern eye. The full use of the technical staff’s capabilities are on display in this production.”

Heather Parish

The reviewers liked my work.  Yea!   I, however, are a bit more critical of my work.   There are a few moments in the play that didn’t live up to my wishes.    The very final moment of the play won me great accolades the last time I did the show.  My dearest husband (so far as I know the only person other than me to have seen both productions) didn’t think this production matched the magic.     The final effect is the appearance of the moon and stars and the path to the moon.   In the previous production the set encapsulated the audience, so the moon and stars appeared through the set, but the “path” was merely suggested by the actors.   This time around, the cave stopped at 9′ above the floor, and the stars appeared above that. My stars twinkled this time, but their appearance was not quite the stunner that it was before.

However, the great effect near the end, I feel was far more powerful this time around.  About 4 pages from the end Kusher  indicates “A great red curtain falls.”    In my last production, my lighting, and the director’s staging were such that several audience members completely missed the red curtain, so brief was its appearance.    (The first time, i was not the scenic designer).  This time, I built the curtain out of red scrim, so that I could delay its removal because it could be seen through if I as the lighting designer so chose.   This and slightly different staging made made it much more apparent.   THis I am very proud of, as it is a powerful moment in the play.

So as I have started posting the reviews of my work — I guess I will continue.  I might (in the future), collect some of  my favorite reviews of my work and post them, with comment.

In Praise of Actors

In a blog supposedly dedicated to scenic design and lighting design, I feel like I spend an inordinate amount of time on actors.   Most theatrical designers and technicians have an assortment of disagreeable nicknames for performers:  meat puppets, light reflectors, moving mannequins etc. but without the actors, there would be little reason for designers to exist.  Additionally, I like (most) actors.   And sometimes there are really special actors.

There are actors who are skilled at comedy, and those skilled at drama.  Some actors make any costume they are given look fabulous.    There are those who can sing, and dance, and sword fight.   Some can effortlessly project.   Some can capture the audiences attention with the smallest of gestures.   Some can speak with different accents.    And all of these skills are needed by the various productions so the the director can blend the skills of the cast, with those of the designers, and the technicians.

The theory on any show is that the director, and the designers, and the actors, and the technicians are all working toward a single unified vision.   Everyone says they do it, but usually the actors act, and directors direct, and designers design, and technicians tech — but there seems to be a firm division of labor.  Actors Act, while inhabiting the designs of the designers, and doing the movements prescribed by the director — and everything seems unified.

Sometimes though you run into a performer who molds with his costume, who connects viscerally with the set, who makes the lighting do his bidding, whose blocking looks completely natural, who seems to intuitively understand the all the technical aspects of  a production, and makes them work to his advantage.   I want to tell a tale of two college actors who did it.

Both actors played the role of the Amanuensis in Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s The Illusion.   Both actors seem as if they have a definitive interpretation of the role(s).   Both actors have a series of challenging cues to coordinate with the design, technical and stage management staff.  And both have studied the design around them to make it seem as if they control the small subtle shifts in design and space.

The first actor was Robert Baker.   Robert performed in the show at USC around a decade ago.   Robert managed to always find a mark on a pitch dark stage so that a single light cut to just the size of his face would light him.  He learned to feel when the “flames” would extinguish so that he could snuff them out with his magic.   After he left U.S.C., he went on the great success in Grey’s Anatomy on TV, and Leatherheads in the movies.

The second actor was Ben McNamara.   Ben will open in the show on Friday night at Fresno City College.   Tonight, durring the second dress, I saw many tiny movements which made it seem as if he controlled the lights.   In one of the magical transitions, his body seemed to move in sync with the lighting and sound effects.  It seemed as if the stole the magic I brought to the moment.   I look forward to finding out what great success he goes on to.

Of course these to actors are not the only ones I have encountered with this skill, but I find it a curious coincidence that I found them both in the same play, in the same role.  Perhaps it is something about the role, but I don’t think so.   The actors are of rather different types, one broad, one lean, one fair haired, one dark.   They approach the character differently, but they both search for the magic.

I don’t know what the term for this skill is.  I don’t know where, when or even if it is taught.  But I admire it.  I know that the audience will credit much of the work of the designers and the directors to actors with this talent, and I’m fine with that.   I suppose the skill does not come in useful in every show — I don’t think it would be advantageous in plays like Mamet’s Oleana, but when a show requires the skill, these actors elevate the whole performance to the next level with their craft.

As much as I enjoy designing, it requires the actors to tell the playwrights story to give my work meaning.   So I want to say thank you to those actors I have been fortunate enough to work with.   And to those who take it all in and make it their own, I will enjoy designing for you that much more.