Humor Abuse

On Jan 21, 2012, I attended American Conservatory Theatre’s production of Humor Abuse.   Created by Lorenzo Pisoni and Erica Schmidt, the solo performance traces the true story of Pisoni growing up in the Pickle Family Circus.

What originally attracted me to the play was the idea of a behind-the-scenes tell-all about a life in the circus.   The play is much more than that.   At it’s heart the play is about a kid dealing with the fractured myth of the perfect father.    The performance mixed classic clown routines, acrobatics, pantomime, stunts, special effects, projection, and monologue.   Each moment is carefully crafted to mix the laughter and pathos.

Production wise, the set, coordinated by Brian Fauska, provides a playground for clowning.    A simple canvas backdrop served as a projection and lighting surface.  A series of suitcases and trunks decorated the stage, reminding the audience of the life of traveling, and concealing the many props used through out the show.  The set also concealed a number of special effects such as trick floor panels, attachment points for props and others items.   Add to this a ladder and moving stair case, and all the elements for a life story where there.   Contrary to conventional masking that is parallel to the proscenium arch, this set created a box of black drapes which contained the action.  Exposed lighting trees on  the side contributed to a “back-stage” feel.

Ben Stanton’s lighting was a playful addition to the show.  Humor was created through cues that created false expectations and foreshadowing to the audience.    Stanton’s palette,  a mix of subtle ambers, and chilling blues highlighted various moments of the story exceptionally well.   The color pallet was very important to make sure that Pisoni’s skin looked good.  Pisoni’s physical comedy caused to sweat a lot, and any make up he tried to wear would have been sweated off by the end of the show.

On a much more personal note…

I’ve worked on solo performances pieces.  They are hard — hard to write, hard to perform, hard to design.   There are not breaks for the actor  — nor does the audience get a “break” from the performer.   Costume changes, usually challenging in a solo performance were handled with aplomb.   The jumps in time and story, and style provided the variety the audience needs.  In my highly biased opinion, this play ranks with Jane Wagner’s “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” for a satisfying evening of theatre as a solo performance.    While I doubt that “Humor Abuse” can have any life with out its creator as its performer, the script is well enough written that it might be possible.

This is a play that made me laugh.   This is a play that made me think.  The is a play caused overwhelming emotions — and not just in me, in the audience surrounding me as well.

At the end of the day, really, what more can you ask for from an evening (or in this case, afternoon) at the theatre!

Perseverance wins the day

Well, since my last posting, I’ve been through 3 major revisions and a few minor ones…. and the set is, I think, looking pretty cool.  The first one worked, and I think could have been cool, but I think it might have been a bit avant guarde for the play Almost Maine.   The second was cool, but too expensive, and too heavy…. and ultimately a bit too restrictive .   The scene changes would have been awesome, but some of the sets would not have been.

Then I had my Mickey and Judy moment.  We were sitting in a production meeting where I was presenting the “hot off the printer” new design.   No one had scene it yet, not the director, not the TD, not my fellow designers.   And the director liked it.   The TD liked it, but had to burst my bubble — it was too heavy, too expencive etc.   BUT a set had to be had…. like today.

Cue the epic underscore music.   “What if…”  I said.  “What if…” the director said.   “What if…” the TD said.   I had done my research, I had analyzed the play.  I knew the show.   Ideas where flying around the room fast and furious.   This idea from this version of the set… that idea from that version…. “What if…”   I was sketching like mad.

And I came up with a set….. that we couldn’t build.   It didn’t quite fit in the theatre.  It was dreadful.  (This is the part they never show in the old Mickey and Judy put on a show in the barn movies).   BUT….



The idea was good.  More than good, the idea was pretty great!

So all night I drafted.  I considered building materials. I sketched on every scrap of paper that was near me.  I narrowed all my research down to three images for inspiration.  I googled a few things to refresh my memory on just what they looked like.

I had a set.   It had one major thing bugging my, but I had a set.  It was good.  It worked.

I showed the set to the director. . . It was good, it worked.

Budget and weight, I didn’t need to show to the TD, because it was light, it was small it worked.

Just one thing…..   A decision based on the size of the material I want to build it out of.

NO problem, I call my suppliers.   I want a fabric, that is like scrim, but not so fragil…  And comes in at least 6′ wide.   I get a suggestions … at 8′ wide.  It’s in the budget.  One last redesign to take this fabric width into account.

We have a set!   WE have color thumbnails.  We have steel ordered and start building (well cleaning steel is the first step to building) today.

I have a set.   It was fairly easy to get here.   Something from the previous versions always survived.  I have two revisions to draft today (Make one wall shorter, make one platform higher)….. And then we’re done.

Well, not done.   We need to build, to paint, to decorate, to find props and to light….. but I know where I’m going.  And that’s an achievement.

Brilliant Design or Just Stubborn

I’m hacking away at the design of my next show.  Once again, I am doing scenery and lighting.    It is a beautiful show that I can’t wait to light.   Unfortunately, before I can light the show, I have to design the scenery.   This show has a bit of an identity crisis for the set. . .   Each scene is small an intimate — two or three characters, often limited movement; but the transitions ask to see the “big sky,”  the whole world — or even the whole galaxy.     Quite a challenge.

I was planning on writing about my process of designing this show as my first post of the new year (and in over a month).    BUT that would imply that I had solved the challenge.    At the moment, I have an idea, and not a fully formed one.    This brings me to my topic today.

One of the things I have learned is that brilliant design rarely arrives fully formed like Athena popping out of Zeus’ head.   In fact, the first draft of most design is usually fairly sucky.  Good design is achieved through constant revision.   In my own work, my initial sketches come in two varieties:  Too much crap, and Too little stuff.   I like sets where each item on the set is terribly important,and if it isn’t terribly important it is eliminated.  That means that initial sets are either cluttered, or I have taken my maxim to a ridiculous extreme.

Initial ideas can be too expensive.  Initial ideas can defy the laws of physics.  Initial ideas can, and often are, in short, BAD IDEAS.   Perhaps other designers don’t have this problem, but I bet they do.   I don’t want to imply that these bad ideas are worthless — they aren’t —- they are the raw material from which genius is (eventually, hopefully) created.   Once I have a sketch I can start designing.  Ideally, I have several sketchs (or as I called them earlier, Bad Ideas).   I examine the ideas:  What works?  What doesn’t?  What is theatrical?  What isn’t?    What is affordable?  What is physically possible?

I look at what I have an analyze what makes the good bits good and the bad bits bad.   Drawing on the analysis, I try to refine a couple of these ideas:  Make them physically possible, affordable, theatrical.   If I can I like to have two solid (though not done) ideas to take with me when I meet with the director the first time.  (I also take all my Bad Idea sketches with me, in case durring the meeting, one of them seems better now than at the moment of creation)

A good director has also thought about the set.   They know what the play means, and why it was chosen to be done at this time for this audience.  They know what touchstone they need to communicate with the audience.  They know some of the mechanics like how many doors and chairs.

Then the ideas come together.   Even if, as a designer, your work is 180 degrees opposite from the director, the work is not wasted.  On many sets, the mechanics of getting location one on and location two off are crucial work of the set designer that the director doesn’t care about.   The mechanisms and flow of the set may remain even if all the stuff the audience sees is very different.  Conversely, the designer may have nailed the visual style, but has made the show unblockable for the director.   It doesn’t matter.   The set doesn’t arrive fully formed.    Its time for more revisions.

After meeting with the director (and hopefully other well prepared designers as well), the scenic designer can take the initial ideas, all the input from collaborators and revise some more.   At this point, all the bad ideas and slightly less bad ideas, and all the comments, and all the direction should inspire the designer to move into the world of good ideas.   New designers may get frustrated that there is a lot of work to get to the start of the good idea — and we aren’t at the great ideas yet!

Meeting again with the director to present, what is hopefully a pretty good idea, is very exciting.   Both designer and director have had a chance to let the discussions and ideas continue to develop in their minds.   The pretty good idea is examined and dissected.   I used to be afraid to criticize  my own work when looking at  it with the director, but a designer shouldn’t be afraid.  Many things I don’t like are things I added because I thought the director would like them (or need them)  — Often I’m wrong.  Sometimes I’m right but the director might see what I don’t like and offer suggestions.

Some might think after this meeting, the set can be drafted, sent to the shop, and the designer can sit back and relax.    That is rarely the case.   So much about the play, and therefor the set, is discovered in rehearsal.    The actor can’t make the cross fast enough, or it is too easy for the murderer to catch his victim, or….. whatever.     More revisions lay ahead.    The costume designer shows the hoop skirts, and the doors need to be made wider.  The lighting designer needs somewhere to hang a light for the great monologue, and another small change may be made in the set.

Every time I see a great set for a play, I stop and wonder what it looked like in the beginning.   I love looking through my sketch pads — seeing the various elements that came together to create a pretty good set.    Sometimes I see the abandoned ideas, and wonder what if I had went in that direction?   “Come to think of it, that wasn’t a bad idea — hmmmm, If I get a chance to design this play again….”

Good design isn’t a matter of being brilliant.  Good design comes from working and working and working on a design until it is everything it ought to be.