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.

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