Higher at American Conservatory Theatre

Last Saturday (Feb 11, 2012), I saw “Higher” by Carey Perloff at A.C.T. Unlike the other shows of the season, this play was presented the Theatre at the Children’s Creativity Center instead of A.C.T.’s main theatre. The Theatre at the Children’s Creativity Center is a charming 150 seat proscenium theatre. The only really unusual thing about the venue is this catwalk/ramp over the upstage portion of the stage. On Stage Right it is about 14′ or so above the ground, and across the stage goes up at an approximately 30 degree angle towards Stage Left.

“Higher” is a new play written by A.C.T.’s artistic director. “Higher” is a truly exciting new work. The play concerns itself with two architects (who happen to be dating) who, unbeknownst to the other, enter the same competition to design a memorial to group of people who died in a terrorist attack in Israel. Add to the mix, the Israeli son of one of the victims, and the American wife of another (these two are the co-chairs of the committee of judges for the contest), and the son of one of the architects and you have play that examines the sacrifices artists make for their work (and weather they need to), and a meditation on grief and remembrance.

Perloff’s plot is excellent, and mush of her structure is to be admired. I have three (very minor) quibbles with the play as it currently stands. First, I’m not sure the intermission is in exactly the right spot. The person I attended the performance with seemed to think it belonged one scene earlier. I almost think the play would be strongest without an intermission. Secondly, I feel that a scene is missing. An interesting dynamic is created between the two architects (Michael and Elena), and Michael’s son, Jacob… but the dynamic is never fully explained or explored. Jacob has scenes with his dad, and a scene with Elena, but at no point in the play do we see all three interact together. I would love a scene where the three have to walk the tightrope between polite conversation and the varying likes, dislikes, oppositions and allegiances between the three. My final wish for the script is an over all tightening. There are not scenes that need to be cut — but many of the scenes could have 30 to 90 seconds trimmed from them with no ill-effect, which would make the play fit nicer into a long one-act type of presentation.

The cast was excellent. Rene Augesen, and Andrew Polk as the architects (Elena Constantine, and Michael Friedman) had great chemistry and a great skills at both the comedy and the drama involved in the story. Ben Kahre and Alexander Crowther as the Architect’s Son and the Victim’s Son (respectively) were also wonderful and provided some of the most sensitive moments of the evening. Concette Tomei as the Victim’s Wife was the only person who didn’t seem perfectly cast. She was a fine performer, but I felt the actress’s natural good nature was coming through the “tough-as-nails” character and somewhat diminishing the power of the character. (That said, I have seen Tomei in other plays where she was fabulous, so I do not wish to blame her). Mark Ruker’s direction kept everything moving and believable. Rucker’s direction mixed with Perloff’s script mixed comedic moments with serious moments very skillfully. (The assault with the bagel being a perfect example of the blend of the two.)

To my (highly biased) mind the star of the show was Erik Flatmo’s set. So many of the key ideas of the play were expressed in that deceptively simple set. In the play, the two competing architects have radically different ideas of what the Memorial should be. Michael Freidman’s idea is a soaring glass tower, which is canted at the top, and has the names of the victims etched in such a way that they glow at sunset. Elena Constantine’s idea is a low building in the shape of a grieving praying man. These two ideas, and what they mean becomes the dramatic fodder seperating these two in the contest. Michael thinks architecture should impose its new order on its location, Elena thinks that arhictecture should integrate with its site. On stage, Flatmo uses the competing ideas to create a marvelous tension in the set. Tall steal and glass walls flank the set in an asymmetrical pattern. Between these walls is a graceful sloped wooden wall. The glass connects to Michael’s entry in the contest, the wooden wall, Elena’s. Remember that strange catwalk I mentioned in the theatre. To connect more with Elena’s theory of integrating with the site, the brown wooden wall is at the same angle as the catwalk above it, making a living example of the character’s theory. On this basic set, a few simple items were brought in to suggest every other location. The three offices in the play used the same desk (and in a brave move the desk wasn’t always in the same place even if it was to be the same office). Each office had its own 2 chairs. A bench in a hotel later became a foot board. The Bed was used for thee different hotel rooms. A marvelous simplicity! And in many ways, I loved that visible deck hands came and moved the set. I honestly think any slick automation would have hurt this production. The last thing I loved about the set was the small indent down stage containing “dirt” which allowed the director and actors to make real the feeling of burial and digging so central to the play’s plot.

Gabe Maxon’s lighting was subtle and beautiful. The play of light off of the set made the set (either the wooden wall or the glass towers) come alive. Much like the set, the lighting was kept simple, not drawing attention to itself, but never being less than all it needed to be. The same can be said for David F. Draper’s costumes. They told their part of the story without being intrusive. Will McCandless’ sound design was lovely within the play. I have become more and more disenchanted with “pre show” and “intermission” music. If it is not absolutely completely right it ends up being a distraction to the play rather than an aid. In this case, the music, while lovely, did not mesh well with the play I saw. All of the music during the play itself was wonderful, as were the subtle sound effects.

I recently received word that the play has been extended to Feb 25th, if you are in the San Francisco area, or can get their, I highly recommend it. And I eagerly await its next production. After any first production writers generally take what they have learned about the play and make small (or major) revisions. I would love to see what Perloff does with this play. It should have quite a life.

Why I don’t like props.

The set is (mostly) built.    Parts are painted.   Light plot done.  Color and templates are about to be ordered.   So now comes the props.

I don’t like props.  I have never liked props.   Props were always a frustrating afterthought.   Props are the things the actors hold in their hands during a play.   Closely related (and just about as disliked) is set dressing.  Set dressing is the stuff on stage that isn’t really set, that the actors could hold in their hands, but don’t.

My dislike of Props and Set Dressing are a big part of what I love about lighting design.  Lighting design also has lots of fidley detaily stuff– but it is fidely detaily stuff I actually like.

Finding props and set dressing is often a matter for driving from store to store to store (often thrift stores since most shows want stuff that looks used and budgets require stuff that is cheap).   You never know what you will find, and I’m always afraid to buy something in case I see better at the next place.

One never know what one will get, or what one will be able to find.   Often a designer (or director) has an image of the perfect “whatever” in mind and nothing else will do, even if the perfect “whatever” doesn’t exist.

I also dislike lots of props and set dressing because of what it does to many actors.   Lots of set dressing provides lots of visual interest in which it is easy to loose actors.   In film and television, where the director can control how much set is in shot at any moment, and what if any is in focus, can handle lots of set dressing.  In theatre, we have to work hard to make sure that what is there is either really important, or muted enough to not overpower the scene.   I’ve tinted 100s of books  blue for a show, so that they would fit in better with the overall scene and not over power it.    Books aren’t blue — certainly not a whole wall of them.   BUT the set designer had to have them because it was plot.  And they had to be blue, or else the audience would spend time looking at the books and not the actors.

Props cause many actors problems, but actors (and many directors) love props.  “I need business,” the actor says.  Business is the stuff actors do while saying lines:  setting the table,  winding their watch, packing a suitcase.   It certainly is true that humans very often multitask:  talk to someone while performing another activity, and it would be completely unrealistic if actors on stage didn’t do the same.   The problem the props cause the actors is that playwrights rarely work out how long it takes to set a table, pack a suitcase, or drink a beer.  In fact, the playwrights are usually (rightly) more concerned with the dialogue the actor’s are spitting out.   So props create the problem of “We need to drink 2 beers on stage per night in this 8 minute scene”   So the prop department makes fake beer, in cans as needed.  The poor actors now have to drink all that liquid (and run to the john as soon as they are off stage).

The truth is, there isn’t a solution.  Props are needed.   Actors have to work with them.  They are still a huge pain in my rump.  Some designers and artisans thrive on the prop and set dressing challenges.  I salute those folks.  They aren’t me.   To my mind, any play with more props than Our Town, has too many props.   And even Our Town might be able to be done with less.

Watching….

Monday is light hang day.  That means I have to see the entire play before I draw the plot (hopefully tomorrow).    The director hasn’t scheduled a run through until next week, so I’m spending this week (well Monday through Wednesday) in the rehearsal room.   Designers don’t usually see much rehearsal process.   I’m enjoying myself a lot.   This also happens to be the week they get to move in to the actual theatre  (I love that about college theatre, you get the space much earlier than in the pro world).

Watching the actors adjust to having some (but not all) the set pieces, and being in the real space is energizing.  They are so excited!     It is always my goal to do the best work I can for the the cast (after the performance I attended last Friday, I am utterly disgusted with audiences!), but being in a regular rehearsal with the cast makes this imperative even stronger.

Almost Maine is in many 11 small play-letts rather than a full play.   The scenic design has, I think, done a lot to unify them visually.   The upshot of this is that I am considering doing 11 light plots.   11 little tiny light plots.   And then trying to cram them all in one theatre.    In the end the realities of the number of dimmers, and the number of lighting instruments at my disposal will probably negate that idea — I’m already thinking that all the “exterior” scenes will have to share a light plot, leaving maybe the interiors each with a unique look.  But each scene is special.   I have radically different ideas for each one, and with the set, and the play as a whole, that might be ok.

I see the last three tonight, and then I have to figure out the lighting.

The disadvantage to seeing the show not all at once is that I can only have half formed ideas at the moment.  When I see the show all together, my brain very neatly breaks everything down.   At the moment, my mind is saying:  what if this, what if that, will that work here, or there, or ….   And its distracting.

That said, I’ve so enjoyed the experience of being in that sacred space: the rehearsal.  The cast, and management and direction teams have all been very welcoming of a stranger in their midst when the show isn’t ready yet.   Some scenes didn’t have the blocking fully completed.   The actors are still exploring moments.  And for many shows, I could put the light plot off one more week, wait until the run through and not have a problem.   The downside on this show is that some of the lighting requirements will take some time to arrive, and I won’t know what I need until I see the show, and every day of delay risks the equipment not arriving by tech.

So this week is dedicated to lighting…. I’m still getting the last 2 major set pieces constructed.   Then painting and decorating….  The prop list is getting under control.

This should be a beautiful show.