4000 Miles to a Realistic Set

Over the weekend, I saw “4000 Miles” by Amy Herzog, directed by Mark Rucker.   I want to write about the set.  Erik Flatmo designed a very realistic, and very detailed set for the show.  I have written before about my dislike of realistic sets, and this show pointed out why.   I first want to say that I have seen other work by Flatmo and I like his work, so I do not want any part of this discussion to to be taken in anyway to disparage Flatmo or his work.  (In fact, his design for last season’s “Higher” was one of my favorite set designs I have seen at A.C.T.)  Flatmo’s  great work only points out my issues with very realistic sets.

No stage set is completely realistic.  It can’t be.   People on stage need a bit more room to move about.   The show must be clear to the audience, real conversations must be tilted so the audience can see it.   Actors need to be able to move around the stage gracefully.  On stage, the space between furniture is often wider the usual.  There is often a bit more room along the edges.   

“4000 Miles” is set in a rent controlled Greenwich Villiage apartment.  The owner of the apartment has lived there for conservatively 40 years (that assumes the main character is the oldest child of the oldest child, the owner’s husband (the main character’s grandfather) was significantly older than owner (the main character’s step-grandmother), and everyone had kids young).  The apartment had lots of detail about a long life.  Piles of papers stacked around the stage.  Pictures, bookshelves, cheap folding tables next to an upright spinnet, next to a nice period desk — these items tell the story of a long and full life — of an apartment full of kids, and now almost devoid of people.  

So what’s the problem?  Well, there are three (actually there are a few more, but I’m going to highlight three).   First, the furniture had to be spread so far apart to accommodate the blocking, that when one character wanted to set down her tea cup on the coffee table next to her, she had to get out of her seat because the coffee table was so far away she couldn’t reach it.  This yanked me out of the play.

My second issue was that the owner of the apartment was forgetful, loosing her check book, her glasses etc.   I know people like that.  (Heck, when I’m in tech, I am that person.)  My piles of the detritus of life, are constantly being moved, rearranged, gone through — hoping that my missing stuff somehow ended up in there.  The show did not allow time for moving the stuff around between scenes, nor would that have been a good use of time.  But the fact that the stuff didn’t move made the very realistic set feel false.

My last issue comes from the fact that in the play, a new character moves in for several weeks.  His influence on the apartment wasn’t minimal, it was non-existant.   If the apartment owner was one of the women who was so organized and neat that she alphabetized her socks, I could believe that a new flat mate wouldn’t disrupt the order of stuff.   This owner was not that woman.  I would have liked the computer, once set up, to remain on stage, instead it disappeared after its usefulness in the script.  I would have liked to see his stuff creeping into the space here and there — some visual evidence of his presence. 

As a designer, I understand the reasons for all of these decisions.   For the good of the overall show, they were the right decisions to make.  But these three items are examples of the realism of the set hurting the realism of the show.  When a set is theatrical, or suggested audiences accept the non-reality and roll with it.  But the more detailed and realistic it is the more the audience demands of it.  When the set looks like it could almost be a location magically transported to the theatre, and one wall carefully removed so the audience can see in, the audience needs that feeling perpetuated throughout the night.  On the other hand, if designers can force the audience to be a willing accomplice in making the magic they are seeing (by leaving more of the set to their imagination), the audience will fill in the details all on their own.

What to do?  Make the show even choppier than it is by taking long breaks between the scenes to move stuff around?  No, the play could not have handled that.  So the stuff was left where it was.  Make the set the size of a real Greenwich village apartment?   That would come off as claustrophobic.   So its probably better to have that coffee table too far away.

I don’t think there is a good solution, if the production has decided to go with a very realistic set.   So why not go with something less real — something more conceptual — something more abstract?  Well, it really isn’t that kind of show.  A single set play where characters speak the way people speak, and a plot that is plausible enough that you would believe your aunt when she tells you that this really happend to her in-laws’ neighbor.  When confronted with that type of play, realism is the natural answer.

Personally, I’m generally so repulsed by realistic scenery that I would fight against.  But I also imagine I would loose to most directors. (Actually, I don’t need to imagine it — I loose, because the director is ultimately right that realism is the natural answer.) 

So what do you do?  

You make it real, and hope the audience doesn’t notice the artificiality.  

The Dangers of the Imaginary World

Long ago, I used to work in television, and I used to have great fun looking at the various back drops that were available to rent.   The backdrops could be placed outside the window of a set to create a beautiful sky, exotic cityscape, snow topped mountains etc.   In fact, I had a little joke, when seeing a fantastic vista in the real world, I would ask “What backing number are they using today?”

When working in the entertainment industry, I look at everything I see as if it was a design.   Today walking across campus, I was annoyed with the “costume designer”  — whoever it was, was dressing way to many people in the same costume.  THEN it hit me, this was the real world.   No costume designer was to blame.

I like it when the world is as neat and tidy as it is on stage.   Every character is dressed in a harmonious styles and colors, yet everyone looks unique.  I like a beautiful sky.  I like great lighting.   I like great locations.   Great places, that are harmoniously put together.

And in much of the theatrical design I do, I am able to create these harmonious worlds.  But when reality is called for, I need to remember that too many people wear the same costume, furniture isn’t artfully arranged, and the perfect sky, sometimes isn’t so.

Passing a Class in College

No one ever really asks me how to succeed in a college class. They usually want to know how to “get an A,” as opposed how to learn something. Well, I decided to answer the question I wish students asked me: How do I learn as much as possible in college? Here is my answer (at least my answer at the moment.) Part of getting the “A” is doing well with the minutia of class. The following tips will help you succeed in a class. My college defines success as a “C” or better. More importantly, these tips will help you get the most out of your college class. You will learn more and retain more after you leave.

I always tell students they should question the qualifications of the article they are reading. So, here are mine: I’m a college professor, and I’m grading students. I see what students are successful in my class, and I see which ones are not successful. Some students get a C or better with out doing all of these. Students who earn the As and Bs seem to do all of these.

So here they are, my top ten tips for succeeding in college:

1) Go to class! You are in college, no one is making you go. Sure every class has attendance policies, and you should pay attention to them. But going to class is more important than just those policies! Even if teachers just seem like they are reiterating what is in the text book, the lecture is more focused (and more likely to be on the test.) Unlike a text book, if you are confused you can ask the teacher a question – and they will answer. Also regular attendance can make the difference if you are borderline on a grade. Teachers who see the effort are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt about weather to round up to the “A” or down to the “B”

2) Be on time! Most classrooms are not set up to allow students to sneak into class late. Yes, it happens on occasion: Bad weather, traffic, late bus, etc. But it if happens to you regularly, you need to make some adjustments in your schedule. Professors know who is coming in late. They don’t like it. It will hurt your grade.

3) Participate! Sitting in class like a lump on a log doesn’t help your learning or your grade. Answer questions when the instructor asks. Ask questions when you don’t understand. It isn’t a bad idea to try to force yourself to speak in class at least once each session.

4) Read the syllabus! Most teachers take a lot of time putting important information in the syllabus. Details of assignments, grading systems, lecture topics etc. can usually be found in the syllabus. Take the time to read and understand it. If you don’t understand something, ask! Also, before you ask the teacher a question that might be on the syllabus, check the syllabus. Instructors are annoyed  if you ask a question that could have been found by reading the syllabus.  Oh and if you lost your syllabus, check the class’s web page or blackboard site, it is probably there.   In fact, check to see if your class has a web page, or facebook page or whatever.  There is probably good stuff there.  Take advantage of it!

5) Be prepared! Before you can participate in class, you need to know what is going to be going on. Complete the reading and homework assignments before you come to class. That means more than skimming the chapters five minutes before class. It means reading the material closely, taking notes, and especially discovering what you don’t understand. Write down what confuses you. Things that confuse you make great questions to ask in class (which helps you have something to say when you participate!) On a full length semester class, you are generally expected to put in three hours of work for each unit the class is worth per week! Therefore if you have a three unit class, that meets for three hours a week, you will need to do 6 hours of homework to put in enough time (3 hours in class + 6 hours of homework = 9hours). The school and the teachers expect you are doing that much work. That is what it takes to be prepared. (If the class is offered in a compressed schedule you may be expected to spend even more time out of class)

6) Get a calendar! I love Google calendar because my phone can access it, I can get it on line, and I can print it out if I need a hard copy. You don’t have to use Google. A calendar in your phone, or a free web application, or even an old fashioned paper calendar will help. Write on your calendar every class session you have to attend. Schedule when you are going to do your homework, when study groups are meeting, when you have to work, etc. Write down everything, including (and not unimportantly) when you are going to sleep. You only get a social life around those scheduled events.

7) Find a friend in each class. If you miss class (even for a very good reason), the instructor doesn’t want to repeat everything they said in class in an email to you. Find a good friend who will agree to take notes for you if you aren’t there, and of course you will do the same for them! This is also a great person to study with, and even work on assignments with, and partner up with for that group project every instructor seems to assign.

8) Take advantage of office hours. Most instructors hold 3 to 5 office hours a week. This is when the instructor is sitting in their office waiting for a student to come by and see them. You can get personalized one on one tutoring here. Don’t understand something? Go to the office hour! Want extra help with a concept? Go to the office hour. Showing up to office hours also makes it look like you care, which can give you that extra boost if you are on the cusp. If your class schedule doesn’t work with a professor’s office hours, ask if they can make time for you. They probably will. A quick note: if the professor’s syllabus asks you to make an appointment for the office hour instead of just dropping by, follow the syllabus’ suggestion. Also, check and see if your professor has virtual/on-line office hours, then you don’t have to get yourself to campus.

9) Read the books (even the extra stuff). Instructor’s rarely assign reading that they don’t think you should read. Read it. If you can’t afford the text book, see if it is available used, or as an E-Book, or in the library (many professors put their books on reserve in the library). If all of those fail, talk to the instructor, he or she might let you borrow their copy of the book during office hours. If the instructors list additional, optional, or supplementary texts try to read those as well. While you won’t be tested on it specifically, this material will make the other material easier to understand.

10) Know your instructors. Spend some time trying to find out about your instructor in advance. Ask others who have taken a class with the instructor. What does the instructor expect? How do they run their classroom? Also, do a quick google search. Has the instructor written books or articles about topics that will be covered in class? If so, get your hands on them and read them! Even if the instructor didn’t assign his or her own texts, they will be a valuable resource for the class.