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.

Remembering Joe Hoffman

It always seems likes great teachers are institutions in and of themselves.  Joe Hoffman was one of those.   I’m thinking of him tonight, because I received word today that he had died.  Joe taught a Tuesday night production design class at U.S.C.’s School of Cinema.   He also, occasionally taught Scenic Art and possibly scenic design with the U.S.C. School of Theatre.

I always felt like Joe was a bit of a mischievous fellow in his professional life.  He designed variety shows for television, beauty pageants, magic shows, musicals and more.   Joe was a bit mischievous in class too.  He gave assignments, and watched students do way more work than they needed to, until they learned the art of design for the camera.   How much of the set will be visibile?  Don’t design and build more than that!   After actually working in television, I learned how true that is.  When I think of Joe teaching, I remember a glint in his eye as if he was waiting for us to discover the great secrets of design.

Joe insisted that we make white models in less than two hours.  A skill that has served me well in my professional life.   The final project in his production design class was a production model (full color, detail), for a brief scenario of our own devising.  Oh, he didn’t grade the model.  When we got to class, we were handed a video camera as promised, and told to film our model with the shot we had planned (at least 30 seconds).   The video was what was critiqued and graded.   I personally worked about 36 to 48 hours, no sleep, very little food to complete the model.  My set had a bookcase in it, I made and painted each 1/4″ scale book individually.   I made furniture, I made trees, I made bricks, I made stained glass windows, I made lit torches.   I got to class tired and hungry.  After making our videos, we were all invited to Joe’s house where his wife made a huge turkey dinner for everyone, and Joe watched the videos, and verbally critiqued our work, and by the time dessert was done we had our grades in the class.   One of the best points he made about my work was that despite the fact my model wasn’t the prettiest in person, I had worked out the shots carefully, and had spent my time working on the pieces that would be in focus and in front on the shots.  (Oddly enough most of the models that were stunning in person photographed very very badly).   Joe made an offhand comment when we started discussing the project about looking at our work through a camera lens occasionally.  I built much of my model looking through a camera lens, and it made such a difference.   I don’t do a lot of design on camera, but I learned that when I do, the world looks very different through that lens.

He taught me about working with new tools.   His was the first time I had used a CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) application.  We used MacDraft which was very simple, but useful program, and a great introduction to the concept.   Joe, in class, seemed from an earlier generation, yet he was pushing us to use technology in a way that few if any of my other teachers during undergrad were doing.

Joe also taught me a lot about being a generous colleague.     I helped him on some project or another.   I do not remember what, it was truly nothing.   Joe was forever thankful and gracious.   Small things, like inviting me on a field trip that his class was taking to look at the set of the “West Wing.”   He also invited me on a backstage tour of the Magic Castle.  After doing a project with Richard Sherman (of the Sherman brothers), and knowing that I am a huge fan of classic Disney films, Joe got me an (Autographed!) copy of the Sherman Brothers’ memoir, “Walt’s Time.”

Joe taught me about efficiency, professionalism, and graciousness.   He taught me you don’t have to be stodgy to be a great professor.    I learned that the technology can be used in the creation of art, and there is no shame in that.  I learned that just couse I’m not young, I can still embrace the technology.

We exchanged the odd email over the years.  Always contemplating getting together, and never actually doing so.   I regret that.  A Lot.  Like so many others, I assumed he’d always be around.

Joe, If you read this, You taught me a lot.  Thanks.  A Lot!

Of Goose poop and egg shaped moons

“To be a good designer, you need to study the real world,” said I to my students today.  Those of us charged with inventing an imagined reality for the entertainment of others need to be familiar with real reality.   This got me thinking about what I have observed recently.

On Saturday I had a last “Hurrah” before instruction began for the fall semester.   My husband and I went SCUBA diving in Monterey.  While suiting up, I looked around the charming park with its concrete steps leading down to the sand and eventually the water.   It reminded one of an idyllic scene –green grass, gentle slopes, a few artistically placed benches, an atmospheric pier, with a few charming buildings from a bygone era.   Perfectly beautiful, right out of post card.  Except, of course for the goose poop.  Before anyone accuses me of objecting in anyway to the goose poop or blaming it on the geese or the city or anyone else, that isn’t the point.  The point is reality has goose poop in it.  It’s ugly, it’s slimy, it’s all kinds of different colors, and (by now) it’s all over my dive boots.  When asked to design a set for a sea-side park, most designers would consult carefully airbrushed post cards, a few artists’ renderings, maybe a lovely long shot someone posted to Flickr.   But who would consider the goose poop?  Should the goose poop even be considered?

I hope that I consider the goose poop because it should be considered.    I’m not advocating covering sets with goose poop, but as part of the reality, it needs to be considered.   Ugliness born of necessity invades our real world all the time.  I worked with a scenic designer who seemed to include an unexplained jog in a wall to give a sense of reality.   Walls in homes jump left or right to accommodate supports, or water lines, or closets or whatever — in much the same way that parks have goose poop.

During the drive home, I had little to do but read the directions to the driver and stare at the moon.  The moon that night was large, and amber, with a faint glow around it.   And it wasn’t all there.  I don’t know my waxing from my waning moon, or my full from my new.   But I can identify a circle, and it wasn’t.  As I studied it, I could make out how, in reality it had just a little shaved from the full circle, but it really gave more of the feeling of an egg than a slightly lumpy circle.   It was striking.  It was real.  And I’d never put it on stage.  Much like the goose poop, the egg shape moon goes against all my instincts as a designer.  I like a world that is pretty.   Much like Cervantes says in Wasserman’s “Man of La Mancha”:  “Why see the world as it in, when you can see it as it should be?”    In design we have the ability to “fix” reality.  Our moons can be a perfect circle, or a jaunty crescent, and our parks lack goose poop.

But I come back to my question:  Should they?   On one hand, reality is not our job.  If people want to see real life they should leave the theatre and go outside.   On the other hand, most plays are set in some sort of reality.  How real is real?  Does the audience want the smell of rotting food in the gutter, graffiti on the walls, broken windows and babies crying that would be in the real world of “Rent” or “West Side Story”?  Or does the audience want it sanitized, cleaned up, made pretty.

In the end it comes down to the show, and the production.   Could either show above show the rot, the stink, the destruction of a city that we believe was once beautiful?  Yes it could, but it could also not.  The city of remembrance may be the perfect setting for the production that focuses on the love stories of the plays.  The gritty city of reality might be appropriate for a production about how life goes on despite the hardships of the world.   There is a time for reality in our entertainment, and  time for ignoring it.   But when creating any production’s imagined reality, the goose poop and egg shaped moon must be considered.

Blast from the Past: Ritchie

This blast from the past comes from 2006 – May – 08.  At the time of me writing this italicized bit, it has been more than five years since Ritchie’s passing.  I got the news as I was waiting to enter a theatre to see a student’s work — a student that I was going to have to sit and offer criticism to.  Ritchie was the master of criticism.  Every time I grade or evaluate a student’s work, I hear Ritchie’s voice in my head.  I still aspire to have the kind of impact on my students as he had on me.

To any of you have had any associations with the USC School of Theatre (or division of Drama) since 1980 or so, I have bad news. I received a phone call this evening that Ritchie M. Spencer, head of production, costume designer, teacher, colleague and friend passed away due to complications related to cancer.

Ritchie was a mentor to me. He also terrorized me through my senior year of undergrad. I used to leave costume design, head back to my apartment, thank God that my room mate was never around, and cry. I couldn’t draw a blob that looked like a person, much less a person wearing exquisite costumes that someone would want to build. He glared, he belittled, he insulted, and then he taught me. I never understood until I went back to grad school how much I had learned. And it wasn’t until I became a teacher I truly understood. I cannot be the superior professor who looks down his nose at everyone’s work — but he could, and did, and believe me I learned. I learned to research. I learned to master my craft. I learned how to communicate ideas in simple, effective lines. I learned that every line drawn, every stroke of the brush must be considered, and if it is unimportant should be, no, must be eliminated. I learned that drawing and designing is not about merely communicating construction concepts to talented artisans, it is telling a story. The better you tell the story of the design, the better the artisans can build it. Today, am I a costume designer? … no. But I am a designer. And so much of that design skill came from those tearful afternoons.

When i returned to Grad School, it was because I was an employee of U.S.C., and at that time employees could get grad degrees cheaply. I saw another side of Ritchie Spencer. He was a supportive colleague. He did not look down on my position or on me. He made me feel like a professional (many of the faculty did not adjust quickly — or in some cases at all– to me being a professional at the school and not a student). In grad school, he was no easier on my work (and it didn’t help that there were only 2 of us in his class — and my class mate was already a working costume designer), but by then I could take the comments and learn from them. I had grown as a person, and my skin was tougher. One of the hardest things about being in the arts is that we put so much of ourselves into the work, and everyone has an opinion. Those opinions hurt designers until they develop a means of dealing with it. He also used to make us criticize our own work and our classmates — he would make us “be vicious” (his words). Learning to be your own harshest critic helps designers develop better designs. I would do renderings for him over and over and over again. When I would finally hand them in, I would get them back with notes, telling me to do them over, and get them in soon — so that night, I would be on the floor in the middle of the apartment rendering all the costumes for an opera over again.

The worst thing is I never got to say thank you. I don’t know if he knew what effect he had on my work. I don’t know that he ever saw my work outside of U.S.C. I designed one show that he thought my work was “excellent” on, and told me so. That compliment meant more to me that any of the other compliments I got on that show (and in fact is one of my proudest moments as a designer– the Times may like my work, but once — just once — I got Ritchie Spencer’s approval)

So Ritchie, if you are logged on, and reading this. Thank you. I hope that one day, I succeed in imparting as many important lessons to my students as you did to me. And this is the only time you’ve made me cry, that I’m not ashamed of it.