Direct And To The Point: Realized or Conceptual?

When you set out to produce a show, one of the first things you will need to decide is whether or not the design for your production will be conceptual or fully realized. There are conditions that often lend themselves to one path or the other. Choosing an option that doesn’t fit your script may result in you having to fight against the design in order to get your story across.

For our purposes we will be thinking of these elements primarily with regard to set and costumes. Lighting and sound can also be more or less realistic, but sets and costumes are often the areas where a conceptual design is most apparent. In a realistic design, everything is rendered in as much detail as possible, exactly as it would be in the world of the play. In a conceptual design the location and time period are suggested – so instead of the entire castle, you might see a throne and some suspended tapestries, enough to indicate where the scene is taking place.

light bulb, actual and concept

As a general rule, I tend to be a fan of more conceptual designs. I feel like it gives me more room to play. I feel like it gives the designers more room to play. It can also add another layer with regard to how the play is interpreted. When well thought out and well utilized, conceptual sets and costumes can be incredibly imaginative and fluid. That being said it has to be a good fit for the way your script is structured. Script structure should be the main factor when you’re deciding on the design direction. The structure dictates how the story should be told. If a script is laid out in a linear, continuous timeline, you may need to go with a traditional, realistic design. If it uses elements of heightened theatricality, they you may be able to think more outside the box.

For example with a classic comedy, especially farce, you are probably going to be better served by more traditional sets and costumes. Part of the fun in comedy is watching the train wreck. The events are strategically laid out to create a misunderstanding (which is then resolved). Comedy relies on the characters having no awareness of how the plot lines are being tangled while the audience remains completely aware. These plot points usually unfold chronologically in order to make sure that the audience can clearly follow what’s going on at all times. (Note: Here we’re referring to scripts that are structural comedies, not scripts that are comedic. The Importance of Being Earnest is a structural comedy. Whereas Peter and the Starcatcher is a play with comedic elements.)

Another example of when you might need to go with a more realistic design is when the set (or costumes) functions as an additional character. In these scripts, the design becomes central to the plot. The story is specific to that one location. It’s possible that all of the scenes may even take place there. Steel Magnolias, for example, has to happen in a beauty shop. With Clybourne Park, the house is pivotal to the story – you have to see the house as it is in Act I and how it changes in Act II. For Phantom of the Opera, you have to have a mask for the Phantom, otherwise the character (and thus the show) doesn’t make sense. These design elements are fundamental to being able to tell the story as it is written. On the flip side, Shakespearean plays, since they tend to be about more general themes and were written to have minimal technical constraints, often do very well with a conceptual design.

If the script is structured in a less linear way, that may allow you to go in a conceptual direction. Perhaps it jumps back and forth between different time periods or it has simultaneous scenes. Perhaps there’s a dream sequence. Perhaps you’re doing a lot a of double casting and for the overall flow of the piece your actors need to be able to transition instantly on stage from one character to the next. Sometimes the demands of the script necessitates a more conceptual approach. Perhaps there’s an element of the script that you’re unable to create realistically in a way that’s satisfying. War Horse comes to mind as an example where the imaginative integration of puppetry (and other conceptual devices) gave the production substantially more leeway than they would have had had they tried to do a strictly realistic approach.

Plays with numerous locations can work well with conceptual sets because a conceptual set can allow you to quickly transition between those different areas. When you’re going from one fully realized location to another, you have to wait for one group of physical objects is taken off and another is brought on. If you’re able to simply suggest the location that can be a much less demanding physical change, and thus a faster transition. Come From Away does an exceptional job of this, using a bunch of chairs and small costume pieces to quickly shift between locations and characters – going from bus, to plane, to barroom simply by changing the orientation of the chairs and the way the actors interacted with them.

Going in a conceptual direction may allow you the freedom to create a greater variety of stage pictures. I remember sitting through a production which had chosen to go the more realistic route for a play that took place in two different time periods. The set for the scenes taking place in the present lived stage left, the set for the scenes in the past lived stage right. As a result, the staging became incredibly dull after the first half a dozen scenes because the set pieces severely limited where the actors could be staged.

Often productions end up somewhere in between, with some locations being fully realized and others being suggested. This approach can be a great compromise if it’s executed strategically. If you’re mixing these two options, you want to be sure either a) the conceptual elements are used often enough to feel like a regular part of the world (not something you defaulted to because you didn’t have any other ideas) or b) the conceptual element is used only once, for dramatic effect, in a moment that is meant to be magical.

Depending on the concept, going in a less realistic direction could potentially be a means of staying within your budget. Obviously, if your concept becomes pyrotechnics and Armani suits, that’s going to be more expensive, not less. But if the concept allows you to do something significantly simpler or use materials that you already have (or materials someone else is getting rid of) that can be a huge money saver. Again, this won’t always be the case, but sometimes it’s an option worth considering. The key is to make it look like you chose to design the show the way you did, and avoid making it look like you ran out of money.

The solution that fits your show has to balance what needed and what can be achieved. Embrace the limitations as your unique puzzle and see what the options are.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: Finding The Funny

This post is the juncture of having just seen my first production of She Stoops to Conquer and having just read The Brain That Changes Itself.

First the production. The production I was good, but I walked away thinking it could have gone much further. Comedy is difficult to pull off successfully. Some comedies have additional meaning layer on top of the funny business. This script is purely in search of the laugh. That’s not to say that the characters don’t need to be grounded in truth. They absolutely do. The moment a character becomes aware of or comments on their part within the whole, is the moment that they stop being funny. The characters have to be singularly focused on their pursuit, so that we as the audience can laugh at what they are ignorant of and revel in the moment that it is revealed to them. In a comedy like She Stoops, a whole slew of outrageous events occur and it is the productions job to make it seems as though they were completely accidental – to make the artificial seem like a natural happenstance. The same must be done for each mini-moment of comedy added to the performances. The key is to stuff as many of these moments as you can sustain into the production. And in order to do that, it helps to have some comedians on hand.

There is a difference between a comedian and someone who can be funny. A comedian is someone who is wired to continually look for (and play) the joke. For a comedian, finding the funny is a lifestyle. It’s the filter that they view everything through. They talk about being in situations where they knew a joke wouldn’t be well received, but they just couldn’t resist telling it because the humor was there for the taking and they just couldn’t resist. The performers in this production had the ability to be funny but it hadn’t been run through the filter of enough comedians.

We talk about people as either being funny or not, a view which is not accurate or particularly helpful. Certainly some people are more skilled at it than others, but it’s a skill just like any other. And the only way you get better at a skill is by practicing it. The Brain That Changes Itself details how the things that we think quite literally shape and change the way that our neurons fire. If we are continually looking for the comedy around you, your brain will become better at finding it. Most of the people we regard as funny don’t lead lives that are significantly funnier than anyone else’s. Instead they are better at noticing the incongruities and absurdities that surround us. They have worked at honing these observations their entire life. So, if we want to create a production that is as funny as it possibly can be, and we’re not thoroughly versed comedians ourselves, we have to do every thing we can to compensate. The most fundamental of which being the way we view the world.

Groucho Glasses

In order to up our comedy game, we need to eat, sleep, and breathe comedy. Watch comedy, read comedy, listen to comedy. When you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, think about what the funniest thing (or assortment of things) you could purchase would be. When you’re waiting for the elevator, think about who the funniest person to be on the other side of those doors could be. What if you went to your production meetings wearing Groucho glasses? The comedy doesn’t need to be in the style of piece. It just needs to have you continually looking to exercise the funny circuits in your brain (and the brains of everyone involved). A coach who I really enjoy recommends writing the thing that you want to keep at the forefront of you mind on a rubber band and then wearing that rubber band on your wrist until you can train your brain to drift in that direction on its own. Try that. If you’re a post-it fan, try that. The point is to do anything you can to sharpen your eye for comedy.

With regard to the rehearsal process, obviously if we can cast actor-comedians, that’s helpful. But short of that, we can recruit the cast to be thinking in the same direction that we are and be on the lookout for moments where jokes can be added – not just when they’re onstage, but at any point. Invite your stage manager, your designers, and anyone sitting in rehearsal to look for missed comedic opportunities. Every suggestion might not make the final cut, but the more you’ve fully explored the options, the better. You know the shenanigans that sometimes make their way into the last leg of a run – things like “work the word ‘banana’ into your dialogue” or “insert the Usain Bolt ‘Lightning Bolt’ gesture into one of your scenes”, or other idiotic challenges? What if those were intentionally added to the rehearsal process so that the stumble through of Act One also involved passing a balloon animal around onstage as inconspicuously as possible?

Obviously, everyone has to be on their game in order to do this. You have to make sure that safety comes first. Everyone has to know their lines and blocking. You have to be able to be able to wrangle and structure the fun-times so that work is still being done and it doesn’t just devolve into everybody goofing off. And you have to be able to edit out the bits that aren’t working. But in a piece like She Stoops where the amount of fun that the cast is having only increases the amount of fun audience in having, fostering an environment where everyone can play fully and completely can reap great rewards. And having more options to play only adds more fuel to the fire.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.