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: Taking The Leap to Kill Off Your Darlings

As a director it is your job to have a vision for the piece – to have an idea about what you want to communicate and how to get there. This is the phase where everything is a possibility for you. After that it’s your job to actually get everyone there, safely and within the allotted restrictions of time and budget. Often this means a lot of thinking, planning, and dreaming well before any of the physical components are in place.

However, once those physical realities start taking shape, you will need to kill off some of your dreamy darlings, and the faster the better. Because until you move on, no one else can either. It’s only once we move on that we can start figuring out what will work. Too often we waste time clinging to one magical vision that we have about the way we think a moment should go or the way we think a set or costume should look like. Sometimes those ideas get dragged all the way to opening night, never quite achieving what they were meant to. Prompting the response we weren’t willing to see, that it wasn’t the right choice for our production. The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes is not that the Emperor was fooled, but rather that the Emperor was too afraid to see what was in front of him.

In any given process, what are the things that we can’t fix? What are the things that we can’t change? (This is kind one step beyond the notion of playing the cards you have.) Is there a structural pillar in the middle of your playing space? Figure out a way that you can incorporate it. Find the possibility. Can it become a tree trunk? Or the post of a front porch? Or a telephone pole? Or a place to hang props? How completely can you integrate what you can’t change into the world of your? What if your options for lighting are spartan (at best) and you were longing for something to rival last year’s Super Bowl? Time to shift directions. Rob Lowe in his book Love Life talks about how it’s always the one line in the script that he hates, that he doesn’t initially know how to deliver truthfully, that eventually unlocks the whole character for him. While you’re focused on what you can’t do, someone else is figuring out how to work with the exact same thing. The unique challenges that you face will point you in the direction of solution that is unique to your production.

The Catch

We are in the business of blending reality and fiction. Taking fictional characters and making them relatable. Taking true events and crafting them into compelling narratives. When we ignore our physical realities, we can’t possibly a fictional world that allows our audience to suspend their disbelief. When we build those realities into our narrative, suddenly everything makes sense. Accept what you can change and exploit it to the best of your ability.

Creativity is born out of limits. There are a multitude of ways to tell any given story. If there weren’t, scripts would only ever be produced once with one cast . There’s an anecdote I heard at some point where some famous innovator basically said, “what do I care if someone ‘steals’ one of my ideas, I have millions of ideas and I make more every day.” (I cannot for the life of me remember who it was about. Maybe it was about Disney? Tesla? Edison? Someone prolific. Google has not turned up anything to help me pinpoint it. Which ) Regardless, it’s great reminder.

Musicians spend years drilling scales, dancers spend years at the barre – honing their technique, so that when it comes time to perform they can forget all of that minutia and trust in their instrument. You must do the work of dreaming and planning, so that you can let it all go and trust that new dreams will come. There are no short cuts. But unless you leap, there’s also no reward.

Questions? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Direct And To The Point: Relevant

I’ve been thinking a lot about Les Mis recently.

I read an article a few years ago about one of the conflicts in the middle east (I don’t remember which conflict) and the fact that many Americans couldn’t understand why the local populations would fight against the American soldiers who came to free them. The author’s point was that the luxury of morality (and fighting for the “good guy”) is hard to maintain when your family is starving. In those circumstances, you fight for whoever will give you a bag of rice.

I should specify; I’ve been thinking about how Les Mis has always seemed like a pretty story rather than something with present day relevance, despite the fact that the overarching concept of Les Mis – a country in the middle of a revolution and the lives it affects – strikes me as incredibly timely. The theme of societal conditions making it easier or harder for a person to do the right thing, is one that I imagine will always be relevant. But, for me, rooting the story in Paris during the French Revolution somehow distances me from that. I keep wondering what it would be like to stage a production of Les Mis in the present (or close to it) and in the Middle East.

Les Miserables and The Middle East

This is not something I’ve thought very far down the road with. At the moment, it’s just a fleeting question that won’t leave me alone. I’m not exactly sure how well a shift of the setting would intersect with the script and score. I don’t imagine Schönberg and Boublil were seeking to make any particular social comment in adapting the novel into the musical. But I do feel safe saying that Victor Hugo was most definitely wrestling with many of the social issue of his day. So, in that sense I feel like it becomes of an interesting question; what if your concept strays from the intention of the adapters but is closer in spirit to original source material?

Then there is the consideration of sides. Within the context of the show, the establishment (the law, represented by Javert) is the villain and students are, if not the hero per se, certainly the good guys trying to win liberty and equality for the people. If you were to set it in the recent Middle East, you would have to pick a side as the oppressive establishment and another as the visionary revolutionists. A move which couldn’t help but be seen as a political statement – something which I would want to avoid, given my ignorance as to the subtly and complexity of the situation. Making a statement you intend to make is one thing. Making a statement purely out of ignorance is another and should be avoided when possible. And even if you could somehow avoid naming names in that regard, there is still the issue of a flag. The barricade and its accompanying flag are significant visual aspects of the story. Removing the flag from that image would significantly reduce the emotional impact of that moment of the show. And making a completely fictional flag, or something “vaguely Middle Eastern” seems like an option that could quickly become offensive.

My next thought was perhaps you could do it in a neutral time and place, a la the recent Broadway production of A View From The Bridge, and let the audience draw it’s own parallels. It doesn’t exactly solve the flag issue, but perhaps something could be established purely with colors, much like the way sports fans rally around their team’s colors. The more distant a story seems – the harder it is for the characters to seem like they overlap with your world in some way whether it’s that their struggles are your struggles, their words sound like the way you speak, or their clothes look like things you wear – the harder it becomes for the story to feel immediate. Perhaps by adopting a more neutral design palate, you could allow the audience to feel closer to the story, by virtue of the set and costume not highlighting the fact that these events took place hundreds of years ago.

When I watch a show, one of the primary things I want from a show is an emotional connection, ideally an empathetic, emotional connection. Any time I hear someone say they don’t like musical theater (or Shakespeare), I always take that as an indication that haven’t seen a production that allowed them to relate to the characters in a meaningful way. So, as a director, I’m always looking for points where an empathetic connection can be strengthened, ways to highlight the relevance of the story being told. Sometimes that comes in the form of adding something, sometimes it come in the form of stripping something down. I’m not sure if this concept would be at all effective. But I’m curious.

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