Thursday, November 24, 2011

Designer Library 5: Illustrators 29

Illustrators: Society of Illustrators 29th Annual of American Illustration. Society of Illustrators, Watson-Guptill Publications. New York (1988) Or any of the subsequent annual volumes.

My last choice of five books I have found most valuable for design is the annual of prize-winning illustration by the American Society of Illustrators, now up to the 52nd annual. These quality print editions on coated stock are not inexpensive, but well worth the $45 from the Society of Illustrators. Times, styles and artists evolve and change, but this 25-year-old 1988 book and my 12-year-old Illustrators 40 seem to be the most thumbed. I find that prowling these collections of prize winning publication art are a useful step in resolving a design.

As designers we find inspiration and sources wherever we can. The reading of a script and its visual interpretation is influenced by its context in the life of the moment. We have our own history with the script and its story, and with many associations already made. We also have a context for the new production that has a cluster of requirements of varying importance. Those requirements are both tangible and aesthetic, both limiting and freeing. And somehow our design must arise within these boundaries of production practice to meet the aesthetic goals.

There are highly imaginative, creative artists whose original brains may reach and grasp fully original possibilities. My sense is that it doesn't come as easily as it appears for most of us. Lightning strikes the prepared mind, to mangle a metaphor, and such collections as the Illustrators Annual are about possibilities. We can see the work of other artists who have found imaginative and artistically profound ways of vividly communicating the ideas of the text through imagery and art.

Fine art also has its value for inspiration, as does architecture and film and other art forms. Historic, geographic and other factual material is critical in developing a design for any production, but it is the art forms that shape an artistic attitude, and deliberately and creatively embody ideas in sensual terms. Illustration is an art of intentional statement.

The Illustrators Annual is over 600 pages of prize-winning illustration divided into sections for book, editorial, and advertising publication. In addition there are hall-of-fame tributes to important illustrators that place the current work in a stylistic context, and there are agencies showing work by their artists and illustrators. It's all in high quality full color art print.

The Annual is a wealth of stylistic ideas. Color qualities and combinations. Stylistic approaches to line and shape. Visual senses of texture. Any and all forms of abstraction. Fresh ideas of balance and proportion. Ways to illustrate particular objects and people. Qualities of mood and tension in imagery. Evocation of our experiences with other illustration and art forms. And so on.

These images typically seek to communicate more literal concepts than high art does. This work intends to create a strong, specific connection to the viewer's references and imagination. In many cases, these are literally the scene designs for the text. They illustrate an object or idea by implying a narrative about it.

Every illustration image is incomplete. It challenges viewers to substantiate the idea through their own experience. Every image provokes a question about its subject, while conveying intensive clues to the way one is expected to respond. Many illustrations tell a fragment of a story that the viewer is led to complete. Even what appears to be pure design is full of narrative impulse. Illustration design builds upon a wide world of associations - with real and fictional experiences, with demons and fears, with aspirational identities, with intrigue and suspense, or with beauty and life.

This is the world of the stage and the province of the drama. Illustration is a frozen moment of theater - an artful expression of drama. Theater is the history, present and future of the moment. Illustration is an abstraction of an entire story that theater plays out in time. It is a rich resource for theater. We are in the same business.

I hope this list of best books has been of interest. Upon reflection when writing, I noted that they are older than they seem to me. I'm not sure if it is meaningful - the list isn't intended to be limiting. Perhaps this list suggests and argues that there are books of value and that it continues to be worthwhile to have resources in hand, not only on a screen.

November 24, 2011
Happy Thanksgiving

Friday, November 18, 2011

Designer Library 4: Contemporary Stage Design

My fourth of five selections as an influential design book is Contemporary Stage Design USA published in 1975 by the Theatre Institute of the United States, Inc. It was edited by Elizabeth Burdick, Peggy Hansen and Brenda Zanger. As of this writing it is available used from Two other collections have been published: American Set Design by Arnold Aronson (1985) and American Set Design 2 by Ronn Smith (1991). These also are valuable and include extensive interviews with the designers. I find myself returning most to the 1975 publication for inspiraton.

Creative juices are stimulated by seeing the possible. The challenge is to explore the possible in order to shape an end that seems to have an inevitability. Given the circumstances, the conditions and the requirements of a production, the "inevitable" design is the most artistically satisfying result. Once one becomes invested in a design it takes on a life of its own. The task is to prod it along and keep it on track. In the end it really wants to have a kind of unique perfection.

As a goal this approach has merit, but it can be a liability for divergent thinking. It asks for the logical result of dramatic connections, not the most interesting and provocative result, so the challenge is to provoke divergent thinking in exploring the possible. Looking at the designs of others can challenge an artist to consider the problems in different ways and imagine provocative alternatives.

In my own design experience, I need to see a way out of narrow ideas that feel easy and unimaginative. I'm always looking for a better answer. An imaginative possibility. A clever expression. Something arising from a different impulse. There are many creativity exercises one can use to explore approaches and unlock the expression of a play. I do use a few techniques to break out of conventional thinking but they can be time-consuming and can extend the incubation period beyond the calendar limit. A reasonable supplement for me is to look at excellent published production designs by others of all kinds of plays.

There were a couple books of designs put out by the International Theatre Institute that I had made a habit of consulting in the college libraries where I taught, including Stage Design Throughout the World Since 1960 by Rene Hainaux, and an older collection since 1935. These volumes of artful approaches to dramatic texts remain invaluable for exploring exciting and different visual ideas for designs. They helped me resist my tendency to design like a housing contractor rather than an artist. I started recognizing metaphor and cleverness in design, and my work became more conscious and focused.

Eventually, I began to find a few books of interesting new designs that I could afford and didn't have to keep rechecking from the library. One of the first in my collection and most influential is Contemporary Stage Design U.S.A. It is 140 pages of designs selected by the Institute, supported by 10 essays by designers. It remains a primary inspiration resource and the most frequently thumbed of the design collections I have since acquired. I recommend it highly.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Designer Library 3: Pecktal

This is the third in a series of entries on books that I have found most valuable in my scenic design practice and teaching. I must point out that these are not necessarily the best, most current resources, but they have been quite valuable to me. I believe they are worth consideration by others.

Designing and Painting for the Theater was written by Lynn Pektal in the early 1970s, and covers a lot of territory. Pektal was a designer and scenic painter in New York, and he also wrote a book on drawing in the 1990s. The books use a similar approach of framing the detailed discussion of practices with interviews with working designers. Some people find the Designing and Drawing book more helpful and it does have rich resources for design, but the earlier Designing and Painting text remains a more useful reference text for me. As a designer who also must build and paint my shows, I found Pektal's book to be a godsend before the internet. It remains a rich resource, regardless of the effect of changed technologies and more readily available information. One can find inexpensive used editions on Amazon.

Before the late 1970s, if you worked elsewhere than in the few theater-rich cities, your access to information about production practice was quite limited. A handful of theater production programs in universities outside of the northeast, such as Carnegie-Mellon, Illinois, Iowa, Texas and USC taught what was needed to feed the commercial theater, but most practice had not evolved much since the 1930s and 40s. The artistry was a practice of the trades and was still passed on largely through apprenticeship. Scenic practices began to evolve quickly with the explosion of technologies and materials in the last decades of the 20th Century, and the trades began to lose their exclusive grip on how things were done. Entertainment technologies evolved and expanded into whole new worlds of working practice. More people began to work between and among the components of the entertainment industry: theater, film, television, and trade shows. But the basic structure of the traditional practices and techniques continued to guide the work in the theater.

Pektal's book is over-written in places, with a lot of detail in the interviews with designers on some arcane aspects of practice as applied to particular productions. But most usefully, the book is filled with real cookbook detail on design and painting practice for the stage. Some of those practices have been affected by the computer revolution and digital technology, but many have not. It also is illustrated heavily with scores of images of drops, designs, settings, and scenic practice. In fact, the illustrations are invaluable for understanding the expectations and qualities of the practices and techniques. The images of designs are very useful as examples and models of design practice.

Where Payne (Scenographic Imagination) goes into detail on analysis and how to think about the setting, Pecktal is very much concerned with the application and practice. Each chapter concludes with an interview conversaton with one of the major designers of the late 20th Century American theater - Mielziner, Smith, Edwards, Lee, Oenslager, Bay and others. These interviews are not as insightful as one might expect, but informative nevertheless, attending to the specifics of scenic and design practices and the experiences of the designers.

The first two chapters deal with the basic ground of New York theater design practice. They run through the fundamentals of starting out, and the working world of the designer. The third chapter on developing the design is mostly about the steps and the artifacts - the drawings and models. It is helpful to see what is expected as union practice. Chapter 4 is concerned with the theatrical scenic studio. It attends to the various jobs and the activities of the designer in working between the studio and the production.

At this point, the book becomes a catalog or reference work for a wide variety of scenic processes and practice. Chapter 5 is drawing the scenery - in full scale, and chapter 6 is on scenic painting techniques, only some of which have been superceded by changing technology. Chapter 7 is about paints, binders and equipment. Eight is about backdrops and fabrics, nine is on decks and furniture, and ten is on sculptured scenery and the materials that can been used to create the sculpted effects. Developments in materials and the economics of shop operation have modified some of the practices, but the underlying principles and artistry remain.

Pecktal's book is no substitute for thorough apprenticeship with a working scenic studio, but it does its best to lay out what has been adopted broadly by commercial studios and other theater scenic production environments. Without a doubt, the book is most valuable because of it's extensive illustration and intention as a reference manual for scenic practices. It also is very useful in understanding just what the professional theatrical environment expects as a matter of course.

Some of the practices in this text are becoming dated as digital technologies are developing. Other environments are doing large scale fabrication and applying newer answers and efficiencies as the technologies evolve. Yet we continue to rely on many traditional practices where there is no economy of scale, and these approaches are very useful to know and be able to apply. This book is a solid reference resource.

November 10, 2011

Friday, November 4, 2011

Designer Library 2: Payne

This is the second in a series of entries about my most valuable books for scene design. One of the most useful books on how to design is Darwin Reid Payne's The Scenographic Imagination. I have the 1981 edition, but Amazon lists a 1993 third edition. The book is an expansion and development of his 1974 Design for the Stage: First Steps. Payne was chair of theater at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and he wrote several books on scene design and model-making. There have been displays of his exquisite scenic model work at USITT conferences. I have never met him.

This isn't a slick, commercial textbook on design. Payne writes with a kind of personal volubility about his processes in designing for the stage. Some chapters feel as if they were drawn from a collection of lectures for a design class, which gives the writing a more personal feel than just "the way it is done." Parts of the text are a bit self-conscious and over-written, with some steps or ideas getting more or less emphasis and space than their significance, but the book does have a lot to say. I came into contact with Payne's first book when I was working on my MFA. I have found this expanded text on scenography most useful to re-read when I'm stuck in a design. When I can't find my way into the play, or maybe I have a design but it doesn't rise to art.

The text of Scenographic Imagination takes an expansive view of the scenographer and her contribution to the production. If there's a fault with the text it is that it ignores the reality of working with a director. It focuses entirely on ways of thinking about the dramatic text and designing for expression of those ideas. I have always argued that a designer needs to be able to think like a director - and perhaps have directed a little. This text is about thinking like a director about the imagery and action. Each chapter concludes with a brief commentary by a significant director or designer.

Payne puts value in the terms and titles we use, referring throughout to the scenic designer as the scenographic artist. It's a little self-conscious, but it works in emphasizing the overall artistic responsibility of the role, expanding beyond the concept of the designer as background painter. There are chapters on The Scenographic Artist, The Scenograher and the Physical Stage, Communication through Scenographics, The Scenographer and the Written Text, Creative Research in the Theater, and The Scenographic Vision Employed.

The first chapter on The Scenographic Artist deals with the attitude and education a scenographer needs and the reasons for it. The second chapter deals with more than just the physical space - it also discusses the place of the scenographer in the production process. Payne lays out his arguments about the meaning of scenic space and its semiotic and symbolic values, which he builds on in later chapters. The arguments are clear and well presented, and they seem to be knit together in a comprehensive philosophy. Payne's use of the term scenographer here really applies to the scenic designer. In the international theater community scenography involves lighting and sometimes costume as well as scenery .

Payne's third chapter is about communicating a design. He begins with a rationale for graphic art training for the designer and discusses an ideal studio space (generally pre-computer). He stresses training in drawing and identifies the various sketches, diagrams, drawings and draftings that are inherently part of he design process. It is clear that he expects a designer to know how to do these things, and there is some sense he is covering required ground. He describes the concepts of perspective in the theater and how they apply to the design. There also is an essay on design portfolio standards.

Chapter 4 is how to analyze a text for design, and my copy is well-marked and well thumbed. This section is an invaluable discussion about how to find the ideas, recognize the intentions of the playwright and support those through stage imagery. He writes about the physical and spatial expressions implied by the text. Here the designer has to direct the play in his imagination, thinking deeply about dramatic moments and the best way to present then scenically. For this Payne analyzes Gounod's Faust. He discusses clues to thinking about and understanding the action, leading to a design that, in effect, directs the staging of the play. One might object to Payne confusing the roles of director and designer, but that is why you have communication between them. As a designer I find directors vary greatly in how much "base" they like to work with. Some want to own all the ideas, others are more open to a designer's contribution.

Chapter 5 is about Creative Research in the Theater. Payne begins with a bit of a rant, and I think rightfully. There is an extensive discussion about how to look at and see the world as a designer. He discusses internal and external research questions, and he describes a process of feeding creative ideas. He concludes with how to compile personal research resources for designers.

In Chapter 6, The Scenographic Vision Employed, Payne lays out his approach to design. These 60 pages are the most significant chapter in the book as he steps through the analysis of moments, and he explores what the scenic environment does to participate in telling the story and all of it's rich connections and content. Here Payne implicates the designer as a director of the play by means of enabling the action and suggesting meaning.

As near as I can tell, this is one of those unique texts that exists in a kind of middle ground. It is not a beginning design text. It gives excellent discussion of how to think about design, and good discussion of design practices that you should consider. While it is theoretical, it is about how to find and apply that theory. I have pulled it out many times when a design doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

Next, my favorite scenic how-to book.

November 4

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Designer Library 1: Speltz

Designer Library 1: Speltz

My October 20 post mused about the place of books in scenic design today, and proposed to look at the ones that have been most significant for me. I have a special fondness for five books, the first of which is a reprint of a fairly well-known text on historic ornament styles.

I don't remember my first contact with Alexander Speltz' 1906 The Styles of Ornament. I think it was in grad school. I had submitted a design for an assignment in which I had placed the show in a particular style era. I don't recall the show, but it probably was one in which I had moved the period, like a Shakespeare. I produced the ground plan and rendering, and presented it to my graduate project teacher and the senior designer. They asked me what I thought I was doing and I explained what I intended. They looked at each other and mumbled knowing and pitying comments to each other about my design and asked me some more questions. It soon became painfully obvious that I had not chosen my style particularly well, and that I had expressed it in a flawed and insecure way.

I had not taken any period style classes, but I had taken the required costume history courses and I thought I had a bit of a handle on it. I had begun to grasp the style but I didn't have the feel right and I was timid. I didn't get to the real conviction of statement. They mumbled more knowing things to each other and said, "I think you need to spend more time with Speltz."

Up to that point, I won't say I hated style, but I had been dismissive of it. In my naive way, I felt it was all too fussy and mostly irrelevant to real life. I thought I understood line and scale and texture, but I was impatient with arguments over style. It all just seemed too arcane to be understood easily, except by people who wanted to make a fetish of it. Certainly, I was wrong. It is that, but it is such an important tool of design and it communicates intensely.

I've never seen the original English edition of Speltz, which may have been distributed exclusively in Great Britain. The only copies widely available today are published by the reprint house Dover Publishing since 1959. My paperback copy cost all of $6.50 but now is listed at $14 on Amazon.

The book deals with the major strains geographically and by period, considering variations mostly among European cultures. There is Prehistoric and Primitive and a section on Antiquity. The section on The Middle Ages includes Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, Russian, Mahometan, Gothic, Chinese and Japanese ornament. The Renaissance and Modern Times section includes Renaissance and Later Renaissance, Rococo, Colonial, and Classical Revival. Because the book was originally published in Germany in 1906 it ends with sections on Empire, Biedermeier, and German Neogrec, but there are many available resources for later periods.

The fat 650-page book has very little text and is anything but academic. It is filled with exquisite plates of line illustrations of cornices, furniture, friezes, and architectural and personal objects that illustrate the styles of each period. The cover advertises 3765 illustrations. The plates are printed quite small in this 5-1/2"x 8" paperback edition, where the original must have been much larger. But they still are quite clear and visible for study. If it is a problem for particular images, enlarge them on a copier.

It has been my practice over the years to sketch my research. My sketchbooks have many pages of fragments of cornices and objects and floral motifs from Speltz, all abandoned half-complete because I felt I had "got it" about the style I was exploring and moved on. The idea is to train my eye and my hand to the style by sketching it, with particular attention detail. My purpose is to understand the qualities of mass, line, texture, shape, and color, and to develop a feel for the proportion and scale. I sketch many objects from Speltz, in additon to architectural ideas from other sources.

The result is that when I work on the show, I'm thinking about the style world of the play and working more closely to the aesthetic of the period. It is possible to be more confident about the sense of space, the character of the line and the density of detail in the period or style that I'm working in. These things have a subliminal effect and bring conviction to the feel and finish of the design of any show, not just period designs. They allow the designer to make a more finished statement through her choices. And they help the audience to feel confident that whatever is there, is there by choice for a purpose and makes an intentional statement.

Every designer should own this book.

It may be worth mentioning that Dover also has published a similar book since 1957, Handbook of Ornament by Franz Sales Meyer, with 3002 illustrations. This also is a good reference, but I have not found it as valuable as Speltz.

Next, my favorite book on scenic design.

October 30, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Design Research 1

In design class each year I bring in an assortment of reference books periodicals and other resources from my personal library. When I pass them around the students pore over them with interest. Yet each year it seems slightly less relevant because I find even myself using them less for design reference. The world of design research has changed, and I have to recognize how that plays out with my students. But I just don't think the Web is enough.

Let's start by noting that I've been designing shows and collecting research resources for a long time. Over time what used to be pilgrimages to a few specific library resources have become browsing sessions in my own studio as I have been able to acquire them. What might one expect to find in an academic theater designer's studio? I can't remember ever having visited another working scenic designer's studio, so I may not really know. The couple costumers' studios I have seen have resembled my eclectic jumble, but with more fabrics and textures, and less accumulation of dust and bits of scenic models in the corners. And they're infintely better maintained.

On one wall of my studio I have a generous library of books and periodicals on art works, architecture, historical periods, stage production, costume, scenic designs, illustration, art techniques in various media, and all things related. And I have two long file drawers of tear sheets from Smithsonian and many other magazines over the years that illustrate periods and subjects that might turn up in a play I need to design.

So how much of this do I use for scenic design? Less and less it seems, although I do still find it essential. For one, I'm designing fewer plays in a year than I once did. And I now do a tremendous amount of visual research online, as I'm sure everybody must. My library can't really compete with the volume and diversity of image resources that are readily available, or the historical and critical commentary on even the most obscure theatrical work.

When I teach design I still argue for students to collect resources. I argue first that there's too little context for online materials, and that by focusing on the visual alone, the design itself may lack conviction. I find myself struggling to avoid a pastiche of ideas when I haven't really researched a show well enough. Or sketched long enough. And in the less-is-more world of contemporary visual metaphor, what is there must be evocative and powerful. In a larger sense, the collection also becomes an anchor for one's artistic vocabulary. One's ideas are referenced to, and indebted to this collection.

Still, I have been designing for a long time. Perhaps I've not covered every period and style, but I've certainly covered some ground. I usually can connect to ideas fairly quickly, but sometimes I can't find the way in. There are still books I turn to in order to unblock - some I have been using since my grad school days.

And there always is a block, at least one - always, in every show. If not, I don't trust my design because it hasn't been proven by doubt.

For me, the books and tear files are invaluable for building my way out of the doubt. I look at pictures and wade through the resources, flagging dozens of images. As I review the flags repeatedly I catch an image idea or two or three that begin to shape a sense or feel or fragment of the environment I'm working on. That becomes the foot in the door I need.

I start pulling together the imagery. I have to force myself to sketch as I go and scratch out words and thoughts so that fleeting images and ideas don't get lost. Here an idea, there an idea, a faint and hesitant shape begins to appear, and I go back and re-read the scene. And so on - that's another essay. The sketchbook begins to fill with bits and pieces and doodles that will lead to a design.

So if I had to recommend, say 5 books, what might they be? What have been my most referenced print resources for theatrical scene designer? Check back.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Theater economics: Location, location

I just received a PR notice from the Huntington that with 2 weeks to go, Candide has become the Huntington's highest grossing musical at $1.2 million. It is the second highest grossing show, behind Butley with Nathan Lane in 2003. That provides some insight about the Huntington's patrons and target audience.

It also says something about the theater market in Boston. We don't pretend to have the population or tourist traffic of the Apple, but this shows the difference.

I'm guessing Candide will bring in a record-breaking total of maybe $1.7m for the run of 7 weeks or so. The Huntington probably gets the highest gross per production in town. For comparison, last WEEK's grosses in New York were $1.3m for Spiderman and Book of Mormon, $1.4m for Lion King, and $1.5m for Wicked. These are all up from the previous week, along with Follies at $1.1m and Jersey Boys at $1m.

Average ticket prices are a bit steep in New York, comparable to top seats in Boston: $100 for Spiderman, $105 for Lion King and $111 for Wicked, but $149 for Book of Mormon. At the Huntington, top seats on weekends are about $100, but there are plenty of $65 seats, and good seats for a touring musical at the Wang or Shubert for 3 weeks or so are in the $90 range. The economics of production clearly is different for commercial shows in New York.

7 October 2011

Friday, September 23, 2011

Candide Indeed

A production of the Voltaire/Bernstein/Zimmerman play Candide is in performance at the Huntington's BU Theater for its season opener. It is a vigorous and pleasurable, if long performance. It originated in Chicago at the Goodman a year ago, then played at Shakespeare's Theater in Washington, D.C., in December. I couldn't find if it went anywhere between then and now.

Candide is famously a work by Voltaire published in 1759 satirizing a philosophy of predetermination in which everything that happens is "for the best" and is as it should be. Candide receives the teaching from his mentor Pangloss while growing up comfortably in Westphalia, which is overrun, forcing him out into the world where he experiences its many hardships. The story proceeds rapidly with vignette-like incident after incident of disasters and trials. Early he meets and falls in love with a baron's daughter Cunegonde who, with Pangloss, winds in and out through the odyssey that takes him from Europe to South America and back to Arabia. In the end Candide rejects the optimist philosophy for a more measured view of mankind.

The operetta is a reworking of what was once a Lillian Hellman effort with Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s that never got off the ground. The lyrics are written by Richard Wilbur and others. This production is done in a kind of energetic story theater style, with a cast of 19 and lots of sudden props and onstage costume transformations. It was directed and somewhat adapted by Chicago's Looking Glass Theater artistic director Mary Zimmerman. A few years ago she also directed a production of Journey to the West that played the Huntington.

The Boston Globe review by Don Aucoin is favorable and fairly uncritical. It's difficult to tell audience response because the Globe has gone all subscription, and I haven't found the reader responses though I am a subscriber. The unsigned Chicago Tribune review was fairly soft but complained that after the first scene change, "the carnival of multifarious acting styles returns, as does some needlessly fussy staging, especially frustrating when Bernstein's exquisite score needs to communicate without models of boats or balloons floating by." There were quite a few critical reader responses appended to that review, and it was evident that the McArthur Genius Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman has a reputation for the kind of mythical story-telling staging used here and as we saw in Journey to the West. As one Chicago review reader wrote:

"For the life of me, I will never understand the Zimmerman love in this town. It's the same thing over and over and over again. Someone dies, red fabric flies out. Time to cross the ocean, blue fabric shimmies across the stage. Two people have sex, they roll around the floor without touching in a choreographed move. Toy boats are handled by actors to show crossing the ocean. And this is genius???"

In terms of staging, it was no different at the Huntington.

The most common criticism of the Chicago production, other than Zimmerman's style, was the small orchestra and the disservice to Bernstein. There wasn't much to correct that in Boston.

The set was designed by Daniel Ostling, whose web site says he is based in San Francisco, in residence at the Looking Glass theater in Chicago and on the faculty of Northwestern University in Evanston, north of Chicago - I'm sure resulting in many frequent flyer miles. He has designed at many of the resident theaters across the country, as shown in the portfolio of his work . His site shows generally spare and open, quite uncluttered designs for a number of LORT houses. He has used the deep box design employed here, and a few other enclosed environments, but most of his portfolio shows what appear to be more open staging with arrangements of interesting pieces, shapes and necessary furnishings.

Candide opened with an 18th century table scene within a small proscenium frame, backed by a red toile image of a period interior on a loose fabric curtain, all of which whipped away at scene end to reveal a full stage-sized box that walled in the production. Within this box the company continually transformed the space with movement, choreography, and ever-changing furniture piece or two to suit the story telling.

This oaken-beamed box had panels that slid aside for props and people to enter and exit at several levels. The entire back wall flew for skies and exterior scenes, such as a Rousseau jungle, or a sky of fluffy clouds for a scene with red fluffy prop sheep. There were traps in the floor that swallowed and disgorged people and props. The overhead lighting came through huge oak-paneled shafts in the ceiling, and there was a double row of lighting units with dozens of color scrollers slung right under the top of the proscenium arch to light tightly the downstage areas. You can get some feel of the setting from the image here, but I had to enhance it substantially to show the dark wood, resulting in some overall color distortion.

Costumes were by Looking Glass designer Mara Blumenfeld. I thought they were handled well and I was impressed with the attention to character and variety in the 18th Century dress, and with the onstage redressing and much doubling of roles. I did wish there had been a costume choice to single out Candide better because he sometimes got lost in the crowd in the narrow palette. Regardless of the variety of shapes and pieces, the whole show seemed very brown. The few shows on Mara's web site show facility with the 17th and 18th century period look in design, particularly her work on The Glorious Ones about Flaminio Scala and Company.

T. J. Gerckens, whose lighting credits are all over the regional theater circuit, was able to capture the moments well. With so much onstage scene-changing and transforming episodes, one into another, things were placed well and usually the focus of the scene was clear. Some clever lighting choices were used, but sparingly. I noticed the choice not to do a cliché lighting change for a couple of "slo-mo" fight sequences. Full-screen projections of period text on the act curtain accompanied the opening of each act.

As for the performances, the principals of Pangloss (Larry Yando), Candide (Geoff Packard), and Cunegonde (Lauren Molina) carried their roles quite well. Yando was a clear and distinctive tall and skinny Pangloss, later sporting a metal nose. Packard gave Candide much naivete and enthusiasm. Molina drew some fire in Chicago from those who thought she wasn't up to the operatic role, but I actually thought she was quite good. She engaged me in her performance. There were other distinctive performances from the 19-member cast, but the number of characters is too overwhelming to focus. One interesting moment for me came as the play neared its conclusion: the chorus went a capella for the anthem and Candide's discovery speech was presented clearly and directly.

This is a regional theater road show. I know it has become general practice to share productions, but I'm not sure how I feel about that. A wonderful show should travel and share the work everywhere it can, and the economics of production can be optimized. But I can't imagine that it is particularly good for developing and employing local artists.

Then, I have to wonder how much local talent the Huntington employs beyond production staff under any circumstances.

23 September 2011

Friday, September 2, 2011

And so it begins (redux)

And so it begins. The last post was about the grand ideas. This is about the nitty-gritty.

Like every teacher, I'm deep in piles of old syllabi, academic calendars, production schedules, class registration lists, and a scramble of notes from past semesters. I look down my class lists and see students whom I know in the major courses, and all new names in my introductory class. Out of all of this I must come up with 25 or so scintillating learning experiences for each course, carefully linked to learning goals and sequenced for optimal development while observing all of the research and data on how students learn best. The good part is that this isn't the first time I've done it. The bad part is that although I have had some good classes, there always are students who don't achieve my learning goals for them. How does one deal with the disappointment that every student didn't get it . . . all?

I have my own history as an occasionally indifferent student, and I recognize that students do wind up doing triage on what gets attention. I always try to figure out how the courses that students do invest in can be the ones I teach. The content I teach generally is not very difficult in my introductory courses, and my measures do not really require much original thinking or conceptually difficult perspectives. Everybody can get a good grade, they just have to DO THE WORK.

So I review the syllabus and notes on these courses I've taught annually for years. I am facing those issues all teachers face: Which assignments worked well and which didn't. Why. Did the sequencing and the timing build toward the learning goals. How valid are all the learning goals. How much content is essential, beyond the curriculum framework. What would everybody expect students who succeeded in this class to know or to be able to do. What would we be appalled that a student who got a good grade didn't know or couldn't do.

How can we turn this lecture into an activity. How can we make these class experiences more active. What activity can we invent that will get at the goals that they don't get out of our lecture and won't get out of the reading they won't do. How can we motivate more through fascination than fear. Or even through fear. How can we create assignments that these students actually will invest in. Or will do at all.

Into all this, fit the new. What have we been teaching that is getting dated. What is happening on the topic today that we need to incorporate. What are the likely recognizable references for undergraduate students today -- they were born in the early 1990s and connect with historic and cultural references only since about 2000.

I have to think about how to make reference to current experience without sounding out of place and faux-hip. (See: the annual Beloit mindset list) And how to avoid dangerous dated references (like "hooking up").

And so . . . it begins. It will be great semester. I feel it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Working Out the Path to the Goal Line

It's mid-August and we're now bending our minds toward school - those of us who benefit from a tradition of not opening school until Labor Day - or at least September 1. I cherish the slightly later start of New England colleges, after beginning my career in the central states where earlier report dates were becoming common.

I'm sure that compared to many of my colleagues, I'm quite late to the task. But now is when I really plan the course revisions I've been intending to make in courses I have taught many times.

I have watched the process become dominated by 21st Century tasks, and I am doing so much more without paper and pencil. I'm revising syllabi and verifying various links, revising my Blackboard sites and Classmate grade book for the new syllabi and class rosters for each course. I'm reviewing the online and digital classroom materials to see which ones require that I build in some revision time as the class dates approach.

Like most faculty, I do use paper in re-evaluating the content and sequence of each course. This involves scratched notes and materials with line-outs dropped into the folders when the courses were offered last. I pull out my paper calendar to scratch in sequencing ideas, but eventually that becomes dense and the arrows moving things around become confusing, so a digital version gets sketched in.

As I know current and former students can read this, they may have another perspective on their experience in my classes. These notes speak to intentions. As they say, your experience may differ.

As every teacher knows, building the course is always a struggle with content load and the learning experience itself, and . . . time. Content load isn't just about information retention and skill development - it's always about so much more. I imagine for faculty in most fields, the specific information retained actually is second in the instructional goals on the scale of importance and intention. Often skills are important, particularly at upper division level, but we can never deliver enough information.

So if not just content and skills, what is it really about?

It's about developing a state of mind, an attitude of discovery, an awe about the body of knowledge and hunger for more, and a commitment to real excellence. If the students develop this, the rest surely will follow. These are things that aren't easily reduced to a percentage grade. My difficulty, which I likely share with many faculty, is finding the balance of focus in the course between this developmental aspect and the content. I need to develop enough of a body of knowledge that the student can begin constructing her/his own connections among the elements, and enough skill and foundation of experience for another step in the curriculum. Ideally, I want students to develop the commitment to visualize a complete path - one that challenges them, promotes their growth, and one to which they can commit.

One consistent problem is the student who lacks desire to meet goals that require real investment of effort, often - to be fair - in competition with other personal and educational goals. Or perhaps they lack the foundation for continuing development. It's a problem as old as formal education itself. The grand goal may be desirable but some or many of the steps to achievement are too demanding or distasteful, or their application may seem irrelevant. In such cases, the curriculum certificate or diploma forces the commitment. We do what we can to make it effective and palatable, but in the end students must demonstrate that they have achieved certain skills and knowledge to be awarded something that validates that achievement, i.e. a diploma.

Almost no class ever really achieves all of my goals - which is not to say I haven't had some excellent classes. (If they all were to do so, I would feel I could have reached higher.) But the classes all begin with a commitment and hope and energy to inspire and get people excited about what they are learning. To build a connected body of knowledge and an array of connected skills and perspectives for artists and their audiences.

I think most faculty share these or similar intentions.

[Now, back to prepping the syllabi.]

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Vocational Higher Education in Theater

About every couple years we get an extensive article trying to define what baccalaureate graduates need to know for our "industry," and it always reads like a superman wish list. Usually it is a compilation of surveys or focus groups of people working in the theater and entertainment industry and it is always quite long and specialized. It has taken me a while to learn to read them with a little perspective.

Sure. You ask people what they want in a new employee, and you get a description of a superman/superwoman who has a fantastic set of chops and varied experience in every task of the trade and doesn't need to learn anything except local practice, who is brilliantly creative and capable of reinvention, who knows history, literature, and art with the perspective and detailed recall of a savant, who is fabulously humble and eager to learn and please and work with/under any oddball personality, who can direct and supervise others with skill and empathy, who is completely free of personal encumberments and commitments that might restrict night and weekend work and travel, who is ambitious but not threatening, and especially who is incredibly loyal and is committed to working for you forever. And who will start at minimum wage and take a seasonal hiatus. And who owns a van or pickup.

So you have to have that in mind as you read through something like Heidi Hoffer's Spring 2011 Theater Design & Technology article "Preparing design/tech undergraduates for the entertainment industry." She did a lot of surveying of industry vendors of entertainment products and services, stage managers, and others who employ theater production graduates. I'll quote from her opening summary:

"Many of the people . . . shared the view that the fast pace of change in the industry might require a different kind of undergraduate training today. There was a fundamental agreement that the practical knowledge learned in school was the most valuable in the workplace. They also agreed that too many new employees don't work hard enough, they expect instant gratification, and they don't have a professional work ethic."(p. 51)

But she also provided a quote from an industry leader admitting, "There's just so blasted much that you really need to know that it's tough for a student to be grounded in enough disciplines when they first get out of school to be ready to get a job and work effectively and successfully." (p. 52)

The article goes on to discuss knowledge bases in stagecraft, costume technology, hand drafting, cad drafting, traditional rendering, digital rendering, lighting design, costume design, scene design, theater history, theater literature, scene painting, stage management, internships, job-seeking skills and life skills.

So what does that mean to me and my students? Well, there really isn't a lot that is very new here except the list is longer. What we didn't know, we did suspect. There is a phenomenal knowledge and skill base that needs to be developed, and it takes commitment. Specialization is valuable, but of course the liberal learning is important, too. As theater work, it's slightly more reliable than acting and directing. I'll be thinking about this as I prepare my classes, trying to figure out how to cover the necessary bases in the time we have, and yet inspire students to pursue and commit to something. I really can't get at the whole list, but maybe I can encourage and help them find a part that can appeal to them. What will drive it ultimately will be their love for the art form, their love for the people who work in it, and the imagination and commitment to success in the work they do.

A lot of this they must have the drive to do for themselves. Actors, directors, designers, technicians. And teachers. Our working world is different, and is highly dependent on initiative. We can attack it directly or wander through and try to sort it out. But it really is up to us and to what we are willing to commit. That's how we're different. And we'll find ways to learn what we need to know to keep up.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

On the Fringe - really

This is the month of the fringe festival in Washington, D.C. I have to say I wish I could be there. There appear to be some interesting conceptual pieces being done, and I would love to be able to see them. The descriptions suggest they are playful and challenge assumptions about the nature of theater, or at least about the seriousness of the art form itself. They suggest an openness to the theatrical experience and above all, they provide a stimulus for discussion about theater and what theater is.

The biggest and best international fringe began in 1947 and runs in Edinburgh, Scotland every August, but many other cities host their own fringes. New York, of course, as well as New Orleans, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Hollywood, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Orlando - all periodically have a festival for odd and innovative theater performance.

I had to look around a little to find out about the New England Fringe Festival in Burlington. It does come at a busy time - September 17 to October 2 - and it seems to be out of the way, certainly from south of the city. But now that I have my attention drawn to it, I hope to take in some of the work. The titles of past award winners look intriguing, although I hope it isn't dominated by solo artists. I also hope they can get some information out to the world about what is going on. The internet is great, but real promotion has to appear in your path.

I have to wonder why I have been unaware of the festival before, which has been going on since 2007. The Washington Post website is all over the festival there on a daily basis, but I don't remember reading anything about the New England festival in the Globe.

One problem with a Fringe Festival necessarily is venues. Theater art requires a certain amount of overhead - and for whatever reasons, not much of the fringe seems to occur in the city here. Maybe it is more cost effective to concentrate the festival in Burlington, but it's not getting the kind of visibility from Boston papers that the Washington festival is getting. I can't help feeling that attention to a fringe festival would inject some life into the world of Boston theater and challenge some conceptions about what theater can be.

Boston tries to maintain a sense of itself as a theater town. It does have a richer legacy of theater history than Washington and some of the other cities with festivals, but I wonder if it isn't weighing us down. I think there may be some things going on in the Boston area that rise to fringe kind of experiences, but there's no critical mass or media focus to project their influence and freshness into the art form at large. We hardly ever hear much about them in southeastern Mass.

I have a clipping I use of a group that did a play in a working, operating laundromat a few years ago. The patrons were the audience. It was a consciously scripted and intentional work, not just a "happening." Few such challenges to traditional presentation rise to media consciousness with a byline story and a picture. Some experiments may be occurring but there's little collective influence.

I have fond memories of some remarkable theater events that were created by Mobius members in their studios in the Fort Point district back in the 80s and early 90s. Some of the pieces were thoughtful and prompted real reflection, others were joyful and raucous, and still others were just odd. Nobody ever tried to define it all for you, but let you meet the work on your own, making whatever sense of it you might. Those events did have a certain amount of thoughtfulness to them and they did intend to shape an experience to a purpose. The organization gave it a focus of energy and critical perspective. It is notable that these generally were created by performance and media artists, not theater people.

I think audiences have the capacity to embrace the new. My students today are no longer surprised much by weirdness, because it has emerged as a kind of pop meme. From internet sites to cartoons to high school antics and youth oriented media in general. Given the intensity of feature filmmaking, there's little that can shock my students anymore. I think they can see silliness for its own sake and make some astute judgements. They seem to be a bit more ready to find meaning in an experience, and will apply a critical perspective if they are led to it a little.

One of the more important aspects of a fringe festival is that it de-institutionalizes the art form. Few major art forms have the institutional overhead of theater, but we keep pretending it can be be done on a trestle and board. A fringe festival reminds us that something interesting can be done with less. And new ideas can happen with minimum investment.

Under the best of circumstances, in a festival there is a critical mass of new experiences that allow audiences to explore and compare. The artists themselves are influenced by what goes on about them, and can work more thoughtfully in the context of the stream of current activity. It's all good for everybody.

But we have to know about it. Boston still pretends to be a theater town. It really needs to game up and the media should help. It's not like it costs them a lot. But of course it means less time and space for the latest outrage or sports win. On TV there's no longer time even for Joyce Kulhawik, who only reported on the most mainstream theater.

July 17, 2011

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Pushing the Bounds of Modernism-or not

I am a little fascinated when I think about the early evidence of change that I failed to grasp as change. You often can't predict the longer term direction or development of critical mass for change, but it's fun to reflect on how it played out.

While working on an article recently, I pulled up notes I made on a scenic choice I saw at the Huntington Theatre last fall. It was Bob Glaudini's Vengeance is the Lord's, directed by Peter DuBois and designed by Eugene Lee. It's a domestic drama about retribution in a family that boosts cars. It could have been written any time in the last 50 years and had a kind of made-for-TV feel.

The setting on the Huntington's full-stage turntable included a living/dining room, kitchen, bedroom, center hallway with stairs to a second floor and an outside porch stoop. There was a fence and some exterior scenic off the turntable. The entire show used only the living/dining room and the stoop. The turntable spun around between scenes and a character could be seen doing something mundane in the kitchen or the bedroom, but there was no action there. These richly propped rooms were totally unnecessary for the action of the play.

Many people know something of Lee's work as the designer for Saturday Night Live, but at Trinity Rep where he is resident designer he frequently likes a lot of iconic scenic atmosphere for the mostly open stages, though not usually naturalistic. Although it doesn't show on IBDB, I think he designed LeRoi Jones' (Amiri Baraka) Slave Ship in New York in the early 1970s that uniquely included the audience in the ship as if slaves. This was considered part of the "environmental theater" movement following the artistic upheavals of the 1960s. A few years later, Lee became well known for Sweeney Todd in 1979, when he had an old foundry dismantled and installed on stage to frame the setting that occurred in a more modest space within.

What is interesting - and challenging - to me is the sense of artistic progression and paradigmatic shift I've seen during my life in theater art. Artistically I've been a child of what I call Modernism as a style, which I interpret to be about economy of statement and finding The Essential, about the perfection of form and space and saying as much as possible with a single Picasso-like line. It is the essential economy of poetry and as a dominant style it described the world of art for more than a half century from about 1920 to 1980. As it evolved, in my view the style of Post-Modernism, for whatever else it is about, is about generating the most possible connections and associations for the perceiver/audience. It is about a richer associative experience that is not defined or controlled, perhaps barely even led by the artist. It's a more co-creative, ultimately democratic approach to meaning in art. It is antithetical to economy of statement.

Lee's use of unnecessary scenery reminded me of our BSU production of A. R. Gurney's 1981 play The Dining Room in 1986. The play is a series of scenes of different families' lives playing out in different eras in a generic upper middle class dining room. (An interesting precursor to Tom Stoppard's more complex conceptually challenging 1993 play Arcadia.) Our production, directed by Stephen Levine, emphasized the meaning of the dining room as an institution that was embedded in class. He also asked for a museum-like display of two other rooms in other areas of the theater space as institutions of social class.

In an idle exercise of retrospective rationalizing, I now wonder if these rooms (and perhaps Gurney's play itself) may have been a kind of step toward a Postmodern style. One reading of the event might be that although the rooms were not focused on generating random or uncontrolled connections, they were (self)consciously asking the audience to make their own associations related to the concept of the play. And one might imagine, to the concept of museums and, by extension, to the theater itself.

The pressures of schedule were too great and the other rooms were not propped appropriately or given the kind of presentation the concept required. As a Modernist, I felt like the rooms were a digression, a distraction from the through-line of Gurney's play. I think most of the audience thought they were a strange artsy idea. Only a few people actually spent a few minutes looking at them. The point to be made here is that although they had a more self-conscious purpose, the rooms had much in common with Lee's unused rooms on the turntable.

If I ponder this more, I recognize that Lee's extra rooms clearly were part of the scenic statement of the family home, emphasizing the normal domesticity of this criminal family. There was none of the real randomness of visual Postmodernism, and certainly none of its random eclectic references. I know that in both productions the concept was still pretty controlled, and that Postmodernism can be an influence on a style rather than a driving aesthetic. Neither production really tried to generate the kind of rich co-creative involvement of the perceiver that Postmodernism typically seeks. But both productions expanded the conceptual world of the play.

Within the next decade, we did a number of other productions that were more deliberately conceptually challenging, and I was teaching Postmodernism style as an aesthetic in my classes. Historic cultural evolution is so difficult to see in its time. You often don't know you are part of a movement until it moves on because it can really be defined only in retrospect.

The art world is different today than in 1986, and I think audiences have different expectations for a stage experience. They've seen it all, so ground-breaking has lost its cachet. The challenge today, more than ever, is to define the stage experience in relation to all of the entertainment technologies, from gigantic touring music acts to Cirque du Soleil to Disney entertainment environments to Spiderman on Broadway, all to compete with home electronics. And so we have swirling turntables with whole houses of strictly scenic rooms on them.

We seem to have returned to an era when spectacle and occasion have the most to contribute to the live theater experience. And incidentally, to most other traditional live art forms.

I view that with some concern. I think meaning is important, too.

July 2011

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Bruins, Bulger and bin Laden.

There has been a trio of interesting pieces of public theater recently. Perhaps not theater in the sense of deliberately crafted artistry, but stories bearing the structure and important cultural features of theater, nevertheless.

One was the capture of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, who has been "on the lam" for decades after playing both sides with the FBI. Another was the assassination of 9-11 mastermind Osama bin Ladin. And the third was the Boston Bruins' winning Lord Stanley's Cup in hockey, taking it from a Canadian team after a two-decade dry spell.

What makes these events theater? The normal circumstances of theater - storytelling in a controlled space with some form of reenactment - are generally absent or have to be stretched to embrace these events. But there was significant pageantry in all three cases, however different they are in their particulars. Two are high drama, and the third a comedy.

First, all three events are full of symbols and meaning. The capture of Bulger and the assassination of Bin Laden were fulfillment of naratives of our cultural sense of right and wrong and retribution. These were the plots of melodrama. Here were the major players in a years-long story line that has been nurtured in the public's mind and played out for a decade and more in a kind of parable. There was an unwritten plot that, in the case of Bulger the fabled gangster, continues to be played out through the media at as much length and intensity as the public attention will stand. There are many lines to the story that translate into acts of plays about Bulger and bin Laden - their rise and fall, their capture, and our retribution. All sides of the story are examined and measured against the public sense of justice and our moral and cultural imperatives as human beings.

In the case of bin Laden, the curtain finally seems to be coming down. We continue to maintain our inevitable conspiracy theories, but the meaning of the story line generally was resolved with his death. As for Bulger, the last act remains to be performed. We've come to know the actions of the villain and brought him back onto the stage, but we haven't persuaded ourselves that all of those who share the blame are yet included in the resolution. Indeed, we suspect that there are subplots in play of which we know little - yet.

The Cinderella story of the Boston Bruins hockey team brought the audience to its feet in a celebration of joy. This story was crafted for the most dramatic result. The Bruins overcame huge obstacles and a two-decade history of failure to compete for the top prize. They captured it from a team in the country that owns the history of the game. And they brought pride and glory to their patrons, as they finally joined the local football, basketball and baseball teams in achieving the top prize in their sport.

There was suspense and fulfillment as the Bruins went the distance, hanging on to win the last game of the best-of-seven series. Sports writers whipped up fans with metaphors and the meaning of victory. The final scene was an immense parade in the winding narrow streets of Boston, which must have rivaled some of the biggest in a town that loves a parade. There were heroes along the way, and perhaps a few minor villains, but it was a story of winning through, of the struggle to achieve the top prize of the sport, and snatching victory from the brink of disappointment.

It's turning into a good year for cultural theater.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Theater in its time

There are many things in life that we rediscover, and it is interesting how - in the middle of a lecture - the skies can open up and a truth suddenly starts to blossom inside one's own head. This may not be a new truth, but the fit at the moment seems so apt.

I think one of the interesting overlooked aspects about theater is its relationship with history. Film interprets the story in its time and freezes it. Ever after it must be viewed with an understanding of the world and times in which it was made. We may interpret a film in present day, but the film itself is a thing of its period. It is an artifact the day it is published.

Theater is always a present interpretation. It is ALWAYS produced with a contemporary perspective on the work, because it cannot be truthful otherwise. Every person involved in the play experiences the world the day it is performed, and in an existential sense, it cannot be the same intepretation of a year in the past. A play is a live performance. Even a film of a play is a film bound to its time, not a play.

This semester it was in an introductory class of students with limited theater background, and I was trying to find connections to help them understand the way theater relates to its time. I used to use a clip from the 1992 film of David Mamet's 1982 play Glengarry Glen Ross, but that's so last century that few students have seen it. And I don't watch enough film to have a good alternative reference. The play is a good example of Mamet's tactics, known to all theater people, of a contemporary male aggression that is as compelling as it is fearsome. But if I point to it as a cultural marker, I have to remember that it is already 30 years old. And although I've not seen the play recently, I expect it is performed with a different sensitivity to what makes people angry and what makes them react as they must in the play.

I think the students get it. They grasp intellectually what was going on, but they can't get to the gut-level grasp of that open-range world, when all the old bets were off and the new ones had not been placed yet - before the crisis of AIDS and cultural revisionism of the 1980s and the Reagan years.

I find myself lecturing on America in the 1970s and about the social breakdowns of the era. It was the transition from the political and social turmoil of the end of the 1960s through the metastacizing of the drug culture. By the 1980s we had a full blown drug market and a hypersexualized popular culture, an anti-law-enforcement culture that had not been seen since the 1930s, major cities that you dared not enter at night, and a fuel crisis prompted by a failed effort to prop up a fraudulent power in Iran. It actually seems so much worse in retrospect than I remember feeling at the time. But all of that dysfunctional culture fed Mamet's writing, and by 1982, Glengarry was where he had to go to go over the top.

I think about the other playwrights that came out of the period, and I wind up assigning Sam Shepard's Fool For Love (1983) as a reading. I am fascinated by the construction of the story and how it moves from naked aggression to lyrical storytelling, and seems to end with acceptance of unresolved despair. It is a kind of playing out of our intentional abandonment of social frameworks in the 1970s. As artists and teachers we have reflected on this connection between art and its time and embraced it intellectually. But the moments when you see it in action make it profound.

I have to wonder what the effect is on my students. For them, typically born about 1990, the 1970s is as distant as the Depression was for me. It's old news and moldy history - and I can see my uncle wince as I said as much about his stories. My students are good people and they are going about building their lives on a different set of assumptions, ones framed by the more recent world that grounds their experience. They listen patiently to my grand pronouncements and grasp the outline, but their frame of reference to the history is only intellectual.

Ultimately, I understand that this only matters because I have lived to experience it. The intense experiences of the 1940s and 50s belonged to my parents. My students today will remember most the world since September 11, 2001. But that doesn't mean we should not try to understand the worlds that spawned the one we live in. It is through the arts that we may sense the real spirit of the times and its relevance. Whatever we do in theater, it always will be interpreted in the present, and therefore a reflection of and comment upon its time of performance.

May 15, 2011

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Summer and Theater

It's the season for profound transitions.

I'm reminded of my family history research and how the season affected life before air conditioning in places where it mattered. Before the Crash of '29 my eastern Kansas grandparents camped for a month annually in the mountains of Colorado. Resort areas of New England and the northeast still show the skeletons of a prosperous past of seasonal migrations before ubiquitous summer air conditioning.

We mark our calendars with seasonal changes in activities, but we seem not to require the amenities we once did. Some areas remain popular for shorter holidays, and amusement parks have become more extravagant. Air conditioning and expressway access have had a significant effect on recreation choices. Summer theater suffered as all theater did with the ubiquity of television, and now internet distractions. A few of the old established summer theater venues remain in the Northeast resort areas, but most do not.

I advocate hard for theater students to plan ahead for a residential summer theater experience, usually between junior and senior year. Often that means foregoing an established paying summer job, so they need to work it out. Most of my public university students live within an hour's drive from the university and remain heavily invested at home, so they don't really "go away to college" in the classic sense. Few had anything more than day-camp experiences when growing up. An 8 or 12-week, multiple-show, residential summer theater experience is a big step for them and requires some sacrifice. Whether they continue in theater or not, the experience is valuable for its own sake.

Some long-established resort playhouses continue to produce in the northeast and elsewhere, and they remain important for the development of theater artists. If students can get hired at least for cost (room and board) at an active multi-show venue, they get some important experiences under their belt:

--Many students face their first adult independence. The experience of beginning college is pre-adult and much more managed. Negotiations of relationships and personal space are more critical in summer theater because of the work intensity and jammed living arrangements.
--Students meet and must live with other artists of comparable or greater talents from other places and with other training. They get a different perspective on their own talents.
--People will be more blunt about the work. If one's work is good one will be highly regarded. If it is not, one will get the message. Usually.
--If they are successful, they will be able to list their first non-school reference.
--It is an important node in the network. Every working theater artist can cite an access or opportunity they had because of an experience or an acquaintance in their first summer theater.
--The learning curve is vertical. In spite of what one is taught in school, there is no definitive way to do anything -- only ways to meet the criteria for better or worse. The world takes practices that work.

Theater is a relatively small and mobile community of artists and the summer theater experience will lead to connections. Maybe it will be somebody who was there, when you were there or at another time. By knowing you shared an intensive theater experience, you have a perspective on each other that grounds a level of trust. Serious theater students need to plan for it.

May 7, 2011

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Personal Technology in Class

A feature in the Boston Globe this Sunday morning took on the classroom distraction matter - again. Apparently some universities are contemplating inhibiting classroom wifi. This relates also to the cellphone texting issues. I struggle with this as taking on a role I thought we agreed to shed 40 years ago.

At the college level, what is our responsibility as faculty to discipline our students' adolescent behavior? I've written before about my own approach, arguably a cop-out, that students are in college and old enough to make their own choices, even if they are bad. I have written that this perspective comes from my having lived and been educated in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the struggle by students to shed "in loco parentis" from college regulations. The argument then held that 18-year-olds who were old enough to die in war (then in southeast Asia) should be treated as independent adults. Certainly not like errant school children who did not understand the implications of their behavior.

But the media are hot and addictive. The idea of responsibilty at a given age is a matter of social attribution, not a biological condition. As an adult in the 1990s, I could barely contain my own eagerness to see what response there was to my emails or posting on chat sites. How can we expect rising adults to respond any differently with a laptop computer or a computing pocket telephone? The fundamental premise of social networking is encouragement of that addictive response.

This is hardly the first addictive social technology. Some have come and gone, like citizens band (CB) radio of the 1970s and 80s. Earlier ham radio had some cachet, but it required specialized skills, knowledge and equipment.

And the telephone. A highly controlled utility for a century, it blasted open with new technologies and social uses. Teenagers notoriously have been intensive telephone communicators at least since the 1940s, but housewives (an old 20th century occupation) also were ridiculed for their intensive use. Eventually, mobility was the key for telephones, and then it morphed into a comprehensive communication technology. We now have merged it all - telephone, telegraph, CB radio, repeater mobile radio and walkie-talkie. We also are merging it with power computing and data transfer. We're thinking now about all data and communication existing in "the cloud," everywhere and nowhere. We seem to be approaching a kind of communication Singularity.

Every one of these developments have had compelling utilitarian value, AND addictive appeal. Every age group is susceptible to the addiction, but it is most problematic for people who have not mastered their impulses - something that is counter-intuitive in our commercialized culture. Free enterprise thrives by engendering addictions.

But what does this mean in the classroom? What is the limit of our responsibility to enforce (not just encourage) student focus?

As I've written, I formed my approach to education when it was a meal to be offered, not force-feeding of young adults. Throughout my career I've seen that my job as a teacher is to present and structure the learning experience, to encourage and facilitate but not to force or enforce behaviors that make it work. With that approach one simply reports the degree of learning that one believes has taken place, as measured by examinations and quality of student work. One tries to employ pedagogical techniques that help students organize their learning - emphasizing the structure of the knowledge, connecting the dots, assigning work that involves integrating the knowledge and skills, encouraging creative thinking within a frame, applauding original thinking and evidence of integration, and creating assignments that require application.

The motivational piece is a bit more difficult. I admire faculty who make it work well. The yawns that greet my enthusiasm and excitement for the field and the material are pretty discouraging, but I often find I can't really interpret the responses of students with any accuracy. Students I thought were only vaguely present sometimes tell me later how much they got out of it. Others I thought were getting it, later show little evidence of having done so.

Student use of technology in the classroom makes me try harder, and I try to make sure that what happens in class is important for learning. I do have students with laptops open, and I tell them if they are going to watch a movie or surf the web, they need to sit in the back of the room. In the end, the classroom experience is what it is, and I put the responsibility on the student. Everything they need is there, and I am a resource for help if they need it. The exams are structured to tell the story. It's up to them. For better or worse, they're adults now.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Getting to Real: Rehearsal Check and Put-In

I just completed the first day of a load-in for Machinal, which opens in about 10 days. For a designer, the load-in or put-in is nerve-wracking. It's very demanding and the kick-off of the pressure period. On a given day and time, people start placing scenery on the stage. Your choices become commitments at that point, and reality begins to cut in. That really is what it is going to look like.

It can be very gratifying, but it's quite hard work and a long day. Whether you personally do any heavy lifting, it is busy with planning, consulting, organizing, directing. Protecting. You are indebted to an efficient and capable technical director and stage manager, but many choices are made in the spaces between the drawings and reality. Three inches more here. Reinforce there. Mask into this mark.

The designer usually sees at least a couple of rehearsals of a few parts of the play. The rehearsals one gets to watch only approximate the eventual performance. So what's the point? I always learn important things I didn't know were happening. I get a clearer perspective on the important moments and how they must play.

Rehearsals usually are in a different space where the setting only can be suggested. The dimensions are taped out if possible, but it's all two-dimensional. The actors wander through the space, crossing wall lines and levels, working with miss-sized furniture placed willy-nilly, often only vaguely related to the ground plan. Watching a rehearsal challenges your powers of visualization, but it's important to do if you can. I find that the play in my head is quite different from the play with the actors, no matter how much conversation I've had with the director.

It's also good politics. The director has a chance to point out problems. The director and performers ask questions and point out things they can't make work well. I usually find they aren't using things they didn't know they had, and I discover needs I didn't provide for. It's in a rehearsal that I can understand the implications of the director's casting. And it's in the rehearsal that those ideas we spoke of in design conferences take on a reality full of implications.

The actors also are aware of an observer. It's a bit of an intrusion on their private party, so they tend to game up a little. It's good for them, too.

But the put-in is the reality check, especially when much must be built in place. Sure, I worked with a model and a sketch, but is this what I really expected? My goodness, that platform is high up there. Damn, that area is going to be cramped. Will that castered platform really work the way I imagined? Is that color really going to work? Is that pattern too big for the space and audience distance? Is the amount of that color going to overwhelm everything else? Does this have the richness and finish that I want my work to have? Is it interesting? When the audience sees this will they feel like something exciting is going to happen? Will this set them up properly to receive the play? Will the quality of the design and level of finish tell them that they can relax because they won't have to forgive anything?

Finally, the put-in also is an exciting exercise, because it all comes together at once in a short period of time. It is wonderfully validating. The drawing becomes real and tangible. You dreamed it, thought it, planned it, drew it, and . . . here it is! You created a world.

April 10, 2011

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Launching a Design Project

Back into theater design again. I just left a design class where a student was complaining about the 2 to 3 hours he spent working on a model for Marlowe's Faustus. He's a good guy and really wants to get it, so I don't fault him. Somehow we don't really communicate the commitment it takes. (Perhaps because nobody would pursue it if they knew.) I told him that the design I'm working on now, a production of Sophie Treadwell's Machinal, got worked out in model last weekend - all day Friday, Saturday, and 6 hours on Sunday.

That time was just on the rough design model work. Not counting the sketching and research and conversations with the director that have taken place over the past couple of months. And it's a rough model - a design proposal, something to have a conversation about.

I explained that the advantage of model work is that it really is slow. I had done a lot of visual research and had a sense of where we wanted to go. I began with a short list of requirements that evolved as I worked, and I had a vague thumbnail of a visual idea.

I knew I needed three platformed spaces above the stage, so I cut three scale platform tops and posts to hold them up. Then I worked out the access. I also created the slipstage for scene changes I knew I'd need. I had already discussed most of the furniture needs and how the changes might be done (emphasis on "might be") with the director. I included a required door, and I created steps - three versions before deciding we could use a spiral stair and began to research that. I went back to the research and did some doodling to develop the look, then began constructing the model pieces to make it work.

This is designing in the model and it is a slow, evolving design process. In the following design meeting with the director we worked out more of the detail and flagged problems for scene changes and properties. The build TD was able to look at the model and flag problems he saw. The model doesn't show the final ideas but it leads to conversations about requirements and alternatives. Discussion begins on budget, materials choices, alternatives for positioning elements, the build sequence, and acquiring materials and a spiral stair. And things I failed to allow for.

So the director and the stage manager have the very rough model to work from for blocking and directing traffic. I have the feedback I need to begin working on the draftings for the design. I doubt that I will have time to do a finish model. Since the show is to be done in shades of gray, I really don't need to do a scenic sketch for painting. I may paint a construction elevation just to work out a pattern of grays, but I won't need a full scenic sketch. In a thrust stage arrangement, a perspective view is pretty artificial anyway.

This is how a design begins in a good way.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

No Experts at Home

It seems awfully unfair, and certainly frustrating. They just won't let you be an expert at home. Sometimes environments won't accept expertise that is too close to the problem.

In an academic environment, everybody is an expert. Everybody. At something. That's how we got here. But there are some kinds of light that just has to be used very carefully. And that is the expertise about how to do our jobs - as guides for our students, as professional educators, and as scholars and artists.

The university academic environment is so different from other educational worlds - the K-12 world and the corporate training world, for example. Those results-focused employments are constructed for maximum effectiveness. That educational structure is fed by intensive research on obtaining clear goals and measurable outcomes. Expertise is drawn from wherever it may be found, within and outside the unit.

The university environment is different. It is not so very far conceptually from 11th-Century Bologna when a collection of individual law teachers formed a guild so they could share resources and expertise. The teachers employed the administrators. (Let me repeat: the teachers employed the administrators.) The autonomy of scholars today descends from that tradition of independent experts and scholars collaborating voluntarily on matters of common - and unique - interest.

The key here is "independent experts." Today's academic department is a collaboration of independent scholars, who are in fact expected to advance their scholarship and scholarly production through their own focused interests. And they are selected for employment by the way that their work fits in with those who would employ them. Today, the faculty do not hire the administrators, but neither are administrators "the boss." And the faculty do select their colleagues in most cases.

So everybody is an expert, and there is no structured hierarchy of experts. Academic departments are flat organizations with a single, often elected, member to assume the organizational responsibilities of leadership. While he or she may make decisions regarding the distribution of resources, rarely are they "the boss." Advancement has only two or three levels and is colleagially awarded. Everything else is broad-based and incremental. In general. Some environments do find ways to encourage and reward focused activity for interested scholars, and it can engender some collegial unhappiness if not carefully managed. There are some variations and exceptions, but at the core, the individual faculty member is employed as an independent expert collaborating with other independent experts.

What happens then, when one needs expert advice on the work of the department or the faculty? Experts are brought in. From where? From similar departments elsewhere. One expert here will go there, and perhaps one from there eventually will go here to evaluate and advise on the work of the faculty and their collective efforts.

Some advice may be found locally outside of the department, advice being more welcome from the neighbors, and from resource centers. But advice from an expert on the work of faculty may be welcome at home among departmental colleagues only when solicited. And only as much as solicited. They do know that you know something and will ask you for it when it would be welcome. The complicated academic relationship with authority so complicates our working and personal relationships. But I wouldn't trade it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

College standards - again

The heat is on again regarding college study requirements. Another study has been done showing that college students are not studying, reading and writing as much as they used to, and they are getting better grades. Among the debates was an interesting discussion on Tom Ashbrook's On Point last week or so. Responses attributed the result to the standard grade inflation argument, the use of student evaluations for faculty promotion and tenure, and the suggestion that the push before college was more intense than college itself .

I don't know what to think. The humanities faculty have been saying this as long as I've been associated with higher education, and that's been a couple of generations now. About the only thing I can see that is real about it is that the expectation is B level for average now. It doesn't give you much room to reward excellence. I know that's true in my courses. If a student is consistently at C level I pay closer attention to him or her. Usually, for students below that level life just gets in the way - illness, family deaths, family conflicts, commutes, work requirements, transportation issues. I make offers to help or accommodate them, rarely with any takers. Sometimes students really don't want to do any more work than to pass. But it's kind of been that way for quite a while. I do know that I'm getting better writing from more students, so the push in the schools for that seems to be working. But that's really the only change I see.

My approach to education was formed in the ed classes I took in the early 1970s. It was a world of examining what you do TO students in educating them, and their right to utter freedom from the oppression of forced learning practice. What I learned was to put it out there, help students understand why it was important to learn it, but leave it entirely up to them. No hard feelings. Forty years later, the paradigm is actively interventionist, and we're attacked if students aren't learning whether they want to or not.

So it's possible I can appear not to care if my students learn. I don't have an authoritarian classroom, but I tend to rely on some pretty traditional techniques - lecture, presentations, readings, discussion, a little group discussion, lots of projects, and a couple of traditional mostly essay exams. The work itself isn't difficult - you just have to do it. Students have complete access to everything in the class -and more- on Blackboard, but mostly only the best students take advantage of it. But I do care - I just want to treat them like adults: here it is. The choices are yours. I'm here to help, but it's really up to you.

What I fail to understand is that I can hand out the exam and discuss the answers in the class before, and still get miserable and inadequate responses. It's frustrating, and when I started teaching I took it personally, but I know better now. They're measuring their trade-offs and accepting the result. In the larger scale of life, that particular lapse really won't matter much.

I really can't say much. I'll admit that I had to start college twice to get it right. After a required stint in the military, I learned to treat study as a job to be done, and it really was pretty easy at the undergraduate level with that attitude, even if I was working a paying job nearly full-time. Since I now have several degrees, I obviously got the system down. I think the good students do get the system down. I think the less good students may be working the system. But that's okay at the undergrad level. It's their choice and their money. It's just life.

February 11, 2011