Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Aesthetics of the Stage Design

One time while I was teaching a class in scenic design, a student asked me whether the director controls the blocking in a play, or the designer? After all, the scenic designer creates the environment for the actor, wouldn't it make sense that he also control how the actor will functions in that world. It was a very good question. My response was "yes", the designer does control the blocking, but it is the director who creates it. How the scenery is positioned on the stage is directly related to how an actor will move, react, and respond to that world. The first and most important function of an effective stage design is to support the action.

Much of my creativity as a designer and director has been influenced by the works and writings of Robert Edmond Jones, Max Gorelik and Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold. They continue to provide me with inspirations as I move in new directions. Many years ago, I obtained a copy of Max Gorelik's unpublished manuscript entitled, The Scenic Imagination. His "method" for effective stage design was based upon three components, Action, Documentation, and Metaphor. Of the three, the most important of these is action.

Vsevolod Meyerhold kept meticulous sketches (notes)as he composed each scene within a play. These drawings showed hand gestures, movement and composition, and traffic patterns for each scene visualized. His studies in stage space and composition show us that action is paramount to the creation of the total visual effect of any theatrical piece. At the same time, it shows us that stage scenery must work to support that composition, not detract from it. Director/ Designer collaboration in the initial stages of the design process must consider this element before all else. If a designer positions a door in the upstage right corner of the stage, or a staircase to the upstage left, then all action (blocking) will be forced to move along the traffic patterns established by the designer. Composition of actor movement will be compromised (or enhanced) by the decisions made in the early stages of collaboration.

Documentation is the research that goes into any production. It refers to:
1. research into the historical period and background of the play. This may include time of day (lighting), locale, and mood.

2. the style or artistic expression of how the play is to be represented.

Of the two, research into the style of a production is the most challenging, for the style relates directly to the theme of the play as expressed by the playwright and the director's interpretation of the script. Style is a mode of expression. Summed up: style refers to the "isms"; realism, expressionism, post modernism, etc. However, a word of caution is in order. No artist ever created an "ism". "Isms" are created by critics in their attempt to classify artistic work into a particular historical category. As scenic designers, we may visualize a playwright as writing in a particular style. And, in our attempt to bring the playwright's material "to life", we may borrow from that style. However, the most creative artists do not borrow styles from other artists. They stand at the forefront of their craft by exploring new modes of expression.

Metaphor establishes a specific feeling for the play. Its purpose is to provide a visual reinforcement for the theme and provide overall unity. It makes an implicit comparison between theme and production. Gorelik used metaphor as a tool for the designer in developing style, mood, and overall unity to the play. It provides unity to all the visual elements of production; costumes, props, lighting, sound, direction, and even acting. It provides a justification for the environment existing. Examples of scenic metaphors I have used include:
A Hell Mouth for Miller's The Crucible
A Gold Fish Bowl for Williams' The Glass Menagerie
A Bank Vault for Moliere's The Miser

Metaphor is not to be used literally. It is to be used connotatively. A misuse of metaphor would be disastrous to any production. To design Harpagon's home in The Miser as a bank vault instead of a house that has the feeling of a bank vault would place emphasis on poor scenic choices rather than on the characters and the action. Effective metaphor provides a production with the "claritas" or radiance Joyce so aptly defines as a quality of universal beauty. For the theatre goer, this is what is to be experienced.