Friday, February 1, 2008

The Talent Behind the Scenes

Lighting designers like to be involved with a production right at the beginning of the creative process, from the earliest discussions. I would never have thought that. If I thought about lighting designers at all I would have thought they probably arrived at rehearsal and started devising their plans then. I learned about this and a great deal more last night when the Drama Desk presented the panel discussion, "The Talent Behind the Scenes," with Signature Theatre Company's artistic director James Houghton as moderator.

As theatre critics and Drama Desk voters, we’re pretty good at evaluating whether a performance or script are good, and we more often than not notice the set, but we aren’t always so knowledge about the whole creative process, which is why this discussion was informative. The panelists were lighting designer Peggy Eisenhauer (“The Ritz,” “Assassins”), set designers David Korins (“Bridge & Tunnel,” “Passing Strange”) and James Morgan (artistic director of York Theatre Company) and costume designer Mimi O'Donnell (MTC's “Where's My Money?”, LABrynth Theatre's “In Arabia We'd All Be Kings”).

A song would have been appropriate to sum up the theme of the discussion, “No One Is Alone,” Stephen Sondheim’s lovely song from “Into the Woods.”

“If I put an idea out, it’s our idea,” Eisenhauer said. “There’s no pride of ownership of an idea. You have to give it to the big ball of clay. You’re not seeing the set without the lights and you’re not seeing the actor without the costume. It’s one combined whole.”

But, of course, working together can take finesse.

“The costume designer is a bit of a therapist,” O’Donnell said. “The actor has an idea of how they see themselves, their image. Some want to be movie stars rather than actors.”

Besides dealing with the actors, the costume designer also has to consider the directors’ opinion and how her creations will relate to lighting and scenery.

“There are moments in the fitting room when everyone loves it,” she said. “You have this moment of ‘that’s it.’”

Morgan said his collaborations are “often over a martini or two,” sketched on a cocktail napkin.

But they always involve considering the whole picture.

“I create an environment for people to live in,” Korins said. “I ask a ton of questions” to find out who the people are. “I really get into the psychology of the characters. It’s the purest, most successful when everyone is weighing in on what it should be.”

Houghton used the image of a sculptor who discovers his creation as he works with the clay. “What does it want to be? We’re creating it, but it has a life of its own.”

Korins said this collaborative effort is rarely acknowledged in reviews, that sets often get mentioned, but many people’s ideas go into shaping that set. As a designer he doesn’t just come to the theatre with a model and have everyone say, “’Well, that looks wonderful. Let’s do a show on that,’” he said. “I didn’t do it in a bubble. Keep in mind that we create this together.”

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