Thursday, June 13, 2013

Scenic Masterclass Speaker: Rob Howell

In the aftermath of his Tony win for Matilda this talk gets even more interesting.  I can't possibly reproduce the whole 1 1/2 hours here, so I'll just highlight a few things that struck me or that can be successfully taken home from Broadway to those humbler theaters (or at least those humbler budgets) that the rest of us designers work with.

(I hope I have my facts straight - I took notes - but I'm sure to have misunderstood something.  Apologies for any errors.)

Rob Howell first designed this award winning musical for a thrust stage in Stratford, England, then adapted his design for London's West End, then adapted it again - with help from Associate Designer Paul Weimer -  for the Shubert Theatre on Broadway.  As you can imagine, changes of venue made for changes in design or in its execution.  What surprised me was that the reverse was so true, that specifics of that first venue so flavored the eventual Broadway incarnation.

For instance, the first venue had no fly capacity so scene changes were accomplished by sliding wing pieces like legs on tracks.  Several iterations of legs stored one behind the other, with "Library" or "School Gates" scenery hidden behind neutral "Alphabet Tile" legs.  In that original theater flying scenery was impossible because the orchestra sat tucked above the stage where the fly loft should have been.  This sliding-rather-than-flying approach remained long after, in fact, flying became possible.  The tradition of cramming in the musicians also remained.  In the West End they sat upstage of the show - it had a very deep stage - while on Broadway they're in the basement - Broadway being notoriously short on upstage and wing space.

Because the first stage was a thrust, the show developed a real interaction with the audience - including using the center aisle as performance space.  When the show relocated to the West End's proscenium, big efforts were made to continue to engage the audience... the center aisle was used again and scenery, which had extended into the thrust's auditorum, was here developed into an extensive proscenium design that creeps out into the house.

Both these get-the-play-out-into-the-audience features remain in the Broadway incarnation.


That's a misleading word... these were huge and expensive priorities!  The proscenium design - hundreds of alphabet tiles - extends way out into the auditorium and wraps onto the theater's existing balconies.  Because this scenic treatment intrudes into where lighting and sound needs equipment, it was carefully coordinated.  Many lights and speakers are camouflaged under "tiles" made of scrim rather than vacu-formed plastic.

(Here my poverty-trained designer-self murmured, "Vacu-formed?  All those hundreds of tiles are vacu-formed!!"  Imagine little cash-register "Ka-ching!" sound effects in my head.  Indeed someone in the production team almost sneered when he admited that all the detailed "books" of the library scenery were just cardboard and cloth and not vacu-formed.  But wait -  this is nothin'.  Wait for the wallet-spasms when we talk about Spiderman.)

But Broadway houses don't have center aisles.

This was a huge concern and much discussed and, in the end, the producers and the venue agreed to remove and re-space seats in the orchestra level - cutting over a hundred chances to sell tickets! - to create a limited center aisle.  All to ensure that close audience-cast engagement remained.

Mr. Howell talked about the process of finding this "alphabet tile" idea - a very interesting peek into the design process.  In fact, the "tiles" were slow in coming to him; earlier designs explored using school desks or blackboards in a similar way, though neither idea quite worked mostly because they discouraged using color.  (Blackboards being, um, black.)  The "tiles" act as a sort of vocabulary and grammar for the entire show, as a logic for all the scenic pieces... giving the entire show a tessellated aesthetic that ties everything together.

I must admit that when the also-tessellated school gates first appeared, I did think for a moment, "Has this design conceit been pushed just a tad too far?" But then the dance number involving that gate began and I realized happily that, Yes!, the design idea had been pushed Too Far and was now into Way Over the Top Wonderful!  If as a designer you're going to do something, then really by golly the heck do it! is the lesson here.

There was much more.  There was a MODEL.  A model maybe 3 1/2 ft. wide and tall and deep.  Handmade.  Gorgeous.  I love show-n-tell.  And Rob Howell was one of the best and most engaging speakers of the Masterclasses.

More on the other speakers later, meanwhile (while you're waiting) here's a rough sketch of the lobby where I sat to wait for the next speaker.

Sketch by Clare Floyd DeVries

The Tisch School was a gust of nostalgia for me, reminding me of architecture school - the same excitement of work-in-progress represented by spaces that work for their living...  The oak floor had clearly had scenery built on it a time or two (see where the saw sliced here, here, and here?), the everything-painted-white walls were marred by careless students carrying projects, and even the piano on its dolly was waiting for its next gig.  Ah!  Creativity.

(This is no criticism.  Other, newer areas of the school were quite classy, all were in good repair, and we were very kindly and generously hosted... it's just that working studio spaces work.  I was glad to see evidence that art was happening.)

No comments:

Post a Comment