Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A New York Minute

Back from NYC.

Fun!  I saw three shows: Churchill, a one-hander about the British Prime Minister set late in his career, which was very good; Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with the original Hedwig (also book writer), John Cameron Mitchell, which was excellent rowdy fun; and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which was fascinating.  And the highest tech of the three...   In fact, watching as a set designer, these three shows - seen in that order - were a primer on the use of projections on stage.

In Churchill, the set was backed by a large window with traditional mullions which acted as a projection screen.  Usually these projections were further "back-grounded" by adding an intervening layer of glazing lines (as in a "leaded" or stained glass window).  So images were always mere backdrop to the actor and never pulled focus.  The set was a traditional wood paneled room that worked just fine.

In Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the setting was a joke - literally.  To explain why Hedwig, the little-heard-of rock singer, had a Broadway-worthy set (as you MUST have at Broadway ticket prices I guess), Hedwig explained that this was a one-night-only concert held on the stage of a just closed musical - just closed during its first night intermission!   The unlucky show?  Hurt Locker: the Musical.  Pretty funny.  This "borrowed" set was a faux war-torn city made of vanishing perspective cut-out side flats of buildings, an upstage groundrow of more wrecked buildings, a stage floor of, apparently, blown-up street paving with a destroyed car at center and a whole frozen-moment-of-destruction spray of car parts in the air.

Very cool.

Later in the show all these I-thought-fixed pieces moved or did something expensive and Broadway-y.  Sound.  Lights!  Projections!  Amazing.  Not overdone.  Most projections were the collage of images you'd expect, but there was a wonderful sequence where a scrim dropped and Hedwig (behind the scrim) interacted with cartoon-like animations.  Wonderful!  Occasionally later bits of these animations reappeared, but never again to such delightful degree.

There was no lack of projections in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.  The set for this story of an autistic boy's adventure was set in almost a cubic shadowbox lined with graph paper - big blank gridded surfaces.  Throughout the show laser projections were "drawn" on the walls and floor... or suddenly spattered out like exploding stars, or outlined the neighbors' houses, or...  The ingenuity and surprise and the interaction between actors, props, chalk, projections, light, sound, and the physical set were impressive and told the story well, interpreting the boy's autism-shaped view of the situations.  The scene at the London Underground station was a Wow-er.  Very impressive.

I figure they must have Tech Rehearsalled this puppy for MONTHS.

As to whether it's a good play...  The story was interesting but slight, so that the fireworks of the tech used to tell it were both the only way to tell it and the most compelling thing on stage.  I don't think there'd be much play left if you stripped away the razzmatazz.  (On the other hand, it might be a terrific book - I'll look for it.)  But the boy's after-curtain explanation of a geometry proof was Crazy Cool!  Pythagoras never looked so exciting before.

So did I come back all jazzed to do projections?

Kinda.  I actually have a couple shows coming up that will include them, though at a simpler (i.e. less expensive) level.  Obviously projections can be a great, even integral part of the theater performance, but I'm kinda a fundamentalist... for me it's The Story.  Everything else (even the set?!) must be a distant second to the text.  So, for my taste, many projections and, honestly, the whole Broadway way of doing things is often just too overblown, just like special effects in blockbuster films.  Spectacle is great fun, but not especially my cup of tea.

So the most influential things to me were probably what I saw of the City itself - more on that later.

Until then, here are photos from my own recent informal Set Tech, experimenting with sky/tree banners in the breeze for WaterTower Theater's upcoming All My Sons:

Sky/Tree Banner test for All My Sons at WaterTower Theater

Fabric an' a Fan.  That's Technical, that is.

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