Saturday, December 5, 2015

Scenic Zoology

Once in a while a set design goes to the dogs... or to other animals.

My recent (last show today!) production of The Importance of Being Earnest at Tarrant County College NE  went to the moose and the peacocks.  The director and the student cast decided the moose's name is Bunbury.

Here's how it happened...

There's this awkward scenic transition from Act I to II - Algie's flat to countryhouse garden. 

Sure, the college has a fly loft.  I could simply fly scenery in and out - but I kinda hate that method of scene changing.  It's like shuffling flash cards at the audience: 2+2, no! wait! 2+3.  It feels arbitrary, random, as if any possible scenery might fly in, taking the audience from the first act of Earnest to - who knows? - third scene of The Magic Flute?  Death scene of Othello?   

Visually, scenery changes can be startling, a shock from one "look" to the next.  A horrible example on Broadway was the change in the middle of The Producers to "Little Old Lady Land"; I thought that whole segment could have been cut.  I suspect the show's set designer felt the same, because the setting for it looked kinda... perfunctory... while the rest of the show was wonderfully designed.  (One reason I don't really love traditional prosceniums.)  

I prefer visual as well as story-telling logic to the shift from one setting to the next.

In the college's production of Earnest scenic switcheroos could be particularly jarring because, instead of two intermissions, there would be only one.  The audience would watch set changes.  These needed to look logical and, if possible, be entertaining!  (The director added wonderful business to the shifts, so they were, indeed, very entertaining.)

As the director and I talked, I mulled over what - what on earth! - I could use to visually tie the first setting to the second.  I needed a sort of visual hinge to ease the transition.

Hmmmm....  Bachelor's flat... Victorian fireplace... deer head?  Moose head!  (Moose are funnier - just look at one.)

Giant topiary moose!

So the giant topiary moose, Bunbury, became the linchpin of the whole design, the one constant element in Algie's study, the country house garden, and, outside the window, the conservatory for the final scene of the play.

Here follows the photo-essay of the development of Bunbury the Moose:

Bunbury's head sticks through the wall of Algie's study.  He's pretending to be taxidermy.  

Here's Bunbury revealed in topiary splendor.

Below is his first manifestation, a model to help figure out how the heck to build him:

Photo courtesy of Master Carpenter Heidi Diederich

A few construction photos...

In the first photo, that pile of rags will become Bunbury's furry / leafy hide.  He was built of plywood "ribs" as in the model, draped first with chicken wire, then muslin, and with strips of muslin and other fabrics poked through the chicken wire into a lumpy texture that suggests shrubbery.  All this was painted and additional silk leaves and flowers were added.  In the last photo above you see him starting the final foliation process, as ivy is wound up his legs etc.  Below you see him onstage.

Bunbury pretends not to listen to Cecily and Miss Prism.  And here he is again, below, pretending not to listen in on Algie's courtship of Gwendolen.  

In this photo you see (besides the blurriness of my illicit during-the-show photo) the final Bunbury moose head.  (Antlers are cardboard, foam, wire, fabric, and paint.)   

On the fireplace front are his attendant fireplace peacocks.  These are an adaptation of a popular motif of the time, turned into a faux mosaic tile mural.  Their painting turned out very well.  (Thanks Heidi!)  Actually there's a lot of faux and fool-the-eye artificiality in all three settings - as there is in the play itself.  Those books, for instance, are all fake as are the ones later in the conservatory, and even the carpentry is a mix of real 3D and trompe l'oeil.

Here's my original color sketch for the peacocks:

Final note BTW, that one crucial bit of set dressing?  That handsome brass fireplace screen?  It's a piece I own and have used for countless shows, wherever a touch of Victoriana is suitable and there's no practical fire effect.  It's a real antigue.  It folds small for easier storage in my garage.  But it is, if you look closely, in very bad condition - only held together by wire, twist ties, and plastic zip ties - so I got a good price on it from the antiques dealer.  Looks good on stage though!

No comments:

Post a Comment