Avoiding blackouts

A recent post in the open forum of the Educational Theatre Association’s web site (www.schooltheatre.org) mentioned blackouts and how they are often overused, resulting not only in the audience getting distracted, but also in the performance being longer. Although blackouts can be very effective for dramatic impact (like when Junior discovers the Santa suit in the dresser), their use to simply cover scene changes can be reduced or eliminated by careful design and coordination between the set designer and the director.

To an audience, a scene-change blackout is like a TV commercial: it stops the forward momentum of the show and distracts them from what they’re watching. Also, blackouts are very often not “black,” since a bit of light is needed for the crew and therefore the audience can see what’s going on. Even a thirty-second blackout can feel like half an hour to the audience, and, after five or six of them, they can find themselves looking at their watches — which is deadly for a theatrical performance.

Most directors I’ve worked with have been wide open to eliminating scene-change blackouts wherever possible, as long as the change can be done quickly and smoothly, and ideally by the cast. I’ve also seen crew members, in costume, come on to help with the changes, and this can work very well if done correctly.

For instance, some years ago I designed To Kill a Mockingbird, and the director and I agreed the changes would be done in view of the audience. So, when it came time to go from the town to the courthouse, the entire cast, in costume and in character, rolled away the town itself and rolled on the judge’s bench, the balcony, and the other elements. Then they all sat down in their places and the courtroom scene began. To go back to the town after the trial, the sequence was reversed. Each switchover took maybe — maybe — twenty seconds (they were very carefully choreographed) and was “covered” by a bit of music and a change in the lighting, and we didn’t stop the action or the momentum of the story. We also received lots of compliments.

Two days ago, I started working on a production of The Music Man at a local high school, a show that requires ten to twelve locations, depending on how you count them. Again, the director and I agreed on no blackouts, so I’m going to be focusing on how to use the script and the music to create scene changes that “feel” like part of the show and keep the action moving forward.

The first trick, which we are using here, is to go through the script very carefully and look for places where we can reduce the number of physical sets. Many times, a given location is used only for one or two scenes — and sometimes they’re very short scenes — so playing the scene in a similar location may work. For instance, The Music Man has several scenes in “the center of town,” one of which is immediately followed by a very short scene in “a street,” and then we move on to Paroo’s porch. We eliminated the “street” set and will play the scene in the “center of town.” Likewise, we are cutting the “meeting hall” set and playing that scene in the gym.

A second trick is to go through the script again and see where and how the scenes change, i.e., what happens at the end of one scene and the beginning of the next one. Does a character go from one location to another, or do we go from an intimate setting to a large production number? If it’s a musical, does the score include transition music, and, if so, how long is it? Looking at these transitions carefully can give you lots of ideas.

A third trick, which falls back on the other two, is to design the set carefully to provide for these transitions. Design — any type of design — is really about solving problems, and this is an area where the set designer can be a huge help. For instance, a script may have a scene in a living room, followed by a scene in the dining room, followed by a scene outside on the porch, and then back to the living room. Often we’ll say, well, that’s what the script calls for, so we need a living room set, a dining room set, and a porch set, and a blackout between each scene. But it may be totally possible to have all three locations on stage at the same time by designing a set that evokes a house, with part inside and part outside.

I’ll be writing about design in a future post, and especially about how often we get caught thinking sets have to be “realistic.” And this is really the fourth trick: accepting that we’re doing theatre, not making a movie, and that there are conventions (such as the “fourth wall”) that a theatre audience is familiar with. Theatre — real theatre — was an interactive experience long before computers: in theatre, the audience needs to provide their imagination to get the most out of the story.

My favorite set of all time was created by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon one summer when they were doing Shakespeare’s Henry plays (Henry IV parts I & II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor) in rotating rep. The RSC has a beautiful theatre and lots of resources, and could have done anything they wanted, but they chose to do the plays on a bare raked stage: no sets, no curtains, no legs or borders. Nothing except a few pieces of furniture here and there. Sitting in the house, we could see all the way to the back wall of the stage, and to the sides, and to the lighting overhead. But when those actors came on, in gorgeous costumes and makeup, and started to talk, we were caught and shaken and pulled right into the stories: there was no doubt we were at the court, or at the battlefield, or anywhere else. Huge sets, and the resulting scene changes, would have been totally superfluous.

A set is supposed to serve the story, not the other way around. Careful planning and imaginative design can go a long ways towards an enjoyable show and making your audience want to come back.

Periaktoi: an ancient solution that still works

A recent post in the Educational Theatre Association’s (www.schooltheatre.org) open forum got me thinking about periaktoi. Back in school we thought they were really cool, like revolves, parallels, and a few other scenic solutions, but never used them all that much. The times I’ve seen them used, they’ve pretty much looked the same, so I thought I’d show a few ways of improving the look.

A periaktos (the singular form of periaktoi) is a scenic unit that goes back to the time of the Greek theatres and is mentioned by the Roman architect Vitruvius in his Ten Books on Architecture. Their use became fairly common during the Renaissance as a way to quickly change scenes onstage, and we still see them occasionally. Actually, the same principle has been used on large billboards that can change the ads, although they are being replaced by LED screens.

The unit is simply a box, built as an equilateral triangle, which can rotate on a central vertical axis. Sometimes they are used individually, but more often as a set of several, side by side. When you want to change the scene, you simply rotate them. This is what a set of four periaktoi usually looks like, assuming they are each four feet on a side by twelve feet high:

Periaktoi 4

Notice the straight up-and-down sides, which are of course necessary if the units need to meet. But the outer, left and right edges also end up straight up and down. So let’s do something about this.

Starting off with a simple project, suppose you want to have a hedgerow six feet high, based on a periaktos four feet wide. You can hinge two flaps to it so they open out to create the silhouette of a hedgerow (about seven to eight feet wide total), but can fold in when you want to revolve the unit:

Periaktoi 1

Or, let’s say you want to have a Gothic archway, twelve feet high, on a wall approx. fourteen feet wide. You can hinge half of the archway to each of two periaktoi and have the halves meet in the middle. When you want to go from the castle to somewhere else, you fold the halves of the arch in, and then rotate the units:Periaktoi 2

Now let’s go one more step and create a clump of trees, twelve feel high by almost twelve feet wide. Again, each flap is hinged to the periaktos so they fold in:

Periaktoi 3

In this case, because one flap overlaps the other, you would add a hinged strip between the periaktos and the second flap to allow for the thickness of the first flap:

Periaktoi 7.jpg

Needless to say, all these flaps would be secured in both the open and closed positions so they don’t move when we don’t want them to move. There are a number of ways of securing them, one of the simplest being a hook and eye.

These are just three options, and the possibilities are endless.

Before you build a periaktos, please refer to a good book on scenery construction, or, better yet, consult an experienced theatrical scenery carpenter. These units are not hard to build, but they do require careful construction (especially to avoid tipping over) if they are going to be sturdy and safe and do their job.

Creativity: using the ultimate search engine

This post is an adaptation of an online article I wrote elsewhere about ten years ago, which I thought would shed a little extra light on the subject of inspiration. Granted, it’s a theory based on my personal experience, and therefore debatable, but I do believe it’s a valid approach to creativity.

Many years ago I found a publication issued by the Library of Congress Council of Scholars, titled “Creativity: A Continuing Inventory of Knowledge.” I opened it expecting to find marvelous secrets, but, alas, I was disappointed. The book turned out to be about a series of questions on various topics, discussed by a committee, and resolved by the committee in a very scholarly, committee-like manner. I didn’t even finish reading it.

That title, however, stuck with me: “Creativity: A Continuing Inventory of Knowledge.” Thinking about that title over the next few years, I realized that this is exactly the key to being creative. It’s how we were taught in design school, it’s how most of us in the creative professions think, and it’s a technique we use all the time.

So what does this mean? Here’s a condensed version of a condensed version of a potential treatise on how to be creative, in five simple steps:

1. Stuff as much material into your brain as you can. Read, watch movies, go to museums, concerts, parks, sporting events, and so on. Develop your curiosity into an obsession.

2. Keep all this material open and available all the time. Pretend it’s all on one gigantic table or bulletin board and that you can see it all at once.

3. When looking for an idea, look at this entire mass of material. Don’t just focus on the obvious stuff, and don’t get locked into the first idea that comes along.

4. Don’t take anything literally or for granted. This is one of my personal mantras.

5. Relax and enjoy the experience. Our brains are actually very good at this type of thing. The trick is to allow the brain do it, instead of restricting it.

That’s it. Yes, it takes work sometimes. But who ever said anything in life was easy?

Now, If you go back and look at step three, you’ll notice that this is very similar to using a search engine on the Web, because that’s exactly what our brains are doing. Here’s a little background…

Most of us went through the same learning process in school: a linear, one-subject-per-period system. Maybe the first period was history, then math, then maybe English, then art and so forth. In math period, we studied math. Period.

I could buy a roll of butcher paper and divide it into columns, one column per subject. Let’s see, I had about six subjects per semester, times two semesters per year, times nineteen years: that’s two hundred and twenty-eight columns. This column is Algebra I, that column is History of the Western World Part I, another column is Scenic Projection, another is Topics in Neoclassical Theatre, and so forth.

After twelve, sixteen, or more years of school, most of us have learned to think this way and do it subconsciously. One column per subject. All neatly organized, but totally segregated.

Then I can add more columns for everyday stuff: my job, cooking, buying a house, and so forth. Again, everything neatly organized by columns.

And still segregated.

So, if I’m looking for an idea that involves Germany in World War I, my first reaction is to look in the History of the Western World Part II column. And maybe one or two others.

But creative people don’t do that. They look at everything at once – every column – for anything that might have anything to do with the subject. They use their brain like a search engine and look at everything that comes up.

For instance, let’s say I’m looking for an idea with a pyramid. Not necessarily for a set: just a pyramid. Instead of going to a reference on Egypt, grabbing something, and calling it a day, I would let my mind ramble as I search through everything I know about pyramids.

Remember e.e.cummings from high-school English class? Stream of consciousness? Here we go:

“Pyramids. Egypt. The Great Pyramid. Okay so far. What’s that thing over there, by Saqqara? Aha, the stepped pyramid of Djoser. Hmmm… Stepped pyramids. Didn’t the Aztecs and the Mayas have those too? Yep. And they sometimes did human sacrifices on them. Okay, I’ll file that away.

“More pyramids. The 1970’s and the little pyramids that supposedly sharpened razor blades. Pyramids and razor blades. The whole tie/dye movement. The book Chariots of the Gods. Thor Heyerdahl and Easter Island. Mysterious islands. Jurassic Park and Isla Nublada. No pyramids there, but some good images anyway.

“What else has to do with pyramids? The glass one outside the Louvre, designed by I.M. Pei. The Da Vinci Code. A-ha! The Lost Symbol: the top of the Washington Monument is a pyramid. How about those little glass prisms used on old sailing ships to allow sunlight below decks? They weren’t exactly pyramids, more like faceted cones. A small glass pyramid-shaped paperweight. Then there’s the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas and of course the pyramid on the back of a one-dollar bill.”

And so on and on. One thing leads to another as my mind jumps among and between those neatly ordered and segregated columns and finds fascinating things hidden in them. Eventually an idea will come, and then I can do some dedicated online or hard-copy research as needed–which will of course put more material into my brain for next time.

Probably my favorite book on scenic design, Robert Edmond Jones’ The Dramatic Imagination (1941), has a beautiful section on this in the chapter “To a Young Stage Designer,” where he describes how he would design a tapestry featuring a heraldic lion. Instead of just copying originals of heraldic lions, he would let his mind wander among adventures and tales of the period: Richard the Lion-Heart, King Arthur, the Holy Grail, Tristan and Isolde, and many others until his mind was picturing, not what the lion looked like, but what images it summoned and what it meant in the context of the stories. He states: “Perhaps without knowing it I have stumbled on a definition of art in the theatre: all art in the theatre should be, not descriptive, but evocative. Not a description, but an evocation.”

Closer to home, a Wikipedia article on creativity cites studies on a theory known as Incubation: “…a period of interruption or rest from a problem may aid creative problem-solving. Ward lists various hypotheses that have been advanced to explain why incubation may aid creative problem-solving, and notes how some empirical evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that incubation aids creative problem-solving in that it enables ‘forgetting’ of misleading clues. Absence of incubation may lead the problem solver to become fixated on inappropriate strategies of solving the problem.”

My take on this (not being a psychologist) is that the brain simply looks at everything it has stored inside when we relax and allow it to do so. And maybe that’s the key: relax and allow the brain to do what it does so well.