Beyond the recipe: making a great set

A few nights ago Donna decided to make Beef Stroganoff for dinner. She loves to cook and is always learning, and wanting to improve, and trying variations on recipes, so she spent a little extra time on it. So, when we were having dinner, and she commented that she thought this Stroganoff was one of her best ones ever, I had to disagree: I thought it was her best one ever.

Which was when a revelation hit me over the head like a brick.

That Beef Stroganoff was awesome because she cared about it and paid attention to the details. She bought the type of meat she wanted, at her favorite store for meats. She cut it up, browned it, did the mushrooms separately, and so forth, all the way to the end, paying attention to every step. A little less of this than last time, or a little more of that. Adjusting the cooking temperature or time here and there. Serving it at just the right moment.

How different than just taking a recipe out of the book and following it to the letter without paying attention to why. I mentioned this, and she said that cooking is different from baking, in that cooking gives you more leeway to explore, while in baking you want to follow the instructions accurately.

So, I thought out loud, a script is really like a recipe for cooking a show, although sometimes it’s taken as a recipe for baking a show. She gave me a strange look and took another bite of food, but a second later agreed with me. When producing a play, you have to use the words as the playwright wrote them, but the stage directions, and the set, are open to the director’s vision. We may not need this door just because the original designer put it there, and that huge sofa could often become two smaller ones.

I ran into this a couple of years ago when I designed Lez Miz for a local production company. The drama and power of the story didn’t require a revolve: it just required a way to show the audience what was happening on both sides of the barricade. So we had a barricade that turned on its own without the need for a revolve, and for all the work and time and money required for a revolve. Yet the effect on the audience was the same.

I would have never believed that I would look at a plate of Beef Stroganoff and discover the secret to a great set (must have been the wine), but the process Donna used is very similar to the one we use. We think about the end result, and what we want it to be, and how to serve it, and then, once we know all that, we start working on the details, starting with the larger ones and moving on to the smaller ones.

Right now I’m working on a production of The Music Man, which takes place in a small town in Iowa in 1912. This is a play, not a movie, so absolute realism is not only not needed, but it’s also impossible on this stage. However, the feeling of a small town needs to be there and set us up for the story. A bunch of flats, painted to represent buildings, can look very static and “fake” behind real actors wearing real clothes. So the trick here is to focus on the details that will bring those buildings to life even if they’re not full-size buildings.

At our first meeting, the director and I agreed that the overall look and feel of the production would evoke a Norman Rockwell painting. Rockwell’s work, especially the early magazine covers, “felt” like Middle America: they weren’t just “folksy,” but “friendly,” and they told us a lot about the characters in the paintings and what they wanted. And the buildings and interiors he painted were a perfect complement to the characters. So here I had two jobs once the overall concept for the set was defined: I not only had to research actual small towns of the early 20th century (and their architectural details), but also take a real close look at Rockwell’s work and understand how and why he picked the details he picked.

We’re not trying to make the set look like a Norman Rockwell painting, but we do want to create that old, friendly, homey, comfortable down-to-earth American small-town feeling: Mayberry fifty years before Sheriff Taylor and Floyd the barber — and in color. That’s where paying attention to the details — the colors, the textures, the millwork, the contrasts, the furniture, and how those buildings would have felt in those days — will make a huge difference in the show without competing with the characters.

And speaking of the characters… when the audience sits down to watch the show, they’ll want to like the characters, to care for them, long enough to watch them go through their story all the way to the end. So giving the characters a town that looks “cared for” will make them that much more likable. It’s where they live and they take care of it.

That set won’t be as awesome as Donna’s Beef Stroganoff, but we want to think that the care and attention to detail will make the show that much more compelling, and the audience’s experience that much more enjoyable.