We do it for the actors
While working in the field of entertainment I always hear the phrase “We do it for the people”. It serves as a motivation for us designers to not get lost in the issues along the production process but to stay focused on the final goal, to entertain the audience. Nevertheless, I think that this phrase, while accurate, doesn’t tell the whole story. As designers we do create to tell a story to the audience. We design sets to help the audience member be immersed in the environment of the play. We design costumes to help the audience believe that the characters live in the space that the story suggests. We design lights to help the audience feel the mood and understand the location of the scene. More importantly though, I think we design to tell a story. After all, that all what theatre is, is a collaborative effort between a multiplicity of fields to help one story.
This week I had the pleasure to be present for a set being revealed to two different casts; the cast of Rent and the cast of Rhythm and Da Blues. It was amazing to see their face of amazement when they got to see the set where they will be performing. Having worked on the Rent set for the past 8 weeks, I had become numb to the amazingness of the design and the power of storytelling that it had. For me it was just a collection of pipe and lumber that had finally come together after struggling for weeks. The set had lost the magic that it had when the concept was first introduced to me. Now all I could see where the mistakes that had been made, how some things had to be changed and rearranged. The set had lost its story. I felt the same way about my set for Rhythm and Da Blues, which is shown on both of the pictures. I had been painting the stoop for 5 days now and it seemed like a collection of layers of paint more than a stoop. Thankfully the joy that I had felt at the beginning of each process came back to once I saw the actors interact with the sets for the first time.
I could see their eyes fill with joy as they saw the set. They had been working around spike tape and black boxes for weeks, and now, this theoretical set, was in front of them. A world of possibilities was now in front of them, their characters had a home now. The story that they had been rehearsing for weeks now had a place to live. Just seeing that reaction brought they joy back to me, but it became even greater by seeing how thankful all of them were. Each one of them approached someone of the construction team and thanked us for the wonderful work we had done. I was reminded that the set, costume, lighting help tell the story by giving the actor a place to develop their character. When in costume the actor now feels like their character more than just acting like it. Now seeing the set and the lighting the actor live in the space of the play more than just imagining the space.
Seeing this reaction reminds me of the importance of detail and storytelling that each element has even if it is too small for the audience to see. If a detail is added and an actor notices it, then it helps them be deeper in the story, and therefore tell the story even better. Now whenever I’m designing I wont only focus on what it is that the audience is going to see, but I can also see what details can be added to bring the actors into the world of their characters.