In The Empty Space, director Peter Brook’s renowned volume on the art of the theater and the state of the theater, he describes the form’s parameters as potentially uncomplicated, stating that any place can serve as a bare stage–“A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theater to be engaged.”
Brook’s description boils theater down to its essence by reducing performance to its two key elements: the performer and the audience. But for most, the definition of theater is significantly more sophisticated, with a much longer list of requirements–the designated playing space, the complex set, the elaborate costumes, and the mood-enhancing lighting are all integral components to the architecture of a work of popular entertainment. With these mandatory extras, the addition of designers becomes imperative–someone must clothe the man, make sure he’s seen in the best light (literally), and provide him with a space decidedly not empty, on which to walk.
For PlayMakers Repertory Company’s interpretation of Salome, the hands working offstage play some of the production’s leading roles, with costumes, set, and lighting of as much importance as characters, text, and direction. Director Trezana Beverley is using the production as a testing ground for DanzActing–a style of performance she originated–and has transported Oscar Wilde’s take on the biblical tale of a spoiled princess whose demands are willfully destructive. The production is set in Africa, with the dispatch of the action commanding a distinct ambience. The only way to effectively represent this world was to build it.
To evoke an unspecified African nation some 2,000 years in the past, costume designer Marianne Custer began her investigation six months ago. “It’s biblical history, but it’s seen through an African prism,” she states. She met with Beverley in November, and they spent the next few months shuttling sketches and color plots back and forth. “We collaborated on the fundamental idea of the play,” Custer says. As a result, many of the designs are based on the traditional in regard to cut, but executed in African fabrics. A final draft was approved in early February and Valentine’s week was spent doing some used fabric shopping in New York–many of the goods she needed weren’t available for a feasible price in the area. Soon after, the operation of turning the sketches into tangible pieces began.
The actual construction utilized the skills of five grad students, a handful of undergrads, the occasional volunteer, students who do lab work, PlayMakers’ costume director Judy Adamson and Custer. Mark Sanchez, brought in to serve as a full-time draper, was responsible for turning two-dimensional sketches into 3-D garments and fashioning patterns based on Custer’s drawings. The proficiency needed is beyond that of the average home sewer. “In this space, the people in the front row are two feet away,” says Adamson. “My standards are for the person in the front row.”
“Aside from the way it looks [the costume] has to function in a particular way,” Custer says. “We have to consider what it does onstage.” For this production, clothing also had to be able to withstand wear and tear not normally inflicted on your typical store-bought frock. “The dancing is extremely vigorous, so the costume has to endure a lot of shaking,” she adds. Beaded belts made of Mardi Gras beads were chosen for their security upon the knotted strings. Other alterations were made during the rehearsal process–Salome’s headdress had to be rigged to fit a battery pack for a microphone, to project the actress’ voice throughout the theater. And although one of Salome‘s hallmarks is the sultry “Dance of the Seven Veils,” for which a recent opera production stripped a diva down to the altogether, there’s no nudity in this production. “It wasn’t my impression that [PlayMakers] was a place where we could do that,” says Custer. Plenty of skin is on display, but all naughty bits are kept covered. “If you see more, something’s gone awry,” says Adamson.
Corey Shipler, scenic designer, and Kristina Stevenson, properties manager, started from the ground up to evince an African palace both inside and out. “We worked very closely on this show because everything had to be built,” Shipler says, echoing the costumer’s tasks of creating each facet from scratch–again, not usually the necessary process. “It depends on the time period,” Stevenson says. “For this, it’s shortly after A.D. in Africa. You can’t find what you need around the corner at Target or Pier 1.”
The instruction from Beverley was to erect a palace that was abstract enough not to be a palace. She noted a painting as the model for the floor pattern, and requested that the cistern in which a major character is imprisoned be able to shift from transparent to opaque, but otherwise she granted a good amount of freedom. The result is a multi-leveled set with real trees (ice-damaged trunks rounded up by UNC’s Forestry Department), Nile-blue ground, two-by-fours and Styrofoam masquerading as lush jungle woods carved into ornate stools or cheeky fertility totems.
When the show is finished, the set is as well. Items will go into stock, be rented out, or showcased in offices. Of the transience, though, Shipler says, “That’s what I love about theater; it exists for this short time and then it’s gone.” They’ll move on, and into a new universe, which is part of the attraction for Stevenson. “The reason I love my job as much as I do is I get to do something different every day. ”
Once all the more physical pieces of the puzzle have been assembled, Kenton Yeager comes into illuminate things “The audience sees nothing unless I show it to them,” says the lighting designer. “I’m a filter.” In this production, which clocks in around an hour and a half running time, 150 lighting cues show the audience not only where to look, but also what to think about what they’re seeing. “Part of my research is to go through the script and find the emotional shifts,” Yeager says. “I can then make the audience feel them by shifting light.” While he says that all scripts reference light in general, this text gives its own express instruction with repeated allusions to a precise beacon. It’s that motif that Yeager has latched onto as his artistic inspiration for this work.
“It’s all about the moon,” he says. The play takes place at night, outdoors, in a time period predating man’s harness of electricity, and the satellite is a major source of not only light but conversation. “A character will say, “The moon looks like a princess looking through an amber veil.’ Well, what’s that mean?” Yeager asks. “It’s up to me to translate that.”
He cites this experience as unusual in the sense that by the time he joined the proceedings, everyone else’s work had been accomplished. “All theaters work differently,” he says, “but I prefer a completely collaborative effort, with all of us creating.” Though he hasn’t been present physically, however, he’s been in constant communication with the PlayMakers crew here, learning about the theater’s equipment and the design of the set, crucial information for him to begin the practical implication of his job. “I can start with ideas and theories, knowing this is the environment I want to generate,” he says, “but I can’t start at all in terms of the physical until I get a set design.”
All of the details have been researched, planned, developed and refined long before a man will walk across the stage with someone else watching. In fact, Brook’s distinguished communication between actor and audience doesn’t even figure into Yeager’s perception of theater. Although he’s remained in the area for this opening, it’s not his standard practice. “It’s over for me long before that,” he says, perhaps preferring the technical dependability of lighting instruments to the unpredictability of human bodies.
It’s the bodies that will ultimately fill the theater, though. And when audience members watch the first performer step onto the stage, they’ll also witness the craft of the dozens of unseen contributors who preceded him there.