March 17, 2011

Design for a Rotating Repertory: Creating Aesthetic Connections

Wreckage: Photo by Joanie Schultz

Brutal Imagination: Photo by Jason Beck

There are several thematic connections between the two plays in our rotating repertory; the design team has also developed a number of aesthetic connections. Subtly leading these aesthetic connections are the projection design and the sound design. Projection and video designer Rasean Davonte Johnson ties the plays together by having each begin with a title and author slide. While Wreckage includes live-feed video and Brutal Imagination contains more pre-recorded video, Johnson uses projections of images throughout both plays to create textures on the set. Images of waves and sunsets evoke the darkly beautiful world of Wreckage. Brutal Imagination includes projections of a police composite sketch to illustrate Mr. Zero’s birth and of gauzy red fabric for the tango danced by Susan and Mr. Zero. Sound designer Thomas Dixon employs sounds of waves, radio static and voice-over in both plays. Much of Brutal Imagination takes place in a remembered Union, South Carolina, whereas Wreckage is geographically indeterminate. But the otherworldly quality of both plays is augmented by the sound design: these two dream worlds share a radio station.

One major challenge of doing two productions in rotating repertory is creating a scenic design that is flexible enough to accommodate both shows while allowing each show to have some specificity. Ideally this would avoid an onerous changeover for our stage management team. (This is a lesson we learned during The Changeling and Tallgrass Gothic; getting rid of all the hay in Tallgrass to have a hay-free set for Changeling proved a Sisyphean task. So when sand entered the discussion for these current scenic designs, we knew it needed to be in both shows or neither.) Stephen Carmody’s set design includes a guardrail, a sandpile, a wooden fence, a curved wooden structure reminiscent of a broken-down rollercoaster, and the corrugated metal reverse side of a billboard (which serves as the main surface for projections). The set dressing for Brutal Imagination turns the guardrail area into a roadside shrine for Susan Smith’s children and uses strategically placed blocks and seating to suggest a car and a police interrogation room. Wreckage adds a claw-foot bathtub, an ornate door frame, and a chandelier to suggest the elegant lifestyle of the destructive central couple. A video camera and a movable window enhance the theme of voyeurism.

Casey Diers’s lighting design primarily evokes mood and locations. A harsh, sharply focused light snaps on to create an interrogation room for Susan Smith and the Sheriff; Woman opens a door, casting warm light onto First Son’s sleeping body. Alarie Hammock’s costumes make intricate use of accessories, from Aunt Jemima’s ‘Do-Rag to First Son’s fur stole, underscoring the questions about race and gender raised by these playwrights. The use of eyeglasses leads to an intriguing connection between the female characters in both plays. When Samantha Gleisten is speaking as Susan Smith, she wears a pair of glasses evocative of those worn by Smith at her trial and in other news photos. As Woman, Dana Black wears dark glasses at the beginning and end of Wreckage. Susan’s and Woman’s glasses present two very different versions of femininity, separated by a wide gulf of social class.

Through many hours of thoughtful discussion (and even more hours of technical rehearsals), our design team explored each of these plays individually and considered the resonances of the two pieces together. As you observe the visual and aural cues they have created, we hope you will think about how design enhances the theatrical experience of storytelling.

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