Thursday, November 16, 2006

Set into Motion

Last night, I met with Sarah, the assistant director, and Alli, the set designer. Alli had a maquette of the set done up for us to admire. The simple, scale model, with its pillars and backdrops of construction paper, were more than enough to re-engage my imaginative brain. I realized that what was holding me back (other than an insanely busy schedule) was not knowing how everything would look. Obviously, I'll need other pieces of the puzzle--costumes, props, and oh yeah, actors--but having a set to play with in my mind is an important start.

The Walterdale Playhouse stage is a wedge, of sorts--a great big curved apron downstage, narrowing to a corner directly upstage. The back walls are brick, but they will be covered by backdrops, constructed out of flats and painted to resemble a vast, Mediterranean sky. In front of this broad backdrop, two rows of pillars (one might be painted onto the backdrop itself, but at least one row will be real). Upstage, the pillars will converge upon an arch, which from the sounds of things will contain a sort of screen, used to receive projections (more on this below). The arch-and-screen will cover the upstage exit (so it becomes, in effect, two entrances, as characters can come in around either side of it). There are also exits to the lobby on stage right and stage left, plus I talked Alli into adding a couple of "servant's exits" along each side of the backdrop. This makes a total of six entryways, which is plenty for my purposes.

The stage floor will be painted to look like water, possibly reflecting the pillars. Mostly, the centre & downstage space will be bare, but Alli has added one more set piece--a large trapezoidal block, about 5 feet wide and 3 feet high at its largest end. Based on the model, it looks like a cross between a divan and a sarcophagus. It's also sloped, so that it can create the effect of, say, a gangplank. Basically, it's a multi-purpose set piece, and once I convinced Alli to make it able to rotate, I began to see a million different uses for it. There aren't many moments in the play where characters have to sit or lie down (although Cleopatra could certainly afford to do some reclining from time to time), but having actors use the block for height and status could be very useful.

I mention the gangplank in particular because one of the challenges Alli was trying to resolve was the scene on Pompey's barge (it's Act 2, Scene 7 in the original, or Unit 16 in our script). In my revision, Pompey meets an untimely (and fictional) end, getting his throat cut and his body dumped overboard. The need to have an "overboard" onstage--that is, a thing behind or beneath which one could fall--led Alli to create the trapezoidal block (although there's not really much space behind it, so Pompey would still likely be visible to the audience once he fell).

But in a Shakespeare play space, like time, is fluid. The stage can represent a ship in one scene, and then dry land in the next--or can even shift within a single scene. And when I started to think about the possibilities of some of the other parts of Alli's set, I realized that a literal throat-cutting and overboard-dumping may not be necessary, or even ideal. I'm thinking now about that aforementioned screen upstage.

Roy Jackson, our lighting designer, is intrigued by the possibility of having projections be part of the show--possibly to reflect the shift in settings, or else simply to convey thematic moods. I like the idea, but once I saw the screen, I started to think about other ways in which it could be used. Two of my previous Shakespeare shows (Macbeth and Othello) have used back-lighting techniques to good effect. There's just something about the menace and anonymity of silhouettes and shadows that evokes the tragic mood. So I suggested to Alli that, when the screen wasn't being used to receive front-projected images, it might instead be used to receive back-projected silhouettes.

I haven't thought the idea through completely yet, but off the top of my head, there are at least two moments that could really benefit from being back-lit, instead of enacted directly onstage. The first is Pompey's murder: for one thing, a throat-cutting is far less effective onstage, when there's no blood; and, as I said, dumping the body becomes much easier when you don't have to worry about where the body ends up. With back-lighting, an actor can easily drop down beneath the throw of the lighting instrument, effectively disappearing from the projected image. Add in a "splash" sound effect, and you've got your dumped corpse.

But the other back-lighting moment that sprung to mind is, I think, the most profitable discovery of the evening. For weeks now, I've been going back and forth on one key question: to snake or not to snake? In other words, what should Cleopatra use as an asp in her death scene? In an intimate setting, rubber fake snakes ain't gonna cut it; they'll defuse the tension and grandeur of the moment in a heartbeat. But a real snake is infinitely more problematic for all sort of reasons. Even if there weren't any ophidiophobes in my cast, you can bet that, some night, someone in the front row will panic when that snake comes out. And sooner or later, you know it's going to escape from its cage...

What I need, then, is the illusion or suggestion of a real asp. And if I can't get that onstage, then the next best thing is to do it through back-lighting. I imagine Cleopatra proceeding up, behind the arch, in a stately fashion, speaking her lines...and as the back-light comes up, we see her lift her hands up, and we see the (rubber) snake twisting in her (expertly rehearsed) fingers... and if we never see the snake itself, then it will stand out that much stronger in our minds.

So that's the new plan. I still need to go back and examine the text, to see if that staging will work. And there are still plenty of other blocking challenges ahead--sequences I plotted out in my mind without knowing what my set would look like, which I now need to re-block (or even re-edit). But I've got a lot to play with, now.

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