Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Model: Make It Sustainable (Scenery)

[devilvet bullet point: Create a visual aesthetic for your company that involves a flexible permanent setting.]

So you have created a decentralized permanent ensemble theatre in a smaller city following a tribal model that includes ancillary activities as part of the theatre's income. (For more resources, go here.) On the Tribal Theatre website, there is a link called "sustainability" -- what is that about in this model? Barbara Carlisle and Randy Ward, two professors at Virginia Tech, have discussed this in an article entitled "Writing for Ralph: An Exploration in the Dramaturgy of a Sustainable Theatre," which was published in Theatre Topics in 1999. They began their article as follows:
Since at least 1990, the authors of this article--director and playwright Barbara Carlisle, with scenographer and lighting designer Randy Ward--have been participating in a common theatre problem at Virginia Tech. As a department we pride ourselves in maintaining high standards of execution to provide valid design and technical learning for our students. At the same time we confront increasing materials costs with fixed budgets, intense pressure to meet overlapping production deadlines, and perhaps more importantly, deep discomfort with the unrecycled waste that has gone out the door after each production. In every respect we have balked at the model we were perpetuating for our students--debilitating burnout, financial anxiety, and production panic. In writing the book Hi Concept - Lo Tech*, Barbara and her co-author Don Drapeau (also of Virginia Tech) coined the expression "sustainable theatre" to refer to the need for a mode of theatre making that does not deplete the resources of the theatre makers (174). Yet our theatre at Virginia Tech was not sustainable. We were working off the backs of exhausted students and staff, caught up in a theatre mythology that presumes "if you're not willing to kill yourself for the art, you better get out."
In a letter to the faculty, scenographer Randy Ward wrote:

In an era of constantly accelerating decline of natural resources, are we justified in the consumption of material and the landfill impact of very short-term construction applications? I am disturbed by the cavalier way we utilize wood and wood pulp products. We should find a more ecologically sound approach to theatre production. A university theatre--perhaps any artistic enterprise--should challenge the old modes and set new models, not just propagate past traditions. Try as we might, there is still an unspoken value system that equates tonnage of built scenery with the value or importance of a production.
His proposal was to create RALPH -- a name originally chosen as a joke because they couldn't figure out what to call it, and eventually acronymized to mean "
Radically Alternate Limited Production Habitat." It was a permanent set, sort of -- but not in the Jacques Copeau sense, but in a very flexible, creative sense. Carlisle and Ward write:
A flexible set of elements, such as those we routinely use in the workshops, would not be sufficient; RALPH must have its own character, its own voice....Our idea was that RALPH would be designed in advance of the season selection, and would, in some respects, inform the choice of season. It would provide a theatrically challenging environment with the possibility of some tailoring to a specific production via lighting, props, and detail elements, or, in some cases, projections. We imagined that every two or three years a new structure would be designed with an altered theatrical emphasis--ladders and doorways, trampolines and jungle gyms, sails and fabric. A new set of tools and a different aesthetic would drive each RALPH.... RALPH was never intended to be neutral, nor a clever framework that would be disguised. Its form would remain a constant from production to production. The individuality of each production would be realized in the way the workbench is spatially used by the actors. RALPH might change over time, and new RALPHs might be built; but most, if not all, RALPHs would involve objects to be arranged by the actors and director into a specific configuration during the rehearsal process. RALPH would offer a physical aesthetic giving tangible life to the performance.

Randy's first designs contained a basic square platform, twelve feet by twelve feet, a three-sided gallery projecting from the back walls of the Studio Theatre at twelve feet above the stage floor, a long set of stairs to the gallery with a landing at midpoint, and Piranesi/Escher-like painted doorways and architectural frames on the full back and side walls.

So the faculty at Virginia Tech moved toward a sustainable scenography through the creation of a flexible set that was used and adapted for several seasons. In many respects, this has echoes of theatre history, when Restoration theatres, for instance, unveiled new settings at the beginning of a season and used the same sets for multiple plays.

Peter Hall, perhaps more influenced by the Elizabethan theatre, created a similar aesthetic when he led the Old Vic
John Gunter developed a simple design where the actor and his text was clearly presented on a well-planked stage. The actor, his passion, a few visual elements and some bare boards: this was all we had or needed. The audience's imagination was encouraged -- we had no technology or complication.... By having a strong design discipline at the Old Vic -- in effect a permanent stage -- we spent little of our money on building and rebuilding sets. Our changeovers from one play to another took one hour -- no more than is customary to set back to the beginning of a single play. We were able to play real repertory -- which meant a change of play after every performance.... Did the permanent stage at the Old Vic result in monotony? I don't think so. There were no complaints from the critics or from the public, and several other designers enjoyed using John Gunter's stage as an environment in which they could place the essential images for their own play. Everything on the stage was strictly demanded by the action, and at all times we tried to avoid decoration. [italics mine] We never needed to go 'dark' in order to dress rehearse a new play, because the ready avilability of the stage allowed us to dress-rehearse during the day. We then maintained our repertory each evening. The maximum use of the stage was therefore enjoyed both for rehearsals and for performances. And for seven days a week, theatre was alive.

You might not have the audience (yet) to justify having a show running seven days a week, but if you could run in rep you could keep plays around long enough for word of mouth to take hold, which would cut down on the need to sell out from performance one (because, of course, you can't sell the unbought tickets after the performance is over, right?). And the flexibility allows other things equally valuable to the tribal theatre. If you make your space available for rental to other groups for meetings, for instance, you don't have to worry about your set being damaged or otherwise in the way. You could open your space to other theatre groups in your community, again without worrying about your scenery getting damaged, and thus create goodwill in your theatre community. Do you offer after-school classes? Use the stage.

But most importantly, the amount of materials --
expensive materials -- that you don't have to buy, and don't have to dispose of when a show closes, is environmentally and economically friendly to your theatre's budget and ethics. It also helps with workload by making sure that your ensemble members don't have to spend hours and hours building scenery in addition to all the other aspects involved with putting up a season of plays. Thus, this approach is also physically and personally sustainable as well. Everybody wins!

*I highly recommend Hi Concept, Lo Tech as a must-read book for anyone thinking about creating a small theatre, tribal or not. It is unfortunate that it has gone out of print, mainly because it dared to question the standard way we create theatre in the modern world. Note: After reviewing this book again, I should say that it is comprised mostly of exercises for use in creating theatre. There is very little theory or how-to (although there are plans at the end for creating reusable furniture that folds up for storage). It is filled with exercises that help you explore the hi concept - lo tech aesthetic.


Anonymous said...

Scott, thanks for this post. As an avid green theater blogger and researcher of sustainable theater production practices, I was delighted to find this wealth of information. The book Hi Concept, Lo Tech was not even on my radar, but I'm going to pick up a copy asap. You can find my blog at ecotheater.com

Paul said...

Scott, can anyone contact the author of the works and ask if they wouldn't mind releasing the book again as a PDF under the Creative Commons license?

It's a good idea whose time is coming.

And I'm a cheap bastard.

Scott Walters said...

Paul -- I'll contact Don Drapeau and see what can be done. Great suggestion!

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Mother of Invention Acting School said...

I love your use of the notion of sustainability in relationship to theater, and particularly in relationship to human capital. I have burnt myself out more than once in the past, and am ready to reapproach making theater again as I pass the 40 year mark, but I want to do things differently, and you just gave ma powerful new way to think and talk about that. Mad props!