Thursday, November 6, 2014

Adapting a Process.

This one might be boring to read to non design/theater nerds. This is about a part of my design process.

If there was ever a show that demonstrated so clearly just how important PROCESS is, it's "Deus Ex Machina."

"Deus" is an upcoming show (opening in January) produced by Whirligig Productions that will tell the story of the Oresteia, with a catch: the audience plays the part of the gods. When a character receives a prophecy, the audience determines what that prophecy is, thus affecting the choices made by that character and the narrative path of the rest of the play. The list of challenges this type of project poses for a lighting designer is long, and I'm adding to it daily. At the heart of that list is the fact that I'm not actually designing ONE show - I'm designing TWELVE, because there are twelve possible ways to move through the story.
One of the many ways this thing can go.
I'm still at the beginning of my design process for this show, and I have a dance piece to design before we go into tech, but I find that just about every scrap of "free time" I think I have gets redirected to "Deus." When I start a design, one of the first things I do is draft a preliminary cue sheet (I love Excel documents, seriously), which is basically a spreadsheet listing all potential lighting cues I'm currently envisioning for the show. This cue sheet will change a million times before opening, but having a sense of the number of cues, the movement of them, the different locations or moods or looks I need to create helps me in every other part of the process. And, normally, the first draft of the cue sheet takes me about as long as it does to a.) read the script once, uninterrupted and without distraction, just taking it all in, and b.) read the script a second time, marking possible cues and creating a spreadsheet listing them. In other words it usually takes me a few hours. For "Deus," those few hours turned into few days and might have even extended into weeks. It involved flow charts showing the different branches the story can take, and identifying the moments in the script where the lighting design would need to shift to reflect the new direction/intention/choice (not always the same place where the script itself branches). This was something that turned out to be much more complicated than I had thought it would be.

My cue sheet currently looks a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book - if Electra receives this prophecy, go to sheet x (the individual sheet within the Excel document - because each time it branches, I created a new sheet to keep the cues straight). The average performance of this - one time through one pathway - currently contains about 140 light cues; the reality is that I am writing almost 500. I've sat through a couple of readings of the play, some through all endings and some through only one, and each time I've been on my laptop the whole time, updating this list and modifying it; I can't guarantee that I will hear a particular path read again anytime soon, and it's much more efficient for me to work on the cue sheet during the read through then it is to do all of that work on my own later.
My cue sheets have never included flow charts.

When I'm not at the rehearsal, working on the cue sheet, I'm going through tons of visual research for the show. My favorite site to use for this is Corbis, but I also do use Google Image search, and I go through dozens of different search terms, anything from "Clytemnestra" to words that might describe the look of a place or the intentions of the characters at that moment ("desolate" was one I used after meeting with the director). For the record, I also use books, movies, TV shows, paintings, observation in the real world, and yes, LIBRARIES. I used to print every image out and put them on the walls of my studio, but my friends are slowly convincing me to live in 2014, where people don't print everything. I now create Pinterest boards for every show I'm working on and add images to them as I go. When it came time to meet with director Liz Fisher, I pulled the images that really spoke to me for each "world" in the script - for "Deus," we are essentially creating two "worlds," the world of the Palace at Argos and the world of the Oracle. The images that I use for inspiration will also change frequently as I work with the director and the rest of the design team. There is just as much revision here as there is of the cue sheet, and each time I'm trying to get more specific in how I want things to look.
I'm trying to kill fewer trees per show.
The point is - I have GOT to create a schedule for myself, and stick to it religiously. There is simply too much work to do in this show. Prior to meeting with Liz and attending the read throughs, there were 448 cues in my preliminary cue sheet. After, I had 479, and changes in the direction I was going for each world. Each time things change, or get more specific, it informs what I'm going to be drafting when I start on that light plot. And - it will help me survive the tech week for this huge project. I'm sometimes asked when it is I will begin work on a specific project, and when talking to someone outside of theater I usually explain that the tech process, just before opening, is when I'm working constantly at the theater creating the design, BUT the amount of work I put in in the weeks and months leading up to tech plays a huge role in determining how smoothly tech runs. I have to know the script inside and out, and I have to have a really good handle on what the team wants to do, and what my intentions are at each point in the play - creating a cue sheet and gathering research early on are what, for me, make this happen.

Frequently when I'm working on a project there is some wiggle room in the "schedule" I set for myself. If the first actual deadline that I need to meet for the production team is the light plot due date, then creating the cue sheet this weekend instead of tonight is completely possible. But I can't really take that chance on this one. We will have less than a week to tech this show, which, again, is actually twelve shows. And we aren't guaranteed to tech EACH INDIVIDUAL SHOW within those twelve. That lack of guarantee throughout - not knowing if I will get to read THIS version of the show again, or if I will even ever see THAT one - makes each reading of the script that much more important. With a couple of weeks between now and when the actors begin run throughs, I have a list of things I need to achieve in order to be able to use those next rehearsals in the best way possible. And this isn't the only project on my plate.

Additionally, and a bit unrelated - sticking to a process and creating a schedule for myself is what helps me to maintain the rest of my life - the part that includes family, friends, eating, sleeping, exercising, etc. Every show for me is part of this ongoing experiment in how I will maintain a healthy lifestyle while also being a lighting designer. Making sure that I have time to cook my own food is important; making sure that the one night in the next three weeks that my husband and I both have "off" is spent with him and not with work is important. I don't always succeed in maintaining that balance but I'm figuring it out.
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