When sound designer Tony Meola was doing The Sound of Music, he sprang for a trip to Salzburg to record authentic sounds for the show. There is a wall in set designer David Gallo's studio with models of unrealized scenery, items cut when there was no money to build them. When an artistic vision is bigger than a budget, designers beg, borrow, subsidize, and compromise. They may get the look they're after for less. They may lose something crucial. Or they may find that less stimulates more creativity.
To costume a multi-ethnic festival scene in Camino Real at Williamstown, Michael Krass assembled cardboard, poster paints, feathers, bamboo, grass skirts, white Indian cotton, and crepe paper. With the theatre's interns, he turned all this into festival clothes that included giant masks and huge totems on bamboo poles. He dressed 35 people, spent about $300, and doubts he could have done it for more. “It had enormous raw energy,” he says. If the show finds its way to Broadway — and it might — he will have to build clothes to last and find a way to adapt his idea to a big budget.
Lighting designer Kenneth Posner launched his career in an abandoned machine shop, using commercial lighting fixtures supplemented with some primitive stage equipment to reveal the Expressionist world of Machinal. When Joseph Papp moved the show to the Public Theatre and Posner recreated his design, the general manager congratulated him for coming in $20,000 under budget. Posner was surprised to learn there had been a budget.
“Ideas are never driven by how much money you have or don't have,” Posner reflects. “Of course, implementing them is always driven by resources, human or financial or spatial or time.” The trick is “to hold onto the spark of inspiration behind the idea and make it work with the resources you have.” The Wild Party at the MTC came together on a tight budget, but Posner says the design team achieved what it was after, adding, “I don't look at compromise as a negative thing.”
Projection designer Wendall K. Harrington sees it as downright positive. “Everybody watches television. We try to give them that level of experience, but they came out to get away from TV,” she reflects. “I say, let them pay eighty bucks and give them less. Give them half an image. Let them leave with a beautiful headache, a delicious confusion that can only be escaped by thinking it through.”
Harrington starts with dozens of images and engages in a process of elimination. Using computer printouts or Xerox copies, she doesn't produce anything at high resolution until she figures out what she's after and the director approves. “One completely brilliant idea that you have to refine and refine as opposed to eight” is her ideal. “That kind of economy is good for the soul,” she says.
Production designer John Iacovelli agrees that the process of cutting tests the design and can make it better. “I want to go on a journey with director and producer,” he says. Yet, at times he won't take the trip. Iacovelli almost agreed to do Fool for Love, a favorite play, with a creative team he liked. Then he learned there would be no costume designer, that the theatre was “trying to save money by losing a valuable vision,” and he opted out.
Iacovelli says he used to rotate between shops but found he couldn't ask favors from people who knew they wouldn't get the next show. Now the designer has ongoing relationships with two shops, and he asks theatres to let him control the budget so he can go outside the house shop when he can get something built better for less that way.
Gallo splits shows between several shops, picking the right one for each item. He knows shops cover contingencies and keep profit margins in mind when they bid, and he likes to play “let's make a deal,” sometimes giving one shop more of the show than he intended in order to get a bulk rate. Shops often meet him halfway, and so do producers.
Initial bids will be at least twice the allocated budget, Gallo figures. “We tend to draw things in a very complete way,” he says. “In the dream version, we don't make any compromises.” That, he says, gives him room to move. He can cut a piece of scenery, change materials, and eliminate some details, usually without compromising the look. He made many cuts on Epic Proportions, even eliminating the prettiest piece because it had no conceptual function, and says the show didn't suffer.
Through clear and complete discussions with scene shops, Gallo often avoids cuts, finding simpler ways to accomplish what he needs. There are shop tools that run from computer drawings; layout can be done by a computer expert in the shop for a sizable fee or by a design assistant with some computer savvy. One way a producer can save money is by paying for that assistant.
Scenic and lighting designer Kevin Rigdon also engages in shop talk. “Are there ways to save on labor by approaching it differently? Would the same thing in a smaller size make the difference? Do you need 300% fullness in the curtain or will 150% work? I like to work with shops to find solutions,” he says.
Using material in stock saves money. For Closer at the Alley, Rigdon found leftover steel-framed panels; by inserting Plexiglas, he created an illuminated deck. When Iacovelli did Les Liaisons Dangerous at Pasadena Playhouse, he used two turntables, tracking, and flip stages left from other shows to create a world that revolved around the protagonist, who stood in the middle of moving furniture.
“Ideas are never driven by how much money you have or don't have.” Kenneth Posner
When lighting designer Frances Aronson did March of the Falsettos at Playwrights Horizons Studio Theatre some 13 years before Broadway, she recalls using bulbs in paint cans. The studio has grown since, but lighting designers in regional theatres are often stuck with the ancient equipment theatres have in stock. “The resources each theatre has are so unique,” Aronson says, explaining that while many are gradually replacing inventories, others feel they have been doing great work for years and won't make changes. Some regionals have people on staff, so maintaining equipment and running costs less than renting new equipment. “Some are good about maintaining old equipment so it does what it always did as well,” she adds. “But try to focus a show when every lamp needs repair.”
Some smaller theatres will buy a console that's a generation or two out of date. Some can't afford an extra monitor so the designer and operator can see screens simultaneously, making it hard to tech, particularly in previews.
For a production of A Raisin in the Sun set under elevated train tracks, Aronson needed to create sequences of trains passing overhead. The Dallas Theatre Center has a few strobes and some lobster scopes. Rather than renting more strobes, she created the sense of light passing through the window of an overhead train by combining old equipment. Aronson compromises where she can, using house equipment for frontlights, perhaps, and relying on mechanical substitutes for modern effects. She tries to achieve an idea without a lot of flash, and relies on ongoing relationships with shops and theatres to help in a crunch. She'll use stock color or a stock template when she must. But, she says, “Somewhere along the line, the theatre has to find a way to achieve some semblance of what you want.”
Costume designer David Zinn can't remember when he last bought retail clothing, and he usually doesn't build period clothes from scratch. Secondhand and discount stores are his stomping grounds, and adapting something contemporary is his path to period clothing. He looks for shapes that echo period shapes and cuts and combines garments to suggest a different era. A 70s blouse with a 50s bodice might become a turn-of-the-century look.
Redressing an existing costume is another tack; for The Little Foxes, Zinn bought cheap beaded dresses at Marshall's and used the beading. A current production of The Importance of Being Earnest at Indiana Rep allowed him some leeway because the entire show is “a little wacky…and theatricalized,” he says. “We can slide in some contemporary things,” Before he alters clothing, he alters his ideas — “I try to have an idea that isn't about Masterpiece Theatre,” he explains.
Krass often does contemporary realism, which makes economizing relatively easy since most real people don't pay a fortune for their wardrobes. “I have always had my most creative times in racks of clothes, whether it be at a rental house, the Salvation Army, an actor's closet, or mine,” he says. Because he doesn't usually “sit in a room and dream and do sketches of a dreamed reality,” he is not likely to be disappointed. “I tend to dream an emotional world and to understand characters in relationship to each other. Who is the stronger color? The bolder shape? The more broken-down? The most new?” Recycled clothes may reveal more character than new ones. Sometimes, however, simplicity is deceptive. The costumes for Charlie Brown, for instance, appeared less expensive than they actually were, and the producers raised extra money for them.
The commercial theatre tends to be more flexible than institutional theatres that plan a season with budgets for several shows at once. “A commercial producer will say, ‘Hey this is cool, we can use it in marketing,’” Posner says. Some theatres divide design budgets equally between shows, which Iacovelli protests when one play has one set and the one he's designing has 10.
When Meola works Off Broadway, you might find him on a ladder focusing a loudspeaker or doing his own riggings. “I would do it on Broadway, if anyone would let me,” he says, but union regulations interfere. Broadway budgets need to be handled differently. When Meola read a letter from the producers of Kiss Me, Kate, asking all designers to reconsider their budgets before the show goes out on tour in June, he says he asked, “Who do you want to take the microphones away from?” He adds, “A microphone costs a bit of money and that goes into an input on a console that costs money. When you reduce the number of microphones, you reduce the cost.” That might mean taking a mic from an ensemble member after he's said his single line and passing it to the member who goes next, or getting the director to position that person near a mic.
But Meola begins by going through the show carefully, working out equipment compromises with the shop. If he accepts an older model of a speaker, for instance, he might be able to get it cheaper. “It's not terrible to have a smaller console for tours,” he says. Sometimes budget problems lead to new discoveries. Meola, for instance, didn't know Meyer makes smaller subwoofers until he needed one. The major expense is in equipment, not sound effects, and although Meola can cut costs by changing the studio that will click-track a show, that is problematic when stars are involved. “You don't want to take a star to somebody's basement studio,” he says.
Sometimes, designers subsidize one project with another. Iacovelli borrows props and set dressings from Babylon 5 and other TV shows or films he designs. He also saves drops and pieces to adapt when needed. Friends have teased him when they recognize things from his house onstage, but the abundance allows him to extend the look of low-budget shows. Other times, designers pick up the costs, as Meola did in Salzburg. “If the producers won't pay for something and it's important enough for you to do it, you do it,” says the sound designer. “There is no designer who has not subsidized a production out of his own pocket, from a person just coming out of school doing a show in a basement to someone doing a Broadway show,” Posner says; this can mean anything from paying an assistant to buying templates.
“You can get yourself into trouble by helping producers reduce their budgets by cutting back on studio time or equipment,” Meola warns. “You all discuss it won't be exactly what you wanted. Then in techs, the director and producer ask why it doesn't sound better. People tend to forget.” Rigdon notes that designers are always in the middle. “We are the ones who have to go back to the director and say we can build stage left but not stage right.”