Problem:

How can you create character through design? Artistic teams at two universities found solutions that raised tricky lighting issues.

Solutions:

A Big Black Book

Scenic designer Shana McKay Burns revealed the lascivious Don Giovanni for the University of Michigan Opera Theatre by creating doors that open to become the pages of a not-so-little black book where the scoundrel keeps count of his conquests. She imposed a plaster texture on what might have been a flat black background so the doors would catch light.

Since director Tim Ocel told Burns that “he wanted a really violent world, especially in the way women were treated,” she used stark, angular walls and rustic textures throughout. Technical director Doug Edwards relied on a VectorWorks program and masking tape to make sure that when the catalog doors opened, the pitch of the doors matched walls and floor.

Meanwhile, lighting designer Rob Murphy struggled with the floor, “a series of convoluted rakes and steps, [that] was completely inaccessible to electrics. Even with a counter rake, there was no place on the stage that we could put a ladder or lift and still reach any of our electrics pipes, and because of rigging restrictions at the University, we were not allowed to use a bow swains chair.”

Murphy tracked down 2000W 10” Fresnels that Desisti makes for television studies. “They are typically much brighter than the standard theatrical versions of 10” Fresnels,” Murphy says, adding that they have unique handles that allow technicians to focus them from floor level using a mated stick that can reach from 25' away. “I plotted them like the face of a clock over the stage.” Just one could cover the entire stage with a blast of light, allowing “crisp shadows that you cannot get using standard wash systems. [It] was ultimately a fantastic solution.”

Costume designer Christianne Myers prepared for the steep rake with flat and low-heeled shoes, but dried grass that carpeted the center rake surprised her by adhering to everything. “The drapers sighed,” she says, but Ocel liked the way it “made everything more raw.”

Deus Ex Feet

In The Bacchae of Euripides, Dionysus disguises himself as a man, then reappears as a god. How, wondered designer-turned-director Daniel P. Boylen, could the artistic team at Temple University show that change?

Kalina Bakalova's initial design featured an 18'-high stone wall. Boylen suggested cutting an opening 13' high for a 4'-wide door. He imagined a majestic entrance with Dionysus on high. “I was thinking about all these clever ways to elevate him mechanically and thrust him through the doorway,” he says, but he soon realized there wasn't enough room behind the structure for, say, a wagon and for the lighting MFA student Shannon Zura had designed — strong low backlight from the floor that cast shadows all over the theater.

Boylen had taken a puppet class in Vermont, offered by the Sandglass Theatre and Marlboro College. There, he studied with a stilt expert from the Bread and Puppet Theatre. Built so they appeared to lengthen actors' legs, the stilts he saw allowed actors to move with abandon, creating “the eeriest kind of non-human movement, almost insect like.” It was perfect! A larger than life figure would emerge through clouds created by light and fog machines. His voice reinforced with directional mikes, the actor would sound more godlike than he had in earlier scenes, too. Who needed machinery?

Boylen flanked Dionysus with two avatars whom costume/mask designer Neil Bierbower dressed in body suits that made all three appear almost naked. The avatars masked the god's legs where extensions were added and, because they were not on stilts, “the human beings looked diminished.” Boylen also thought he needed to protect his god, but the actor “was so solid on stilts he started moving out, away from the avatars. There was a jerkiness to his movement — when you take a step, it's a much bigger step — that was unsettling and frightening” to viewers.

If you've met a design or technical challenge and would like to share your solution, please write to this column at davi@comcast.net.