Note: This is Part II of "The King Has Left the Building." For Part I, which features director Travis Preston, set designer Chris Barreca, and lighting designer Chris Akerlind, click here.
ELLEN McCARTNEY, COSTUME DESIGNER
There were two factors that drove the costume design in a very specific direction. The first was Travis Preston's choice of an all-female cast, which was an emotional choice rather than a physical one. We never had any intention of to hiding the fact that the cast was female. On the contrary, the image of the women posing as men served to heighten the physical, emotional, and spiritual qualities of both sexes and helped bring to the surface the presence of male dominance in King Lear. One was constantly mirrored against the other.
The second factor was the spaces we were planning to stage the play in. The first space was REDCAT; with its deconstruction and construction going on at the same time. The clothes needed to speak the same language of construction and deconstruction. This, of course, very much related to the text and the deconstruction of Lear's world. There was a Cubist feel to the construction site with the ability to see through walls and experience multiple viewpoints. The question was which materials to use in this space. We wanted to work with a modern material, something that related to construction and perhaps was not typically used for clothing. The other interest was to in some way treat the skin of the body itself as a texture of construction. Travis and I had used industrial felt in another project and we were interested in working with it again.
Industrial felt (pressed wool) is both a fabric and a building material. It is a sculptural material that can be constructed, giving the body volume and shape, which related to the construction zone we were in. It is also an ancient material, protective and warm. The first set of designs included felt coats paired with silks and sheer fabrics.
The second space was the Brewery. This space was not under construction but was instead a huge cavernous room. It had a haunting cold feeling. But the felt seemed right for this space as well. For the Brewery, the forms needed to be specific and solid, not transparent. This space did not suggest Cubism in any way. Some parts of the design were completely redone — for instance, the army, which turned out to be a much stronger choice. Originally they wore combat pants and sheer blouses; this changed to felt suits constructed out of layers of gray wool. At times they appeared to be shadows in the space and at other times a formidable force.
Both REDCAT and the Brewery had one thing in common — an operatic scale, which meant the actors needed help in filling the space. We wanted recognizable clothing that spoke a universal language, but it needed to be larger than life.
The silhouette for the women playing the male roles was influenced by a number of disparate sources. The design was equally influenced by ancient history as by modern history. Some of the research included contemporary western suits, 16th-century. Northern European dress, African tribal dress, 19th-century body/movement studies, and Eastern vs. Western concepts of the body. We also looked at the artwork of Joseph Beuys, Cindy Sherman, Eadweard Muybridge, Issey Miyake, and Rei Kawakubo. We were interested in tapping into universal/global cultures of the body and its importance as a forceful form in nature.
The suit, which is universal in its shape, became the starting point for the men's clothes. The male suit transforms the body into an elegant abstract shape, which completely masks the imperfect human form. This form, influenced by the long unisex kimono worn in Asia, was the main source for the shapes of the felt coats worn by Lear, Kent, and Gloucester. These shapes in turn influenced the look for the rest of the cast. The women were in a way the most difficult to design for. It was hard not to reduce them to the most obvious choices. They needed their own visual language relative to the men and as the men were presented by abstract shapes, the women were presented by organic shapes more familiar to the eye. Lighter fabrics such as lace, hosiery, and silk were paired with trenchcoats and felt. They were projections of what the male in this world has created in its women.
JON GOTTLIEB, SOUND DESIGNER
Had it not been for the collaborative infrastructure and unstinting support of the uniquely creative environment that exists at the Center for New Theatre at CalArts, it would not have been possible to interweave the many intricate elements of the sound design and production audio that this large-scale site specific interpretation of King Lear demanded and deserved.
As early as the first workshop discussions of the piece I knew the scope would require a sound designer to think out of the box, in the box, beside the box, and then remember that at times “the box” (our slang for the seating platform) was going to be moving. My immediate approach was to share the wealth — and the workload — so I enlisted one of my top graduate students at the time, Leon Rothenberg, as co-designer rather than assistant. I wanted to be able to invest in him the same responsibility, commitment and authority over the creative and collaborative process, as I would have with the director and other members of the creative team. This move was the key element in the success of the project for me. We were able to work as a team on a set of responsibilities that may have truly drown one designer alone. There became a natural division of labor between us that saw Leon taking the lead in the in the creation of the audio playback source material and I dealing with the physical design of systems and delivery — but at all times our approach was collaborative and interdisciplinary.
It is safe to say that I had never done a site-specific piece of this magnitude before. These were completely empty spaces, the first the size of a football field containing a central smokestack and not a single AC outlet. I didn't need the smokestack, but I could have used the outlets. The second space has all the charm and acoustic resonance of artist's loft. Lots of concrete parallel walls, high ceilings, and the only reverberance dampening available provided by the occasional visiting pigeon. There was never any question that all of the actors would be close miked, both for acoustic reinforcement as well as to lend a specific textural aura to each different movement. The space would play host to many different speaker systems reflecting the desire that, at any given moment, these elements of reinforcement and playback may need to be subtle, supportive, and subversive all at once.
Despite all the good intentions and lofty desires I felt as a collaborative artisan I always knew it would eventually all boil down to the doing it. To accomplish the massive requirements of the physical production would take a committed, knowledgeable, and persevering crew. It became apparent to Leon and me early on in the process that the load-in/running crew would become the backbone of the project's success or failure. We were fortunate enough to staff these positions with six of my graduate students from the sound design program at CalArts. They all embraced the workload and challenges of the project with a competence, knowledge, and enthusiasm that rivals any professional crews I have worked with.
Whereas the other four movements of the piece all had controlled audio environments and some form of near field audio delivery, the fifth movement would open up the playing space to encompass the size and grandeur of the warehouse space. We found that maintaining an intelligible level of reinforcement while still serving the cinematic style of the piece was proving to be a difficult mix. The reverberant nature of the cavernous warehouse kept the audience members from relaxing into the final “telling” of the Lear tale. I hit on the idea of providing each audience member with their own personal listening system — for use only in the fifth movement. This would enable them to control their own audio perspective in relation to the piece. This meant attaching a Walkman-like Telex SoundMate and headphones to each seat and broadcasting the audio reinforcement to the audience, giving them the ultimate final control on how they would experience the remainder of the play.
I liken the entire process to one of my favorite movies, Journey to the Center of the Earth (the original with James Mason as the Admiral): it was harrowing, excruciating, enthralling, and creatively affirming all at the same time. At the very end of the film, as the ruddy crew are licking their wounds, Lars (the tall blonde Swedish-sherpa type) approaches Mason and stammers, “If you ever go down there again, Lars go too.” That's it for me — forget about the long hours, hard work, and endless layers of grime you find only in factories once used by Thomas Edison. Regardless of the enormity of it all, if they ever go down that road again, Jon go too.
LEON ROTHENBERG, CO-SOUND DESIGNER
My involvement with King Lear began two years ago during the summer between my first and second years of graduate school at CalArts. I had just come off a very successful design and I was ready to work, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The size and scope of King Lear would be the largest show that I had ever been involved with, and to go from student to co-designer and collaborator with my former professors was a difficult but rewarding trial by fire.
We certainly had our hands full. The task of developing the show was immense. Travis Preston is a director who makes a habit of working with design as a formative element — which meant sound and music on day one. Travis called upon composer/musician Vinny Golia, who was involved throughout the entire development of the piece, to work with us. He also played live during performances. Working with Vinny during the initial workshop period, we were able to explore impulses and ideas much in the same way that the actors were. At the end of the workshop, whole sections had developed from ideas inspired by the sound and music. By the time we began actual rehearsals, we had so intertwined ourselves into the action that the actors expected sound and music to be there, as though rehearsing without it was like rehearsing without a major character. It was great to be able to interact with the director and the actors this way; it made our involvement that much more integral to the shaping of the piece as a whole.
The result was a huge output of highly integrated material. And a good thing, too, since it was clear from site visits that the immensity of the Brewery space would demand a pervasive treatment. Besides the obvious practical functions of reinforcement, sound would be called upon to provide an important structural element. We needed to create an environment in which the actors could connect over great physical distances. Sound and music filled the great space and gave them a common medium in which to communicate. In the end, for a running time of almost four hours, there were not more than about thirty minutes without something playing underneath. But we would have to serve another purpose as well.
One of the largest challenges that we faced apart from building a system to cover five different settings in two large warehouse rooms was the sound of the city around us. We couldn't ignore it, so we had to consider it as integral to the presentation. This was not only one of the major dramatic thrusts of the piece, it was the only solution practical to the maintenance of a coherent aesthetic. Besides being next to the US 5 freeway, the Brewery's location was subject to freight train passage, the occasional air show and a host of other surprises each night. Interestingly, despite the occasional siren or helicopter, the acoustics of the building created a sort of reverberated wash of all the outside sounds that not only mellowed their impact but also made them easier to work with. Sound could then reinforce the relationship between the play and the city outside — to unify it with its downtown setting. This was a major piece of the Travis' vision and one of the main reasons why this location was chosen. The soundscape used and complemented the outside world, drawing it into the play rather than trying to shut it out.
When all was said and done I was exhausted but elated. I certainly learned how to think fast and cover the occasional misstep. I am glad that I got the chance to collaborate with my mentors. Jon and I were able to create a working dynamic that I am sure will continue to serve us in the future. Perhaps everything will seem easier from here on out — or maybe next time we should just go bigger.
For Part I of "The King Has Left the Building," click here.