Problem:

Set designer Michael Levine didn't build a model or do a rendering for The Elephant Vanishes. He began work during the third week of rehearsal, and not because he replaced another designer or fell behind schedule. The London-based Theatre de Complicité, in collaboration with the Barbican and the Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo, rehearsed for ten weeks — five in England, five in Japan — to create an ensemble piece from the stories of Haruki Murakami. The design team — Ruppert Bohle and Anne Connor, projections; Christopher Shutt, sound; Paul Anderson, lighting; Christina Cunningham, costumes — did not meet prior to rehearsals but became an integral part of an improvisational process.

When Levine arrived, the acting company had established only a vague direction and hadn't entirely decided which Murakami stories it would dramatize. Although the production would be designed for the Setagaya, it had to be built to tour. And, oh, the designers spoke English, the actors Japanese.

Not to worry: Levine had three weeks to design the piece. He knew the actors would need certain elements — a shoji screen, “a kind of flat that became an integral part of a lot of the improvisations,” for instance. And when actors began playing with cameras, it became clear they would have to incorporate video. Would actors hold cameras? Where would they project video? How would they relate that to the rest of the acting environment?

As designers observed rehearsal and noted elements that moved from story to script, they began to sketch scenes and costumes and come up with light, sound, and projection ideas, asking and answering questions daily. In turn, the actors and director Simon McBurney took inspiration for movement and language from design elements.

But actors could make changes quickly: for Levine and his colleagues, it was a race against time. “It's a little like working on a tightrope,” says Levine. “Actors walk in front of you, balancing. Nobody can see the other side of the cliff and you have to balance carefully, all together, to get there.”

The metaphor is apt for a production that constantly keeps spectators off-balance. Characters fly above themselves; they sleep on vertical beds, take the audience with them on intense rides through tunnels, all the while creating a collage of stories about — among other things — an elephant vanishing and unified around the theme of alienation. The resulting work dazzled and disturbed and somehow connects beneath the surfaces that separate. But were the designers dizzied by the improvisational process, too?

Solution:

Because Levine had worked with Complicité before, he was familiar with the process and knew how to pace himself. He knew, too, that he would take inspiration from Japan itself and wanted to leave some things open before arriving. “I immediately found construction sites covered with fantastic mesh, beautifully attached to scaffolding. They were stretched taut almost like a gauze but tougher.” He found that the material was fireproof and could be ordered to any size and stretched on a frame.

“Simon was interested in working with technology because he felt the world we were portraying in Japan was a technological world. We had no idea in what context that would arrive on stage,” explains Levine. “I spoke to Simon about having a video monitor on a track, and we were able to mock that up in rehearsal with trussing they had in the theatre. When the actors began to interact with that, it became an organic production element.”

Normally, there is a clear demarcation between a problem and its solution. Not so here. In chaos, the company and design team found clues, in problems, solutions. “We all start from nothing. The energy comes from people all working in the same room, behaving a little like members of a jazz band.”

Trading riffs sometimes reduced responsibilities for one designer or another. “The sound person gives you a subway train. I can augment that with a design idea, but it's not necessary to bring on a naturalistic train.” In a standard process, Levine notes he would design in a vacuum and then light and sound would come in. Here, when they mix it up, other design elements can replace scenery in an organic way; actors may also create a sense of place. “Sometimes all you need is a chair and a light in the right position,” he says.

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.