Saturday, May 03, 2008

metaDRAMA: On Sets

Just a quick question to all the directors and set designers out there working for low-budgeted off-off-Broadway and off-Broadway shows. Is a set really necessary for your show? I ask this in all honesty, because I don't know how budgets are handled or artistic decisions are made (is there a stigma with bare-bones?), but I've seen far too many shows lately that shoot themselves in the foot by trying to put something cheap and flimsy up on stage.

For instance, I took some criticism lately for criticizing the periaktoi used in Barcinda Forest, and I just called out the nondescript distraction of the set in Cherry Docs. I'm not calling for elaborate sets, however. I'm calling, in these cases, for a blacker box. The sort of audience that goes to off-off-Broadway isn't expecting to be blown away by a set. They're going because they believe in the power of theater -- in action itself -- or because they want to see something radical, something too experimental to be seen as commercial viable.

I'm not saying sets aren't a nice touch, but would theatergoers have been disappointed at The Happy Sad, an underground show at The Flea, if there hadn't been a faithfully reproduced sign for the Atlantic Avenue subway stop? Shouldn't the emphasis be on getting the play itself up? That's why I commend big shows like The 39 Steps, or directors like Leigh Silverman (Yellow Face, Beebo Brinker Chronicles, Well): they remind us how creative we can be with so little. That's what's great about independent groups like The Debate Society: they know enough about working with a little (as with A Thought About Raya) that when they get a lot (The Eaten Heart) it doesn't feel wasted. So it goes with puppet-ensembles that work on a small enough scale to know exactly what they need: Lone Wolf Tribe knew it needed a warehouse of material for Bride; Wakka-Wakka shaved blocks into exactly what they needed for Fabrik.

This must seem a bit odd to read for those of you who know me as a huge supporter of aesthetics in the theater. But understand: the shows I've found sublimely beautiful, like The Cataract, or transFIGURES, or The Thugs, or God's Ear -- they knew the exact cost, the "heft and weight" if you will, of each plank, scaffold, elevator, or tile on that set. And if a show is going to spend money just to have a set, or is going to splurge for a mediocre show (as happens a little too often on Broadway -- Young Frankenstein anyone?), it gets to be distracting. It takes away from the art, which, if you read too many blogs, is apparently dying on a daily basis.

So really, to all the set designers, directors, and companies out there: what sort of thinking goes into your stance on the visual production elements of your shows?

1 comment:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Aaron, Speaking of doing more with less in terms of set design, have you seen Glory Days? Talk about minimalistic, although I guess you could argue that it's more than some of the other shows you've mentioned.