Off-Center is a new theatre experience developed by the Denver Center Theatre Company. It’s theatre that feels like a night out – fewer formalities, less sitting still, more beer, more fun. Everything is guided by the desire to be immersive, convergent, connective, inventive and “in the now.” Its curators — Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin — recently gave their “recipe” for this innovative theatre experience to Theatre Communications Group.
Free beer (or even cheap beer) may be the easiest and fastest way to tap into a new audience. Drinks, food, socializing, and costumes (on the audience, not the performers) are what young Denver locals look for in a night out. Translation: they aren’t looking for theatre.
How do we know? We happen to be young Denverites ourselves and have attended and studied the events that draw the demographic we desire. And most importantly, we asked. We started by conducting focus groups with the young, adventurous, and unattainable. We gave them free beer, asked them what they wanted in a night out, and why they weren’t currently attending our shows. One twenty-something replied bluntly, “Theatre is a bad brand.”
Like many performing arts organizations, the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) is concerned about aging audiences and the challenges of engaging the next generation of theatergoers. Not only does the word “theatre” come with baggage but it also competes with any number of inexpensive social events. Denver offers a range of activities from live music to sports to food truck flash mobs to ping pong warehouses to biking in costumes while drinking. Its 5:00 on a Friday, you have $20 bucks from the ATM or if you’re lucky $40…what would you do?
Our solution: let them drink beer. But behind the beer is a model for curating a complete audience experience before, during, and after the show. We’ve removed the waiting in the lobby for the show to begin. We’ve removed the curtain speech with the endless instructions. We’ve removed the separation between artist and audience. And we’ve added beer, snacks, costumes, and ways to get involved, not just watch.
At Off-Center @ The Jones, DCTC’s home for this new approach to programming, the show starts the minute you walk in the door. Whether you’re putting on costumes in the bathrooms, submitting ideas for that night’s show, or mixing Pop Rocks and beer, you’re involved.
Each show is created with the full experience in mind. Artistic, marketing, development, audience engagement, and production are all equal players in the creation of a show. What’s going on in the lobby? What’s happening online? What happens once the performance ends? What community partnerships can we develop to strengthen the experience and broaden our reach? It’s all part of the show, it’s all part of our Recipe for programming, and it’s all part of making theatre feel like a night out.
For example, take our show DRAG MACHINE, a drag queen time machine that explored the history of drag and its effect on the gay rights’ movement. At home, on your couch, you could create your own drag name using on our online Drag Name Generator and learn how to give yourself a drag makeover with our instructional video. We transformed the theatre lobby into an airport terminal so the show started the minute you entered and were handed cotton candy. Our flight attendants conducted security screenings with fairy wands, Captain Shirley Delta Blow counted down to takeoff over the loudspeakers, and a screen showed arrivals and departures with delays due to “raining men”. Then in order to freshen up for your flight into the Gay Universe, you had to decide which bathroom to enter – Kings or Queens? Inside, we provided the proper makeup, mustaches, wigs, and feather boas to become either one.
The bar was onstage until the show started and, to complete the scene, our ushers costumed in shiny pink vests and rainbow bow ties were straight out of our target demographic. We’ve branded them Team-OFF and they act as our advisory board, street team, and volunteers. In return, they get to participate in creating the shows and get free admission to all of our events. It’s the perfect combination for people who might not have the money, might have some extra time, and might want a creative outlet from their day jobs.
Our approach to curating theatrical experiences was designed through the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, created and administered by EmcArts and funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Trust. The eight-month Innovation Lab process allowed us to research, develop, test, and implement our ideas around new programming and audience engagement. It also helped our organization build the capacity and resources needed to be innovative and support this new initiative.
Off-Center is a test kitchen for the DCTC where we prototype with new forms and techniques to attract and engage the next generation of audiences and artists. We function cross-departmentally so that every department can benefit from Off-Center’s research and development. The Jones is a space where we can take risks and the successes can be taken to scale elsewhere in the organization. The stakes are low, the tickets are cheap, and, thanks to a generous sponsorship from Molson Coors, the beer is free. It’s our opportunity to find out how to reach an audience who isn’t coming to the theatre and develop content that is relevant and directly appeals to them. This model makes every show a prototype and every audience a focus group.
You can find out more about our process by checking out our profile on ArtsFwd.
Bruno Louchouarn’s compositions range from the cantina music heard in the film Total Recall, to works for orchestra, ballet, theatre and multimedia performance pieces. After graduate studies in Paris, he earned a Ph.D. in music composition at UCLA. Currently, Louchouarn teaches music, multimedia, and cognitive science at Occidental College. His work has been widely performed, including at Redcat in Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, UCLA’s Royce Hall, Zipper Hall, the Getty Villa, the Getty Center, the Pasadena Playhouse, the San Diego Rep, Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena, La MaMa in New York City, and the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, as well as many university venues. He also created the musical score for Herbert Siguenza’s A Weekend with Pablo Picasso and talked with PROLOGUE about that experience.
PROLOGUE: First, how do you pronounce your last name?
Bruno Louchouarn: Loo-SHWARN. It’s an old Celtic family name from Brittany—my heritage is both Breton and Mexican.
P: Can you tell me how you approached your musical score for A Weekend with Pablo Picasso?
BL: The story follows the 78-year-old Picasso over the period of three days in 1957 when he’s rushing to start—and finish—a commission for six paintings and two vases on deadline. It’s both a memory play and a performance piece. The play celebrates Picasso’s incredible energy, humor, joie de vivre and creative genius as he plows through this incredible weekend. So the score had to be very buoyant, animated, colorful, descriptive and add just the right soundscape for this amazing artist.
P: Sounds like a dream assignment. Did you start with the period, the art or the music of that time?
BL: It was a tall order. I needed to be familiar with the European art of the early to middle 20th century—which I already was, to a certain extent. I had studied in Paris for a few years and had spent lots of time in the Louvre, one of the world’s great art museums. From that background, I created a theme for this show that changes shape during the performance, much like Picasso’s paintings transform throughout the process of creation.
P: Had you researched the music of the period and place?
BL: Oh, yes. I explored the popular and folk musical styles of France and Spain during this period. Classical music of this period was also incredibly innovative. My score uses clarinet, double bass, guitar, percussion, accordion and piano to underscore and color Picasso’s journey in creating these six paintings. The instruments I chose are so versatile—I can get endless colors and feelings by combining and recombining them.
P: Would you classify the music as pastiche—trying to exactly re-create the musical styles of the 1950s in Europe?
BL: No, not at all, although I try to suggest the musical flavors of the period—the French post-war popular music, as well as Picasso’s Spanish roots, and memory music of Picasso’s early years. A lot of the score, though, is more about emotion, mood, action, and in that way it is more like a movie soundtrack: musical flavor, musical commentary, musical exploration. [It] intertwines four themes: Picasso’s Spanish identity, his self-exile to France, Modernism, and the politics of an era clouded by war and Fascism.
P: Tell me more about your musical choices, for instance in creating a soundscape to underscore the concept of Cubism.
BL: Well, for one thing, I used what we call a “prepared piano”—I put thumb tacks, paper clips and other kinds of hardware onto the hammers of the piano, to get a kind of angular, edgy, metallic sound. I also crawled under the lid of the piano and played the strings with drumsticks, kind of like a zither or hammered dulcimer. I also encouraged my musicians to experiment with unexpected sounds and textures. Think of 20th Century composers like Conlon Nancarrow or Harry Partch who not only composed but invented musical instruments to suit their needs.
P: How do you work with your musicians while rehearsing and recording?
BL: I like to involve the musicians in creating a piece. I enjoy more the rehearsal process than the finished product. Rehearsal for me is pure joy. One of those joys is response and feedback from the musicians. Part of the learning experience is humility, you know. Master musicians can teach you more than a thing or two. You learn what works, what doesn’t, and it becomes part of your language.
P: Can you tell me about working with Herbert Siguenza, the author and performer of Picasso, in creating this piece?
BL: We worked together right from the beginning. Herbert knew my music from my concerts and performances in Los Angeles and approached me when his project was still in the infant stages. We sat together and watched film of Picasso actually painting; we discussed his career, his unique personality, his approach to painting and art, his impact on modern art—and Herbert’s theatrical style, developed in part through his work with L.A.’s Culture Clash.
I started creating musical themes, and sketching the musical score, bringing in musicians, often one at a time, to rehearse and record. At the same time, Herbert was working on drafts and workshops of his script. I built the musical underscoring so it could be flexible enough to stretch or shrink, as required by how the play developed.
P: Did you also contribute to the sound design of the show?
BL: I did. In addition to a sort of café orchestra feel, I also used modern instrumental effects such as sirens and explosions to create an aural context for Picasso’s Guernica, his iconic work on the bombing of the town in Spain’s Basque region during the Spanish Civil War. That era teemed with orchestral invention. I’ve always been fascinated with the Modernist movement in 20th-century music.
P: I understand that Herbert’s play gets into not only Picasso’s art and creative process, but also the political realities of the periods he lived through—and his reactions to them.
BL: Keeping in mind Picasso’s own statement, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” Herbert tackles the role of this legendary artist as he actually paints on stage—and also how he reacts to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Picasso clearly had patriotic feelings for Spain, but he was always absorbed first and foremost by his art. Many think that Guernica, commissioned for the 1937 Paris Exhibition, was his crowning achievement.
P: Herbert features a lot of Picasso’s quotable quotes in the show, along with an almost Cirque du Soleil exuberance, full of movement, painting and color. Creating music and sounds for this show must have been thrilling.
BL: This is such rich material for a composer. There’s so much going on. Herbert showcases Picasso’s proclamations about children, war, ambition, God, love, hate, beauty, friendship, patriotism, eternity—and art as an agent of social change.
P: He plays Picasso and actually paints on stage during the show. The work of the musical score must in part be to reinforce and lift Herbert’s dynamic performance as Picasso the painter.
BL: Yes. Music can do so much to expand the emotional life of a performance. My goal was to musically echo the childlike joy—and hard work—of creation, and also the sense of the clock ticking both as Picasso rushes to finish these six paintings (and two vases) over three days on France’s south coast—and as the man confronts his advancing age. The audience is always delighted and rapt. I hope the music supports and buoys the spirit of the scenes.
When Herbert Siguenza performed his A Weekend With Pablo Picasso at Houston’s Alley Theatre last year, he had a few things to say to The Alley’s Mark Bly about why he paints and why he took on the perilous task of not only impersonating an iconic artist on stage, but also of creating an actual painting on stage.
Mark Bly: What inspired you to write A Weekend With Pablo Picasso?
Herbert Siguenza: I was born with the mysterious gift of being able to draw. Since I was a young boy, I would press crayons against paper and create imaginary worlds and characters. In fact, when I was in second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Sharp, would pull me out of the reading circle and have me draw on giant rolls of butcher paper instead. She kept everything I drew.
Later that semester, we went on a field trip to downtown San Francisco to visit City Hall and the Board of Education building. To my great surprise, there was an exhibit of all my work hanging in the halls! My fellow students were very impressed, and I was immensely proud as well.
That first exhibit made it clear to me that I would grow up to become an artist.
That same year, my mother took me to the dentist. While we waited in the reception area, I picked up a photo book by Douglas Duncan called The Private Life of Picasso. The beautiful black and white photos showed a shirtless old man who painted and played like a child. He also had doves, several dogs and a goat. I turned and said to my mom, “When I grow up I want to be that old man.”
“That’s Pablo Picasso,” she said. “Es loco” [“You’re crazy”]. My dear mother did not discourage me; I knew better. The old man Columbus was not crazy but rather unconventional and free, which inspired me profoundly to later live my own life in that manner. I eventually went to the California College of Arts in Oakland were I got a BFA in printmaking and taught for two years. I also worked for ten years at La Raza Silkscreen Center producing posters for cultural and political events.
All these experiences have contributed to my personal and artistic growth. I see this play as a result of everything I have ever learned in regard to the visual and theatrical arts. It is a perfect and natural marriage for me. A play that I was born to perform starting now. It is a culmination of everything I’ve known since I was a curious child. And yes, I still don’t read very well. Thank you, Mrs. Sharp!
MB: Would you talk about your process as an actor and playwright in creating the play? Where does the painter-artist Herbert Siguenza figure into this stage equation?
HS: I don’t have a formal education in theatre but rather, as I said, a degree in art. To a certain extent that has been very liberating, because I never overthink or analyze what I do. I simply act on a real instinctive level, free from academic philosophies. I just do. My character of Picasso is not an imitation of Picasso because that would be false or impossible. My character of Picasso is me as a rich, old man who paints and lives in southern France. It’s simple and direct.
After 30 years of performing comedy and drama on stage, I feel ready to take on the challenge of portraying an icon. I could never have portrayed him ten years ago, you know? I wasn’t ready to take on such a giant character. He is Falstaff or Big Papa from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Now on the script, I took all the quotes Picasso said during his lifetime and constructed an imaginary weekend in 1957 in his studio, Le Californie. I wanted to recreate the sights and sounds of the pictures I saw in Duncan’s wonderful photographs. My only goal as a playwright was for the audience to experience and feel like they are spending an intimate weekend with a master, a genius but also a Spanish man in exile.
Picasso said that viewing art is a kind of voyeurism. I think viewing theatre is even more voyeuristic, because we are seeing people in their most private moments. In my play I want no separation between performer and audience. The audience is a participant and the reason for the play. There are only a few moments where the audience “is not there” and watches Picasso at his most private and most vulnerable. As a painter I am also vulnerable, I paint and create in front of the audience. No safety net, no gimmicks—just magic and truth in action. Like my acting, I just do it without thinking. I think Picasso would be proud of me.
MB: Picasso’s relationship with 20th century political movements was complex and you explore that struggle in your play. Can you characterize that epic “tug and pull” between art and politics that manifested itself in Picasso’s work?
HS: Picasso’s long-time friend Jaime Sabartes said that, “Picasso is the most apolitical person I know.” I think to a certain degree it was true. Even though Picasso was a member of the French Communist Party and contributed to many leftist causes, he wasn’t politically or physically involved. He was sort of a Communist from afar. As long as he could paint what he wanted in freedom, he was content being in the Party for idealistic reasons.
He was an artist first and foremost and an activist second. I have struggled with that “tug and pull” in my own life as a Chicano/Latino actor-activist. At one point you have to decide what you were meant to do in this life, you know? Are you an artist or a politician?
Picasso remained free and true to his style, he never succumbed to the pressures of the party to paint in a social realist manner. I believe theatre that is didactic and pounds you over the head is the worst kind of theatre and does not accomplish what it wants to do in the first place: make people think. If art does the thinking for you, what’s the use? That’s why Guernica
is so amazingly powerful and eternal. It’s politically charged but aesthetically transcendental.
During the Cold War, Picasso did not fan the fire of nuclear destruction but rather was a global peace campaigner and contributed art and financial donations to many peace organizations and social causes. In fact, the iconography of the Peace Movement—the doves, flowers, children that are used today—was first created by Picasso in the late ’50s.
Picasso was a Humanist who just happened to be a Communist. We are lucky because Guernica, the peace dove, the hands holding flowers were created as if a child had drawn them, and that is why it has lasted so long because it connects with our inner child full of joy, happiness and hope.
This interview originally appeared in the Alley Theatre’s program for A Weekend With Pablo Picasso. Reprinted with permission.
Other Desert Cities delivers many surprises.
One of them changes the game.
You’ve heard the adage: Don’t let a good deed go unpunished.
That seems to have been the state of mind of Jon Robin Baitz when he was unceremoniously thrown off the successful ABC-TV series, “Brothers and Sisters,” a show he had created and for whose success he was largely responsible as a writer/producer.
The parting was rancorous. It was a Hollywood mess Baitz was stewing about in such a dark mood that he promptly set about doing what writers do: find another writing project to absorb all those annoying feelings as he sat down to write Other Desert Cities. Rancor with humor to the rescue, plus a few other emotions that were exactly what the doctor ordered.
Other Desert Cities also happens to be a play about brothers and sisters—only more so. It’s about family (not to be confused with a family play). Like all families, this one has its joys, pleasures, angers, trivia, eccentricities, good will, irritations and secrets. It has a father, the retired star of some second-tier films and other sundries who plays golf a lot and lives in Palm Springs; it has a mother who used to write second-string films and is now a cheery career advice-giver; it has a semi-witty, semi-conscious sister-in-law, fresh out of rehab and good with zingers; it has a compliant son, a successful producer of reality TV; finally, it has the main ingredient—a rebellious daughter, a novelist with one book to her credit and, in her suitcase, one that is about to be published.
In short, it is a family like every other, except that this daughter is on the verge of committing a cardinal family sin. She has come to Palm Springs from her home in New York for the holidays, but the spicy new memoir taking up room in her luggage may blow up the family by revealing a long-buried family tragedy. Happy New Year, everyone.
This may not sound wildly original so far, but Baitz is no second-hand Johnny. He keeps the suspense cooking to a peak of sizzle until, inevitably, the meat of this story emerges bruised, charred and surprisingly tasty.
Question of the day: what exactly is it that makes dysfunctional people, betrayers of one another, so endlessly interesting on stage? Couldn’t we just as easily sit at home and ponder on their alter-egos, all of whom seem to be roosting somewhere in our own extended family tree? Do we really need to pay good money to watch a crisis on display? What makes these characters deliver such lip-smacking theatre?
The short answer is the Gossip Factor. GF for short.
The long answer? Really now, what would there be to say about a perfectly happy family? Not even enough for a 30-minute one-act. Have you ever seen the life and times of a happy family make the evening news? “Went on a great picnic today…” Without conflict or mystery, without some major confrontation or scary, unsolvable issue, no black sheep, no 11-o’clock speech, without the gossip who wants to listen?
The GF is the lubricant—the acid that drives the drama. It drove Hamlet to create situations that resulted in six members of the Danish court dead, himself included. The consequences of King Lear’s actions are not pretty either—torture, bad behavior, lust, madness, poisonings, deaths. O’Neill’s Tyrone family is spooked by drugs, alcohol and unhappiness in that very Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Arthur Miller’s salesman goes to an early grave, and his son to a life of perpetual failure, while King Oedipus faces misery, self-inflicted blindness and exile. August: Osage County? The geography may be different, but there’s another family gone fearfully awry.
All these folks are not having fun, but for some reason we are. Our emotions are given a real workout, which is what emotions are for. We can feel these people’s pain and simultaneously be relieved and happy that it’s happening to them and not us. That’s the dynamic. It’s why we’re mesmerized by murders, hurricanes, tsunamis, road kill and other such carnage. Besides, Baitz, an expert in the field, has provided not only characters that are interesting to listen to and watch, but also characters that turn out to be considerably less predictable than their literary forbears. That may be the best news of all about Other Desert Cities, because that particular endgame is, indeed, a fresh one.
It will not be revealed here. (What would be the point of seeing the play if we were to tell you the most remarkable thing about it?)
Suffice it to know that Baitz has pretty much outdone his predecessors. He has bested them by showing that real life—plays of this nature are always based on real life—is more complex, more interesting and a lot more bewildering than the history of the theatre (so far) might have led you to believe. Which brings us to the most important element the playwright has injected into his play: a strong dose of the unexpected.
When you combine shock, intelligence, humor and unpredictability you get a combustible situation that gives Other Desert Cities its theatrical edge. It also happens to be well written. There is tragedy at the root of this tale elegantly disguised as comedy, and the characters that inhabit this large, sunny living room are skilled at papering over their concerns with wisecracks and minutiae. The veneer of respectability they’ve shouldered for so many years is a gleaming suit of armor with which to stave off the inquiring world. It masks what they want no one to see and what they would rather not remember, even if it is the proverbial elephant in the room. But when that privacy is threatened from within, they defend it with a core of dignity (and a long-buried kernel of truth) that one might not have thought possible.
That is the gold that Baitz delivers—the fun part, the sadness, the fix and the demystification. It lifts the play onto another, more complex plane. At that elevation there is a silence and a giddiness that an audience may not have foreseen—and it is neither the road to Mecca nor the path to hell.
Karen Zacarías’ adaptation of Helen Thorpe’s best selling book, Just Like Us, rounds out the Denver Center Theatre Company’s eighth annual Colorado New Play Summit.
Based on the true story of four Latina high school students, this timely and relevant look at what it means to be undocumented in America played to an enthusiastic audience of industry insiders.
The girls — two documented and two not — discover how their opportunities differ as they move through high school, college and into the world. Their close-knit friendship is jeopardized when opportunities open or close for each girl according to her immigration status.
When a political firestorm arises in the wake of the shooting of a policeman, their situations are thrown into even bolder relief. Punctuated by notable politicians, outspoken critics of undocumented aliens, and vocal proponents of immigration reform, this play grapples with some essential questions: Who is an American? Who gets to live in America? What happens when we don’t agree?
Picture this: You’re living paycheck to paycheck. Your wife tells you she’s pregnant. Your landlord is threatening eviction. Your job as an Elvis impersonator gets ripped out from under you. Your only life preserver is stepping into the role of a drag queen.
Beaten down by bad decisions and bad timing, Casey is despondent, stating “being good at something doesn’t mean you can make a living at it.” But when circumstances literally thrust opportunity upon him, he listens to Miss Tranny Mills who says, “Daddy makes money. Baby coming. Daddy puts on funny clothes. Sends baby to Harvard.” Casey soon steps into his high heels, dons his wig and steps into the spotlight.
This joyous, bawdy comedy with a ton of music and great big heart was complemented by audience outbursts, guffaws, catcalls and everything but “Hallelujah brother”…or sister, whichever blows your skirt up and makes you happy.
Day two of the Denver Center Theatre Company’s eighth annual Colorado New Play Summit heated up just as the snow began to fall. An ensemble of six actors brought to comical life Catherine Trieschmann’s The Most Deserving.
Tasked with awarding $20,000 to a deserving and needy local artist who “demonstrates an underrepresented American voice,” a small town arts council in Ellis County, Kansas erupts into chaos. The collision of egos pushes aside the valuation of art based on merit as the local art council president refuses to consider an unconventional, ethnic artist whose religious art is made out of trash.
Sage philanthropist Edie observes that she “did not match the living fund grant so that everyone could act out their personal grievances,” but grieve they do. Liz, who holds a PhD in art history, teaches at the local community council and is a self-appointed advocate for the mentally-unstable African-American artist, challenges the nay sayers by questioning, “Isn’t great art supposed to provoke?” and is soundly refuted by Arts Council President Jolene who responds, “Not in Kansas.”
This satirical, insightful look at how the arts collide with politics, self-interest, taste, relationships, egos and gossip is ripe with one-liners, memorable dialogue and a fundamental question — how do you place a value on art?
Denver Center commissioned playwright Marcus Gardley regaled and moved a standing-room-only crowd at the eighth annual Colorado New Play Summit.
The 200+ guests were drawn into his play, black odyssey, a magical retelling of Homer’s Odyssey told through the African American experience.
The great Greek archetypes blend myth and history into modern reality as the characters slip and slide through time. Great Grand Daddy Deus masterfully manipulates the players while Great Aunt Tina intervenes to protect Ulysses from his vengeful Uncle Sidin.
Ripped apart by war, Nella Pee and Ulysses seek to reunite while moving through the rough streets of Harlem, the Iran/Iraq war, the Civil Rights Movement and the rift between the North and the South. The audience is draw through time as the cast weaves together fact and fiction to create a fabric that is a vibrant retelling of Zeus, Poseidon and Ulysses.
Nella and Ulysses move separately through the play but on parallel journeys as they flee to escape persecution and run toward salvation — the salvation found in peace, family and love.
A commission of the Denver Center Theatre Company, this play focuses on a woman at a crossroads in her life. Interestingly — and setting the scene for Cate’s own indiscretion — she becomes obsessed with her neighbor, who is exposed for having maintained two families in two different cities for years.
Cate is the mother of 12-year-old Maddie and wife to David, who has been unemployed for more than a year, unable (some might say unwilling) to find a job equal to his years of experience. That creates tension in their marriage.
Despite having recently relocated from Seattle to Chicago, Cate frequently must return to the northwest for her work in the computer gaming industry. When visiting, she meets Eddie, the proprietor of a new flower store, with whom she has an instant spark.
Cate assesses how to navigate “the vast in-between” — that state between being married and single, between commitment and transgression, between selfishness and responsibility. At one point this central character asks whether anyone should marry anymore when “the thing that binds us together tears us apart.”
This timely and candid look at relationships and marriage in today’s troubled economy, asks audiences, “Where would you draw the line?”
The 2013 Colorado New Play Summit runs February 8-10, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. To view an interview with the playwright, visit:
A Prologue exchange with Romeo & Juliet set designer Michael Ganio and costume designer Christina Poddubiuk
MICHAEL GANIO (MG) is a longtime set and costume designer with Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), having designed everything from Shakespearean productions to contemporary plays on OSF’s varied performing spaces. This time he is designing for Denver Center Theatre Company, in collaboration with director Scott Wentworth.
CHRISTINA PODDUBIUK (CP) is a Canadian designer currently based in Stratford, Ontario. She studied at the National Theatre School of Canada, and worked many theatre jobs before becoming a designer at the Stratford Festival.
Prologue: Michael, Christina: Can you tell me first what period the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) production of Romeo & Juliet is set in?
MG: Director Scott Wentworth’s concept is to keep the play in the Elizabethan era, probably around 1590 and up. It’s a very elegant, lush, and stylish period to re-create onstage.
P: Let’s start with the set. You’re designing for DCTC’s Stage Theatre, which has a thrust stage rather than a proscenium. Is that a challenge?
MG: Yes and no. I’ve designed for every theatre at Oregon Shakespeare—thrust stages, proscenium, three-quarter round. Each theatre makes its own design demands—DCTC’s Stage Theatre is a thrust, which allows the action to move downstage more. The Stage was originally designed by OSF’s Richard L. Hay, so I’m very well acquainted with it. Sightlines are one of the first issues for The Stage or any other theatre—I don’t want my sets to be aimed just at the expensive seats, I want the entire audience to have a clear view of the set and the action.
P: Will we see a classic Shakespearean set à la the Globe Theatre?
MG: No, indeed. My set will be very streamlined, almost a neutral space for the action to take place on. In a sense, the set will work as a frame to set off Christina’s gorgeous, detailed Elizabethan costumes—as well as the swift action of the play. Having a beautiful neutral surrounding will highlight the costumes and free up Christina to use whatever palette she decides on. We’re also designing all the props—the detail, color, size and style of the props works with the costumes to create the world of the play. Our goal is to enable the audience to actually hear the play, to engage their imaginations, without a lot of visual distraction. We want them to follow the story, to be entertained, but also to fall in love with Shakespeare’s language.
P: You used a great metaphor involving dinner plates—
MG: Yes! I like to think of the set as a plate—and the action of the play as the meal that goes on that plate. The plate by itself means nothing, but it is crucial to serving the meal.
P: There’s so much more to set design than many people realize—not only research and sketches and building a scale model, and turning sketches into blueprints. Do you have an assistant?
MG: I don’t have an assistant. In a way, DCTC’s amazing design studio manager, Lisa Orzolek, acts as my assistant here. I do send a quarter-inch model of the set to Lisa, then she and her staff make a larger half-inch model and also create all the technical renderings that the scene shop needs to budget and build the sets accurately. Unfortunately not all theatres I design for have a Lisa Orzolek on staff. In some cases I have to take on a more technical role in addition to the designs.
P: Christina, this production will be set in the Elizabethan era, a time when wealthy families such as the Capulets and Montagues wore beautifully elaborate clothes. What can you tell us about the nuts and bolts of costume design—what must you consider when creating costumes?
CP: I started out doing hands-on work with costumes. My first jobs in theatre were wardrobe work: sewing, building, dressing actors. I did an opera tour as wardrobe assistant, doing everything from loading costumes into the theatre and maintaining them after every performance. Within two years I had my first job at the Stratford Festival as a dyer and that was probably my first real creative experience in which I learned how beautiful clothes can be when you actually have the time and budget to really pay attention to detail in every step of the process. I loved that work and soon afterward I started to design at Stratford.
P: It sounds as though you have a very practical understanding of how clothing needs to work for the actor.
CP: Yes, true. In a period piece such as Romeo & Juliet, which is physically very active, we want clothes that look wonderful, evoke the period, but also are easy to move in and won’t damage easily. And more: I want the costumes to have the rich period hand-work and detail that a firstclass shop like DCTC’s can create.
P: Can you tell me some secrets of the costume design process?
CP: I like to be well prepared for the first meeting with the director, because often his or her time is limited. At that meeting, I will have read the play several times—
MG: Me too! And I listen to recordings of the play when I can, as I’m working—
CP: Yes! To see how many costume changes there are, to make a prop list, to analyze where the entrances and exits are.
P: So, you really know the text inside out by then.
CP: Next I start to do visual research. I look at photography of the period or paintings or history books, and I look for thematic influences.
P: To both of you, who are your most important collaborators?
CP: I need to be in touch with the set designer as soon as possible so we’re not going off in two entirely different directions.
MG: Ditto for me—the director, the costume designer.
CP: It can be very rewarding to work with set designers on a show. If they have different ideas, it really influences my process, so we need to stay in close communication. Whereas a lighting designer might normally come into the process a little later on.
MG: BUT. That lighting designer is crucial to our work as well. He not only lights the action, but the costumes and sets as well—the lighting man is really the fourth piece of the design equation, along with the director, sets and costumes. Not to mention the actors.
CP: It’s all about teamwork. We act together to serve the director’s vision, and contribute our own individual aesthetic, experience and imagination to make the play wonderful for the audience, the actors, the director—and the theatre itself.
P: Thanks to you both. Lots to look forward to.
This article was first published in Prologue, the Denver Center Theatre Company’s subscriber newsletter.