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.
The Taming of the Shrew has been a paradox of late.
Despite harsh feminist critiques over the past 40 years (in fact there are many who feel the play is so deeply misogynistic that Kate and Petruchio should be banished from the stage for good), Shrew remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies. How can this be? Artistic Director Kent Thompson, who is directing the play this season, views the play not as merciless gender warfare but as a battle of equals, “the kind of fight between two people who are outside the norms of conventional society…Two people with larger than life personalities who fight their way through their romance and end up being in love.”
To stage his reading of the play, Thompson sought out a period when roles were well defined and rather inflexible. He landed on the 1950s, a time of conventional role models for men and women—women could keep house while men brought home the bacon. Katherina is too strong-willed and intelligent to comfortably fit into a housewife’s apron, and Petruchio is too wild to settle for a gray-flannelled businessman’s life. So in this version, Petruchio is a cowboy from Texas, while Katherina (or Kate) is a fiery Italian-American who works in her father’s restaurant in Chicago.
The play takes place in an imagined America with U.S. place names changed to the Italian cities of Shakespeare’s text. Scenic designer David Barber has dreamed up a large map of the country that will hover over the set, lighting up to show the travels of the various characters. The main playing area rests on a 22-foot-diameter revolve to keep the story’s many scenes flowing smoothly. To the left and right of the set, billboards set the period by displaying iconographic 50s’ advertising art. Watch for this: as “a little extra added kick” and to lighten the mood, Barber is sneaking clever Shakespearean references into each of the signs.
Speaking of scene changes, composer Gregg Coffin will be composing brief songs based on Shakespearean text set to 50s-style music. This is the great period for Italian-American singers: Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett to name only a few, so he’s got plenty to work with. And expect some country western sounds to accompany Petruchio’s visits to his ranch deep in the heart of Texas. Coffin is also going to have a bit of fun “Elvis-ing up” the scene in which Lucentio, disguised as a music teacher, gives Bianca a lesson.
Costume designer Susan Branch describes the costumes as having a heightened reality: “There are certain icons, like Elvis, that are being referenced. We’ve created the iconic gangster from New Jersey and the iconic cowboy from Texas.” She admits it’s difficult when clothing is described in the play, such as Petruchio’s wedding outfit, and you are setting it in a different period. “How do you take the clothing of the period you’re dealing with and still make the descriptions work?” she asks. “It’s fun to figure that out.”
While Bianca will be dressed as a bobby-soxer (“more frivolous, lightweight, a girly-girl”), headstrong Kate will be much more no-nonsense. She will be introduced working in her father’s restaurant, dressed in functional slacks and flat shoes. Her clothing tells a story of its own—her wedding dress getting soiled on the trip home with Petruchio, the improvised outfit his ranch hands rustle up for her, and finally the beautiful dress that the tailor made for her (the one Petruchio destroyed in front of her eyes).
Although many of us remember the 50s in black and white, Thompson wants this to be a Technicolor production, which really works for Tom Sturge, the lighting designer: “The play is definitely set in the summer, so that lends itself to the hot stickiness of Chicago and the lush, bright sunlight in Texas. Sturge also feels the use of bright color lends itself to comedy: “The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy, and if it takes itself too seriously it will die a quick and sudden death.”
That may have been the problem with the last production of the play he worked on which featured cross-gender casting. “That,” Sturge admits, “was a pretty big mistake.”
For Thompson, Shakespeare’s characters are inherently bold and colorful: “All the characters come right out of Commedia dell’Arte. Gremio, the old Pantalone pursuing the young woman; Lucentio, the handsome young man whose father won’t let him marry; Bianca as the female version of that; and Kate as the shrew.”
At the end of the day, where does Thompson come down on the question of Petruchio’s (mis)treatment of Kate?
“I don’t think that what Petruchio does to Kate is cruel, but he gets close to being not very nice. I think audiences will see the progression of their love, because I think that, even in a play based on Commedia, Shakespeare has planted clues to show that she starts to understand his game.”
In the final, most controversial speech of the play, Kate’s vow of love and possible submission, Thompson believes she’s promising “…what she’s willing to do for him more than making a statement that she’s capitulated completely as a human being, because I don’t think she has.”
This article originally appeared in PROLOGUE, the Denver Center Theatre Company’s subscriber newsletter.
“To show our simple skill, that is the true beginning of our end.” These Shakespearean words are spoken by the character, Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play performed by teens, this summer at the Denver Center Theatre Academy (DCTA). They are comical words, but apply to every modest performer once he/she has had a real taste of being on stage. Just ask our teenage summer actors.
Many of the teens started at DCTA in their pre-adolescent years and have continued to come back again and again. What is it about the stage that calls them back? Could it be the educators and directors with their fun approach to the teaching of expression? Is it the chance for students to broadcast their own creative input? Perhaps, it is the opportunity to be a part of something, with others who share their passion. Whatever the reason, the outcome is a marvelous cast of students.
Each summer, the new students have just as much fun as the old. Emerging from different communities and backgrounds, they come together in a friendly atmosphere to create as a team. At the end of the summer, they implement this teamwork in their choice of video production or onstage performance. Whichever route they choose, the students leave with a sense of accomplishment.
In video production, known as Your Tube, teens are encouraged to use both their entertainment and real-world knowledge to brainstorm ideas using storytelling tactics such as settings, plots, outlines, etc. The classes are small and concentrated to roughly a dozen students per class, which allows all students participation in the discussions as the class collectively composes a storyline.
While participation is prevalent, the students also are given exercises and individual tasks where they apply critical thinking and problem solving. They become masters of improvisation by the end of the class. After a long structured year at their regular schools, students thrive on the chance to be creative while learning. Teens have the chance to be a kid again with fun activities and games, but use adult-like knowledge to expand on depth and creativity.
At the end of the week, the students get to take home a reward for their efforts – the final masterpiece. With graphic design and imagery, the created story is rehearsed and put to production on a video that students can take home and share with family and friends.
As the Your Tube teen class learns how to speak to the camera, the teen performance class learns how to speak to the audience. How do they learn this? Through the guidance of their active mentor, the director. With an assistant director for extra critiquing, the director ensures the students learn as much as possible within the two-week production.
All students are involved and receive every opportunity for performance preparation. They eagerly adopt the play as their own by enriching it with emphasis on dictation, action, emotion and placement - components strengthened by the director’s navigational dexterity. Constantly refreshed with breaks and rotation, the students are attentive throughout the day.
For some teens, the stage has a magnetism that repeatedly pulls them in. For others, the stage is an adventure awaiting the hero to explore its boundaries. Consequently, at DCTA, it is no mystery why the students come back week after week, year after year: because here, everyone plays a part!
The Denver Center Theatre Academy is now enrolling for its Fall term. Please call 303.446.4892 or go to http://www.denvercenter.org/education.