Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Theatre Space - Intimate and Grand? Helicopter AND Airplane

The Marines contend that the V-22 is an assault aircraft and that no pilot who finds himself dodging bullets is going to fly it gently. "The airplane is incredibly maneuverable," says Lieut. Colonel Anthony (Buddy) Bianca, a veteran V-22 pilot. But the dirty little secret about an aircraft that combines the best features of an airplane and a helicopter is that it combines their worst features too. The V-22 can't glide as well as an airplane, and it can't hover as well as a helicopter.

That's from the recent Time Magazine cover story on the V-22 Osprey, which has a history reminiscent of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

At Santa Monica College a new theatre has opened.

Locally, a new space has opened in the old Hasty Pudding Building, over at Harvard.

Both these theatres have have multi-faceted staging options:

At the Harvard Space:

The stage opens simply to the audience, without being either a thrust type or a proscenium, though it can be given a proscenium look by means of a curtain. A mechanical platform at stage front moves up and down. The platform does triple duty: It can be a stage enlargement, an elevator to move scenery up and down, or an orchestra pit. That's typical of the ingenuity of the New
College Theatre. Fitting everything into the available space behind the old Pudding was a 3-D problem, like solving a Rubik's Cube.

In California:

"What makes the Stage unique is an apparent duality," Zecchetto said. "It's built upon simultaneous intimacy and grandness. It's big and small at the same time."

The design, inspired by the "horseshoe" shape of Italian opera houses, allows eye contact with the actors and musicians onstage from any seat in the house. But the theater, despite its small seating area, has a variable proscenium and, according to SMC officials, a stage larger than UCLA's Royce Hall, which seats 1,833.

The Stage will be able to accommodate a full orchestra onstage and a 45-member orchestra in the pit. The acoustician is Chris Jaffe of Santa Monica-based Jaffe Holden Acoustics."Theaters of this seating capacity can never do the things we can," Zecchetto said. "I do not think there is another performance space in the United States with these characteristics."

"It's grand AND intimate" sort of reminds me of "it's a helicopter AND an airplane."

Don Hall had a post yesterday about, "what do you really need for theatre?"

"Where are today's Arthur Miller's?" I'd hazard a guess that whomever they are, they are not writing for shows that require a giant functioning wizard head or the ability to fly from the rafters. It is likely that this generation's great playwrights are produced on the fringe of popular theater with budgets that are just a bit more than a month's rent in Lincolnwood.


The magician who trucks in card tricks can, unfortunately, only play to an intimate gathering. Only the David Copperfield's of the world get the big stadiums and to play a big house, you gotta have some gimmick.

In the 1980's Cameron McIntosh introduced the world of music theater to the swinging chandelier and the blockbuster musical was in vogue again after years of neglect. Twenty-seven years later, the pendulum swing to a more intimate card trick has yet to sway fully although shows like Doubt seem to be able to introduce a less gaudy aesthetic and still succeed.

Boston is finally getting a production of Mary Zimmerman's Metamporphosis, directed by Sugan co-founder Carmel O'Reilly, and I wonder what space other than the Loeb could accomodate it. (I saw it at the Intiman in Seattle which has an overall thrust configuration.) Perhaps this is what has kept it away. But while technological advances are important, maybe it does boil down to, "it's not the size, but how you use it."

The ART has always done visually stunning design and lighting work in the Loeb Drama Center, and the new Zero Arrow, but some of the other spaces in town have trouble creating a truly intriguing design concept within their cozy confines.

I know there are designers who read this blog. What are some of the better or innovative designs or lighting you have seen for smaller theater spaces in the last season or two?

I will throw out two I liked, but I am, by no means an expert on design:

PS Films presented Simon Says at the Black Box in the Boston Center for the Arts and created a thoroughly convincing, (yet abstract enough,) disheveled and cluttered scholar's study. Filled with dark wood, glass-doored bookcases and ancient and decade old tomes, the newspaper strewn office suggested perfectly the eccentric, and possibly looney, academic who inhabits it. The detail, (right down to the solid chairs emblazoned with both an ivy league seal and some type of Eastern characters,) was worthy of some of th Huntington sets. The curtains to the office served as screens to use video projections, although I can't comment too accurately about this effect because I was sitting very close and sharply to one side.

(What I love about the Boston Center for the Arts is that a couple of weeks later this intimate setting has now been transformed into the canvas for the epic Kentucky Cycle.)

I also liked how director and designer worked together to make New Rep's production of White People an interesting weave of three seemingly disconnected monologues.

Anybody else?


Thomas Garvey said...

Frankly, I've always thought the Loeb was just about the worst space in town. The proportions are all wrong, the acoustics are flat, and it generally has about as "live" a vibe as a very-wide-screen TV. Of course this dead atmosphere jives nicely with the ART's assumption of an empty, absurd universe. And arguably Zero Arrow is even worse. I'm never quite sure why designers insist on fucking with theatre design: if it ain't broke, don't "fix" it, I say.

Eric said...

I think that although the Lyric is not one of the smallest spaces In Boston, it certainly is a challenging one. Janie Howland's designs for Urinetown and Miss Witherspoon come to mind as utilizing all of the space very economically and creatively. The fold-out scenery for "Urinetown" was a smart idea that made the scene changes effortless, and she packed the rest of the theater with delightful surprises, like the Cladwell building and the "Secret Hide Out" sign. The hanging baby dolls in Miss Witherspoon were just the right touch that I think the rest of the production lacked. The Actor's Shakespeare Project site-specific productions also often bring out creative solutions. David R Gammons's "Titus Andronicus", I thought, was a near-perfect use of a very difficult space that was, in the end, incredibly rewarding. Although it certainly had sight-line problems, every seat had its rewards, and the lighting (from strobes to fluorescent lights to footlights) was inspired. lastly, I think most viewers would be hard pressed to find more fun design then by the Gold Dust Orphans. They really own their space (the club Ramrod, a.k.a The Ramrod Performing Arts Center) and use such a variety of methods.

Art said...

Thanks for the examples Eric.

The Lyric does come up with some great solutions.

Thomas: The Loeb is an awkward space. The state of the art theaters (which the Loeb was in its day,) can be like the camel by commitee. They end up the worst of all worlds.

Daniel Bourque said...

Metamorphoses. I saw it when it was in NYC a few years ago- a great experience. I was down next to the stage in the splash seats. Just visually amazing- a real highlight of my theatregoing experiences. On the other hand, funnily enough, while it's a big hit with audiences a lot of hardened theatre professionals I know haven't liked it, the argument basically being that it's all flash and no substance... with which I'd disagree. While it's definitely not an intellectual play, the populism of it doesn't bother me in the slightest. Honestly, what's really surprising is that it has never turned up at the Huntington. Mary Zimmerman directed a couple of her shows there in the late 90's before the Martin era began in earnest.

Actually, Metamorphoses HAS been produced in Boston.... and literally within the last few weeks! Boston College just did it. I've known about this for a while since a friend of mine teaches there. I thought about going but was in New York last weekend and couldn't fit it into my schedule without all kinds of inconvenience so I didn't. I'll catch the HRDC show though.

and here's a review:

It was also done at an area high school, Southstage in Newton last year. (Technically not Boston, but...) Nancy Curran Willis directed it; and Larry reviewed it here.

***News Flash*** (Hat Tip to Google) Apparently, Boston Actors Theatre is going to be doing it in the spring at the BCA:

Art said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the clarifications.

Egg on my face with not mentioning my alma mater. What can I say, I am too caught up in the football fever at the Heights.

I was in South Bend this past weekend for the Notre Dame game.

I was always wondering about the Huntington as well. After all, they did have all that water downstage for Nicky Martin's Dead End, right?

Todd Williams said...

The pool equipment (water heater/circulator, etc) that the Huntington bought for "Dead End" has been used in several productions of "Metamorphoses". Is that close enough? I know there was plenty of talk about a Huntington production back in the day, but I don't recall why it never materialized.

I would, personally, love to do another show or two with Mary Zimmerman. I loved "Journey to the West". It was fantastic, fun and imaginative story telling with great design. I wasn't such a fan of "Midsummer Night's Dream" though we had some COOL design elements in that show (the 30' diameter neon crescent moon was my fav. I'm not sure that innovation helped tell the story.