I love working at small and/or new theatre companies. At their best, the shows they produce are part academia, part summer camp, part science experiment, and a physical and mental workout. With the right chemistry, the barriers break down and real communal storytelling happens. I’ve made sock puppets. I’ve painted more than one floor. I’ve upholstered, bought props and sewn buttons – and I’m just a lighting designer. For me, it’s great to stretch some muscles that I would otherwise neglect. And this hyper-collaborative process isn’t just for my benefit. Much of what these companies produce is new, rarely staged, or reaches niche groups. To me, it’s the heart of the theatre scene in Los Angeles.
But there’s something transient about the scene that exists mostly in 99-seat houses. There are the stalwarts of course; but it’s a scene run on youthful energy and the desire to grow and change. Instead of the linear, continuous leadership of august institutions, it’s like the forest floor – rich, wild, and growing in every direction at once. While this is fertile ground for creativity, it can be difficult to build a knowledge base to be passed down. That’s why I’m writing this blog. There are some things that have come up for me over and over again around town. I just want to share my views as a designer and open up the conversation.
First and foremost, designers are your friends, collaborators and fellow story-tellers. Bring us on board early and let our ideas morph along with the director’s until it all finally gels together. Encourage early inter-departmental thought and communication. If the set design is finished by the time the other designers are hired, there’s no time for other voices to allow it to grow and adapt. Resist the lure of the attractive surface treatment behind the actors. Just as actors can use their vocabularies to tell the story, there are certain things that design can say that the actors can’t. If you begin by thinking about what the design can say instead of what it can do (It splits apart! It rolls downstage! It changes color!) the results can be unbelievably gratifying (and design that’s intelligent doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective).
Second, don’t just be respectful of your designer’s work, be respectful of all designers’ work. This mostly applies to very new shows that have recently had successful runs or shows that are produced frequently. Please don’t ask or allow your designers to use someone else’s work as their own. The original poster, the costumes from the movie, and that amazing light cue from the Broadway production are all the work of other highly trained, hardworking designers. If they don’t get a credit and compensation, using their work is unethical. This is such an easy one to avoid if you start with point one. If the designers are with you from the start of the process, and asking what you want to say, everyone starts to move towards a show that is singular to your theatre. Isn’t that more interesting?
Lastly, help your designers and crew by being concerned for their safety. We all know about audience safety and fire codes (right?). We all know about actor safety so we make sure the set and effects are safe (right?). The designers and crew frequently get overlooked in our safety checks. Are people on ladders or using power tools alone in the theatre? Do they know where the first aid kit is? Is there a way to call for help? Are they lifting things that are too heavy or unwieldy? What about that dimmer that sparked that someone just put tape over? If you hadn’t been in this theatre before would you know what was wrong with it or how you could hurt yourself? All of these common situations can be fixed for free with a little awareness of the problem and better communication. It also tells your designers that you care about them as a member of the team and appreciate the work they’re doing.
So go ahead and produce that new, cutting edge work, get everyone on board, and if you’re forming a new company, consider adding some designers as company members to provide some insight as you grow. If you embrace design as another aspect of dramaturgy, I promise you’ll only strengthen your productions and you’ll start to accumulate a roster of designers eager to do their best work at your theatre.
Elizabeth Harper is a lighting designer based in Los Angeles. She is a 2010 and 2011 Ovation Award nominee and a member of United Scenic Artist Local 829. www.eharperdesign.com
Elizabeth received a 2010 Ovation Award nomination for her Lighting Design work in The Theatre @ Boston Court production of The Twentieth Century Way.