So, when you do a lot of off-Broadway theater, you become a little immune to the “this shows got legs!!” attitude. Or at least ambivalent. People are (of course) interested in having the highest possible production values, even on small plays. And thinking that the show is super important, is going to be a big hit, is going to Broadway, is a way of expressing that. Of enforcing it.
Look, I love high production values as much as anyone, and I always approach my work from that angle, but sometimes in all that you forget why people do this in the first place.
Anyways, after a long stint of shows with legs, I took a job designing a set for Creative Arts Team Youth Theater. Woah.
The way CAT YT works is that they are affiliated with the teaching through the arts program at CUNY. Their Youth Theater is open to kids from all over the city, with all kinds of backgrounds, experience levels etc. Theres no audition, and the program is free. And the way it works is, they split the kids (or Young People, as they call them), into groups, give them a theme, and have them collaboratively develop a show. They write it and stage it in groups and then peice it all together towards the end.
And they don’t hold anything back in the writing. The Young People are completely unafraid: unafraid to be controversial, to be cutesie, to sing and dance, to mime dying, to make gay jokes, to deal with issues like child abuse and 9/11. They really work as a team and support each other, even when they’re flirting and fighting as 36 kids between the ages of 14 and 18 are wont to do.
As a designer, you watch the pieced together version, the week before tech, and then deliver a design the following day. Once the design is approved, you have about 4 days to get it built and delivered (they dont have support for this). Then you load into the theater, tech for a few hours and off you go.
Anyways, this show was even more special because it toured. Like, they took the set to 3 different community centers and old folks’ homes, and then moved it into a theater. Oh, and we had four hours total in the theater to load it in (including lights and sound). And also, in the theater, we couldn’t use any paint at all, we couldn’t screw anything into the floor, etc etc.
The play, From Time to Time was about time, and memory, so their set ended up being three folding screens in an abstracted skyline of new york, with a paint treatment that went from black and white to color, from abstract and brush-ey to clean and graphic. We built really light, strong flats, held together with loose pin hinges, and did a serious paint treatment. Once we got into the the theater, I made them a graphic floor which was abstracted sidewalks, entirely out of masking tape.
So, what was really wonderful about working with this group was the contrast to the shows with legs. These are people who are making theater because they love it, because they learn from it, because they make friends making it, because they have a place to express themselves that is outside of their daily lives. I can guarantee you that almost everyone that makes theater professionally started for at least one of these reasons, and it is such a pleasure to be around. I know I did it for the boys.
Also, what was super cool was that they really know what they need. Like the floor. They needed something regular, something graphic, something the YPs (or Young People) could use to track their blocking. They knew they needed something abstract, something malleable, and they were uncompromising about the essentials.
Working on this show reminded me of why set design is design. They needed something super-functional. It had to travel, endure, give them certain guidelines. Even beauty was functional in this context: it gave the kids an environment that made their show feel professional. That got them focused. And it didn’t have legs, but it still had good production values.