Insta-Theater! PART 2

Just to summarize, this is a series of posts about things that are always effective design tactics onstage… and why. Part 1 was about walls of stuff — think scenery that are piles of a single type of object (be it walls of books, boxes or chairs) — and also included in that section are cabinets of curiosity and the like.

Here we are, after a long hiatus, at part 2. Nature/Artifice.

I went to the zoo today. It’s not something I do often or anything, but it’s walking distance from my parents’ house in DC, and it was a lovely morning, so I went.

Zoos reveal the best and the worst of humanity. The impulse to preserve, study, learn and teach about animals is really beautiful. Zoo exhibits are devoted to teaching visitors to love and respect the natural world. They are only interaction some people have with the huge variety that you see in nature.

That said, anyone who has ever been to the zoo probably has mixed feelings about them. Seeing wild animals caged with people gawking at them and children screaming can be really sickening. Today I saw a wolf hiding in the shadows of its exhibit while 15 7-year-olds howled at it incessantly in a cruel role reversal. I tried to imaging the children in the exhibit and the wolves on the outside. My experience was in many ways more revealing about people than animals.

I took some photos in the bird house that seemed a fitting start to this post:

Nature/Artifice. A fancy way of saying that trees inside make really awesome sets. We love seeing nature displaced. Recontextualized. My first example (obviously) is the caging of nature. I can’t tell you how many times zoo exhibits, natural history dioramas, aquariums and the like have inspired me in my design work. First of all, they quite literally provide a frame or a stage for nature. So they are inherently theatrical. They are little sets of their own. Secondly these places are about preservation and re-creation. They are nostalgic in that way (see: cabinets of curiosity in Part 1). When it comes to Insta-Theater, nostalgia is a great place to start.

An then there are ruins.

This is a drawing of Tintern Abbey from the Romantic period. Coming in with late imperialism, romantic artists were obsessed with ruins. They developed an entire aesthetic credo around the idea of the Picturesque, which was the impulse to idealize nature in its wildness. There are many reasons why this happened, and why it happened when it happened, and why it happened with the English. They are fascinating, but I won’t discuss them here. In her excellent book Pleasure of Ruins, Rose Macaulay talks about the human impulse to love ruins and to romanticize them. She also talks about the ruin craze of the mid-nineteenth century when people had ruins manufactured on their properties. Yes, just like in Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. Its an awesome book.

In the modern period perhaps this translates to those amazing images of ruined factories in cities like Detroit, which has become a mecca for ruin-hunters.

Putting trees/ nature into interior spaces also creates a very “dream-like” space. It can feel fantastical. I think we have all seen the restaurants with the trees covered in Christmas lights in the dining rooms.

This is an image that I find incredibly inspiring. That moment in Where the Wild Things Are when the wallpaper expands into a forest completely captures the power of bringing nature into an interior space: It builds into our childhood desire to bring the outside inside. It creates instantly the sense of a fantasy space, simply by improbable juxtaposition. I’ll get into juxtaposition more in Part 3.

I keep mentioning trees and plants, but the same rules apply to other natural elements such as water or fog: a baroque drawing room that’s been flooded? That’s Insta-Theater to me.

I think of that wonderful set in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou that is the flooded hotel lobby. You could do almost any play in there, and it would be make sense.

I leave you with that thought. Part 3? Upstairs/Downstairs. Not the show.

Oh and PS. the tree? Totally a prop.

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Insta-Theater! PART 1

I’ve been designing elements of 2-3 shows per week for the last 6 months. Like 2–3 different shows: different scripts, different periods, different styles, different elements. After a while, if you haven’t completely burnt out, you start to notice that there are certain design tropes that are sure-fire ways of making something look theatrically effective. Not necessarily right for the play, but visually arresting. Thus, “Insta-Theater” is born.

Quick caveat — this is not just about theater: you see Insta-Theater everywhere. In film, store windows, web and print design…. wherever someone is trying to get your attention with an image. Also, I have no problem with Insta-Theater. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m just interested in what it is about these scenarios that is so effective.

Is that vague and general enough? How about examples. (I’m going to use examples from the art world primarily in this post because I think that its hard to talk about actual theater sets purely aesthetically since they also need to be considered on the level of the text, how the space is used, the directors intention etc.)

Insta-Theater method 1: Lots of the same thing piled up over and over.

This is a kind of general category, because there are basically 2 approaches: The walls of stuff method, and the cabinet of curiosity method.

The wall of stuff method is essentially the repetition of a single item over and over again. Somehow when you do this, the object in question kind of transcends its meaning or use — becomes a texture and an image. It also makes us question all of the meanings that we bring internally to certain objects.

This is an installation by the artist Ai Weiwei in the Turbine Room at the Tate Modern in London. Essentially, the entire floor of this massive space is covered in tiny sunflower seed sculptures made from porcelain. We could talk all day about what this piece means, and how it was made, and what the atmosphere is like, and whether its effective or not, but people far more qualified than I have done so already. However, its a great piece of Insta-Theater. Think about it onstage: an entire floor made of some kind of seed, or toy or… anything. Depends on the play.

I think the pile of stuff method is really effective because in asking us to see the same thing over and over, the artist/designer is referencing both our own associations with the object (nostalgia will be coming up a lot in this post), and the unfamiliarity that comes with excessive repetition. Somehow, that makes us feel something.

part 2: The Cabinet of Curiosities.

This isn’t necessarily the same as the same thing over and over, but I group it with that because I think that the Cabinet of Curiosities employs the same sense of nostalgia and unfamiliarity.

This is a piece by Damien Hirst called “Where theres a Will, theres a Way”, from 2007. Its basically a giant medicine cabinet filled with thousands of cast pills.

I think what makes me insert this into the Cabinet of Curiosities section is that by separating the viewer from the object with a window or a door, Hirst asks us to see these objects differently from Weiwei’s seeds. They become dangerous, forbidden. To me, that is what makes the Cabinet interesting, both in this form and the more familiar, traditional form:

This is the cabinet belonging to Joseph Bonnier de Mosson was created in 1735. These are amazing in and of themselves, and in their original form, Cabinets of Curiosity definitely lend an atmosphere of obsession, nostalgia, and wonder to any space. I would go on about the history of them, of the Enlightenment, scientific discovery etc… but that would take forever. However everyone should read this lovely article about them from Cabinet magazine, and the book Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes.

I think that’s enough for one post. To be continued…

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in defense of stuff

The other kids at Grad School are teasing me.

Not that this is particularly unusual; everybody teases everybody at Grad School.

Basically, now every time anyone says the word “props”, every head in the room turns to me, just waiting for some kind of long rant/ode to props. I am officially the resident Props Nerd.

I’ve been thinking about this and I realized that its not really props… I just love stuff. I like the amount of narrative a single object carries with it at all times.

In one of our classes, Roman Paska described a puppet peice that was a “love story between a match and a coffee bean”.  What I love most about stuff is that you never need to even act that out. You could just put a match and a coffee bean next to each other, say the phrase, and we would imagine the rest.

I have an assignment for an upcoming class where I am meant to bring in 6 random images that tell a story. In some ways, I would prefer to use objects. For example:

So, we have 4 objects: a radio flyer wagon, a space helmet, a duck decoy, and a hair dryer.

scenarios include:

1. The duck is sitting in the wagon, sporting the hilariously large space helmet. The hair dryer is affixed as an engine in the back.

2. Similarly, the duck is pulling the wagon, which contains the space helmet, and the sad hair dryer trails along behind. I call this one “engine failure”, or “need a ride to Houston”.

3. New protagonists: the wagon is turned on its side like a little house. Inside the helmet and hair dryer live in bliss. Perhaps the duck is led by the hair dryer cord like a dog.

4. The wagon is upside down, wheels in the air. Atop it sit the helmet and the duck. From under the wagon we see the hair dryer cord poking out.

Not only are these four stories, they could also all be one long story! Fun!

So many artists have manipulated objects, twisting, changing, or simply reminding us of their various meanings, that it seems silly to even try to get into that here. Instead I will just pop up a few of my favorites:

Jeff Koons’ vacuums in glass cases (vacuum sealed vacuums!)

Andy Goldsworthy’s nature sculpture.

Duchamp’s “In advance of a Broken Arm”.

Rachel Whiteread’s resin cast of the inside of a water tower.

Gabriel Orozco’s little invasions into the real world — This one is called “Cats and Watermelons”

All of these peices are doing very different things — telling very different stories, and very different kinds of stories.

Whiteread’s water tower, for example, is still, tragic, and sad. It feels abstractly sculptural too, like “high art”. Its also monumental. Like many of her works it makes us feel a sense of loss for the object that was peeled away to reveal the art underneath. Orozco’s cats are more gentle. They are amusing, dynamic and funny. We sense his love for the color, beauty, and absurdity of the object.

The Shovel is also funny — completely manipulating this sense of object and narrative (I always imaging the cartoon dad from Calvin and Hobbes falling and breaking his arm shoveling snow) — it gives us a starting point for imagining. But it also has a sense of danger too it. It is usually exhibited hung from the gallery ceiling, swaying menacingly back and forth. It makes us realize that snow shovels are kind of large, sharp, and scary.

So, I’m a complete Props Nerd. To me, these things are what theater is. The water tower is Salome — operatic in tone, but also personal, and tragic. Its the texture the wood left behind, and the city rearing up around it, distorted by the sculpture. The cats and watermelons are the Three Sisters… Natasha is just rearranging objects by color, making the world increasingly more disconcerting. Its funny, but also bitter and dark. It seems pedestrian, but speaks to a much wider context. More serious events.

Go on kids. Tease away.

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One of the greatest innovations that we had in the prop shop at the Public was when we introduced the concierge bell.

Inexplicably, we had 10 of them in prop storage, so we installed them on each work table in the shop. Whenever anyone finished anything, they rang a bell… “ding! prop done!”.

I really think we need this kind of satisfaction in Grad School. We spent a huge amount of time talking about punctuation and transitions in class today… and I’m inclined to think that maybe theater needs to inject the concierge bell as a device…

Ding! Scene done!


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Through Clenched Teeth.

So folks, the good news is that I have learned to talk through my wired jaw.

For a while there I was communicating exclusively on a series of reporters notebooks that I kept in my back pocket, wrote comments on and handed to people. (Note: there were some memorable “read aloud moments” that came out of this)… but these days I can sort of mumble through my teeth.

Its pretty effective, but has definitely given my voice and mannerisms some strange new cadences.

Its funny, your voice is maybe one of the the few things that you remain almost completely unaware of. There’s always that moment of hearing yourself on someone’s answering machine and wondering if you can possibly sound like that. With my teeth stuck together, even the way I hear my own voice is completely unfamiliar, and kind of irritating.

Therefore I’m going on what people have told me. I must be relatively intelligible since people seem to understand me (or are humoring me).

I have gotten a range of comments from “stop mumbling… oh right… haha” to “you just sound angry all the time”… which, judging from what I can hear in my own head, seems more accurate. My classmates can also do a pretty good impression of me… this involves a closed-lipped sardonic grimace, a squint, and a pathetic expulsion of breath. I have also been told that  I giggle like a Japanese anime character…


Then, today in class, one of my professors told me I had “this katherine hepburn thing going on”….! Which prompted me to look up the Philadelphia Story

Not sure that thats totally accurate… but she has her non-mouth-moving moments. Go red!

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The Last Straw.

Ok, so, I’ve been drinking all of my nourishment for the past 3 weeks. What of it?

Understandably, I have come up with some very strong views on straws. So, straw designers, listen up!

I mean, lets start with the fact that the straw is a pretty awesome, and totally classic accessory. I always think of the Tropicana ad first:

Straws imply treats, childishness, convenience. So there is, I have to admit, something entertaining about drinking strange things with them. Say coffee or beer (and anyone who knows me knows I have done plenty of both  at this point). It becomes a fashion statement. Dare I say subversive ? Can you tell I’m in grad school now?

My personal preference in straw type is what I like to call the “articulated” straw…. by which I mean the kind with the single bend in it. Why? they’re adjustable, versatile, convenient, and good looking. I find I can drink from one of these while walking, sip on it when its on a table, and when dealing with hot liquid, its easy to moderate the amount coming out so I don’t burn my tongue. Also, I feel the articulated straw has the most classic look.

If you walk into my studio these days, you will basically see me sitting at my desk drinking from an old soup can with a red and white striped straw. Like so:

I like the classic look of this particular kind. also, theyre kind of soft… and like i said, articulated.

What I really want is one of these cool metal ones to go with my tin can:

Or, just to be able to eat and drink without a straw at all. That would be great too.

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Eyes Wide Open, Jaws Clamped Shut


So, after my last sign-off post, it was kind of hard to figure out what to say next. I am no longer working as a prop person, and I had kind of come up with a semi-dramatic exit… But, hallelujah, the fates have given me new material.

A couple of weeks ago I broke my jaw in a few places in a bike accident. Luckily, every other part of my body is fine… including my brain. I took the entire impact of the fall on my chin, it seems. Anyways, I have been living with my jaw wired shut for the past few weeks, which has given me some pretty interesting insights, to say the least.

So, lets start off with 5 Simple Indications that your Jaw is Wired Shut:

1.You suddenly need to trim your fingernails when you never had to before… Because you used to bite them.

2. You can no longer lick your lips, or fingers when you’re cooking.

3. You can’t seal an envelope without tape.

4. Everywhere you go, you carry a pair of wire cutters and a whistle. In case of emergency.

5. The dish rack in your kitchen doesn’t contain a single plate, and the only utensil is a spoon. There are 6 glasses, two bowls, two pots, and the blender.

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