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    Grand design Essay (863 words)

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    It is most appropriate that this special Season Preview issue is devoted to design, the least understood of the theatre disciplines. Good design is like proper English children – meant to be seen but not heard. Good design is organic to a production, not strident or exhibitionistic. It is like the viola in a Beethoven quartet; if the actors are the violins in the foreground, one usually only senses the viola. Good design is in fact a uniquely sensual art, and is consequently difficult to write about, difficult to isolate and analyze.

    But while design today can be compared to a string quartet, it wasn’t too long ago that it could be compared to muzak. In the 1950s and ’60s, when the prevailing dramaturgy almost invariably demanded little more in the way of environment than living rooms and kitchens, design had to follow suit. Design was not a true partner in the production, but a passive element that illustrated rather than illuminated the text. Look through copies of Theatre Arts, the magazine from that period which, incidentally, served as the inspiration for American Theatre), and you’ll see endless images of domestic realism. This was the era of design as decoration.

    Then turn to the color portfolio in this issue’s special section: Even the most cursory look at the wildly expressive settings created by a Christopher Barreca or a Douglas Stein, the sheerly poetic lighting of an Alan Lee Hughes or a Nancy Schertler, the startling costume choices of a Susan Hilferty or a Toni-Leslie James, demonstrates how much design has changed in 40 years. And proof positive of the vitality of the theatre can be gleaned from the “Shoestring Virtuoso” profiles of some of the young and inventive designers working today. Rather than carrying on a tradition, they’re starting a new one right now – which is reinvigorating the way we look at and think about the theatre.

    The two design elements that have changed most radically since the ’50s are lighting and costume design. We have the dance world to thank for the evolution of lighting. In dance, sets and costumes have always been minimal production elements, so lighting has had to provide the design focus. Jean Rosenthal’s lyrical and evanescent lighting for Martha Graham’s dance company revolutionized and rejuvenated the theatre as well by making lighting design an integral and magnificently effective tool.

    The art of costume design was redefined with the advent of the Tanya Moiseiwitsch/Tyrone Guthrie open stage in Stratford and Minneapolis. In their stagings of Shakespeare, they coped with the plays’ demands for multiple locales by virtually eliminating scenery as an impediment to bridging scenes quickly, relying instead on costumes and props to serve that function. Costumes assumed heightened importance as they became the crucial visual elements.

    Relegating scenic elements to a minimal role not only did away with all the trundling scenery which slowed down the action for audiences increasingly accustomed to the insubstantial transformations of film; it also reinforced the role of the actor – a role that in the Age of Significant Scenery had often been obscured. No more hiding; the theatre was about actors and audience in a room, barely separated from each other. That intimacy between actor and audience was the key to the open stage. Spectators, like the name of the stage implied, were thrust into the very action of the play.

    Concurrently, the open stage forced new demands on actors: they had to develop new vocal skills to project “behind” themselves; a heightened energy was needed which audiences found thrilling as the artificiality of the fourth wall was eliminated.

    Did form follow function? Did playwrights force designers and directors into uncharted waters, or did designers open new vistas to playwrights? In any event, our theatre in the 1990s, due in great measure to the innovations made in the function of design, is an ever-changing challenge. Our designers’ ability to find the visual metaphors to inform a play is their supreme gift to the American theatre.

    As I look over the 1993-94 season schedules I see unprecedented opportunity for collaboration between the word and the image. Encourage and energized by the the image. Encouraged and energized bv the terrific pool of talented designers available to them, play-wrights, directors and artistic administrators are beginning to think big again. At Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, they’re tackling Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Oedipus Cycle. In Los Angeles, the Mark Taper Forum will premiere the new Tony Kushner and Mel Marvin musical, The Heavenly Theatre. Hartford Stage is presenting Marivaux’s period farce False Admissions, one of seven Marivaux productions across the country. And at Berkeley Rep they’re bringing the scope of the novel to the stage with Deborah Rosin’s adaptation of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior.

    What is the next wave of design? I don’t read tea leaves, but I’m pretty sure it will involve metaphor, not realism. In this age of constant and proliferating photographic images, it’s safe to say that the theatre won’t find its power in trying to compete with the real, but will turn instead to the poetic for sustenance. Read the October 2003 issue of American Theatre for a more definitive answer.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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