Blog in the Manger: Maddening Mobile Architecture

Welcome back!We are beginning the second week of our run of The Dog in the Manger tonight and you know what that means! That means my lords and masters have once more shoved a keyboard in front of me and told me that if I want to eat, I will start writing, so write I did. If you all have gotten a chance to DiM, as we have taken to calling it, you may have noticed something about the set: specifically, that there is a set. Also, that it moves. A lot, like, a lot a lot. Sets aren’t usually our, you know, thing, Tempest and Chalk excepted, and even those two were smaller and less…dynamic than this one. [If you’re curious about the set and, more importantly, the set decorations for Chalk I wrote some 1500 words about it HERE, and if you want to know more about The Tempest set, picture a rope course in your head and then hang a bunch of bottles from it with tie line -KH] What’s more, this play came out of a time and place that, with a few notable exceptions, eschewed elaborate sets and props in favor of mobility and uniformity of design. What would compel us, with our notoriously sparse set-design sensibilities, to go in this direction while creating this world? This blog post has spoilers in it, so if you haven’t seen the show yet, bookmark this page, buy your tickets, come and see the show this week, and then come back and read all about the mobility of the set and how it is more, or perhaps less, than it initially seemed to be.

Similar to their English brethren, the theatre of the Spanish Golden Age would take place outside in the open air in a corral. Like an Elizabethan stage this was a fairly constrained design space; they were about 25 feet wide and 15 feet deep with no proscenium, usually a few trap doors, and a curtained-off discovery space, with at least one level of balconies on a second story.   Depending on your views of chickens, eggs, and which of them may have come first this layout was either instrumental to the manner in which Spanish theatre developed, or or was a reaction forced by the nature of Spanish theatre. Spanish theatre grew out of the touring Italian companies of the 15th and 16th centuries, and while it grew and flourished into its own art form it never shook many of the tenets of those Italian companies. At least in part due to ecclesiastic hand-wringing no theatre company was allowed to stay in any one place for all that long, and so out of necessity companies would regularly tour. A touring company cannot afford to lug around a bunch of heavy set pieces and install/tear them down all the time even if they wanted to. What’s more, the Spanish appetite for theatre was so voracious that a show was unlikely to run for more than about two weeks before it had reached all of the theatregoers in the area and they had to stage a new one. Believe me when I tell you that you don’t want to build gigantic, elaborate sets for a 10-performance run if money or time is an object, so theatres went small out of convenience and price.

Certainly there were exceptions to this; the Spanish Court took a good go at bankrupting itself to stage elaborate revels and plays, hiring Italian set engineers to create tremendous spectacles that would be seen once and then torn down. But in general these plays were written and staged similarly to their English and Italian counterparts, with minimal need for set pieces. This gives modern designers the freedom to produce them with as elaborate or Spartan a set as their vision of the show requires. In our case, our master set designer Jimmy Stubbs decided to go with a sparsely-decorated but moderate set of a box (the world’s greatest set piece), a bench, and an archway and a windowseat with wheels; all highly mobile, versatile pieces.

DiM Mobile Set Pieces

Pictured: Raven Bonniwell as Diana. From WHF’s 2017 production of The Dog in the Manger. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher

Usually the mobility of the set would solve a staging problem. Highly mobile set pieces, especially elaborate ones like an archway and a windowseat, give you the opportunity to concretely indicate where a scene is happening, without having to rely on lighting trickery or ambient sound or lines about where the actors are and what time it’s supposed to be (see above-linked blog post about Chalk’s set design for more information about using these tools, and others, to indicate locations). If you look at the stage in one scene and see all of the set pieces in one position, and then you look at the stage again, later, and the set pieces are all in different places from where they were before, you might reasonably assume that those two scenes were happening at different places, and presumably at different times as well. Seeing as many modern plays [“modern” here meaning written after the fall of Rome -KH], completely disregarding the unities, take place in a number of different locations over the course of several days, weeks, months, etc., you can imagine why it would be helpful to use a mobile architecture to demonstrate which scenes are happening where.

But if we did something so prosaic as merely using wheeled set pieces to indicate that we the night scene in the bedchamber has ended and we are ready to begin the daytime scene in the courtyard…well, we wouldn’t really be We Happy Few. Plus we would be completely wasting the opportunities of attaching wheels to a thing, if we didn’t do something fun with them. And seeing as we have a tendency to wring the maximum value out of our minimal sets, you can reasonably assume we found some additional uses. Occasionally our set pieces for this show are moved in between scenes, in the manner that you might expect from a ‘normal’ play, to demonstrate that the location has changed. More commonly, however, they move around while scenes are happening around them, especially as the show proceeds. We get through the entire first Act without any architectural shenanigans of any kind, but as the action progresses and the plot gets more convoluted and driven by secrets, lies, deceptions, and misapprehensions, the set begins to fairly fly across the stage. The very world rearranges itself right before our eyes, and all it takes is someone who knows how to move it, and someone else who doesn’t. Because these big set pieces don’t move by themselves. For every character who is terrified and confused by the world rearranging itself around them, there is someone else who is making it move.

DiM Caught!

Pictured: Background, L-R, Raven Bonniwell as Diana, Tori Boutin as Anarda. Foreground, L-R Kiernan McGowan as Teodoro, Louis Davis as Trisan, Natalie Cutcher as Marcela. From We Happy Few’s 2017 Production of The Dog in the Manger. Photo by Mark Williams Hoeschler.

This, as you might imagine, is no accident. Things are less permanent than we have been led to believe. Even your firmest and most unshakeable convictions—that your son is dead, that love cannot transcend class—may be less solid than you thought. It turns out that these rigid structures that have always surrounded you, that you have treated as immobile foundations of your life and worldview, can be flexible and malleable…once you learn the secret. Nothing is set in stone. Your assumptions are only YOUR assumptions, and if you can learn to see situations from a different perspective, all sorts of new opportunities present themselves. Seen from one angle, Ludovico’s son’s death is a terrible tragedy. From another angle, it is a chance to establish some bona fides. Their “reunion”, seen from one angle, is a joyous celebration; from a second angle, another opportunity; and from a third, a cruel lie and grift on a gullible, grief-stricken old man. From one angle Diana’s marriage to Teodoro is a happy ending; from another, it is a precarious house of cards, a Duchess of Malfi waiting to happen.

If you’ve already seen the show, hopefully this will give you an enhanced insight into our moving set and the ephemeral nature of your assumptions. If you HAVEN’T seen the show, shame on you, buy your tickets and come see it soon! And while you’re watching it, I hope that this explanation helps you understand why those damn set pieces keep rolling all over the stage. If you aren’t sure exactly WHEN you should come and see the show, I would recommend you come this coming Saturday the 18th, at 2PM, when I will be hosting a talkback with Benji Djain, who you may recall I interviewed a few weeks ago. So if you want to hear an expert talk about something that they know and care deeply about, or you want to try to stump or harass me about something, that would probably be the best time. I look forward to seeing you all there.

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CHALK: The Medium IS the Message

Hello again adoring fans! Keith Hock here, and I wanted to tell you some more about our critically acclaimed play CHALK, playing now at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. In earlier posts I had wanted to keep some secrets from you all in order to preserve the element of surprise when you came to see the show, but since the run is now two-thirds over I am assuming that most of you have already come to check it out, and hoping that this introduction serves to shame the rest of you into coming in this final week of shows. To that end, I am going to talk to you more about set design, chalk, and the role that the latter can play in the former than you ever wanted to hear. Please note that if you don’t want to have a SUPER COOL element of the show spoiled for you, it would be advisable for you to stop reading until you have a chance to come see it for yourself.

If you have seen the show, or, like, any of our promotional materials, you will know that chalk drawings feature prominently in the set for CHALK. We Happy Few stakes a portion of its considerable reputation on the minimalist nature of its sets; this show probably has our second-largest set besides Tempest, and this set is a couple of platforms, a diagonal wall with some doors and a tower, and some stools. To supplement this design and to help establish a sense of place we have a bunch of drawings all over the walls, some of them chalk sketches and some white paint cleverly disguised as chalk sketches. These drawings help to clarify where we are and what’s going on on-stage; a town, a pillar, a cart, some doors. In the distance a mountain range. These drawings are not strictly necessary to indicate what’s going on; we can, and have, done shows with less set dressing than this. But it certainly doesn’t hurt the piece any to have them there, and besides prettifying the stage and indicating that sense of space, like I said above, they give us an opportunity to do something super neato with the set that a show can’t ordinarily do, which I will get to after another paragraph of explanation and scene-setting.

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CHALK backdrop. Design by Adelaide Waldrop. Picture by Tori Boutin.

It is in the nature of black box shows in general and We Happy Few shows in particular to be tricky to indicate changes of scene, location, and the passage of time. You can use lights, you can shift around what little set elements you may have, and you can have your characters exposit. We are supremely fortunate that we are able to work with one of the best lighting designers in the city, Jason Aufdem-Brinke, so our light game is and always has been on point. Character exposition is both the clunkiest and the most ubiquitous method of indicating those changes; you would be hard-pressed to find a play that doesn’t use dialogue to either imply or flat-out say where and when the action is taking place, because plays are written to be seen, not read, and audiences don’t have those convenient stage directions at the beginning of every scene to contextualize the performance unless your director is REALLY pretentious. So we fall on even footing with context clues as well. But We Happy Few really can’t compete with a full ‘drop curtain, wait 20 seconds, the corn field is now a bustling frontier town’, ‘turntable rotates from Skid Row to the interior of the dentist’s office’, or ‘a whole new backdrop flies in from the ceiling and we are now in the King’s Palace in Siam’ style transition such that a company with a full stage crew or using a fully kitted-out stage would use.

So we did what we always do; we improvised. We knew already that there was going to be a scene where the Judge would draw a circle on the floor, for the climactic moment in the play. We said “why not do, like, a whole bunch more of that?” We already knew drawing, having the characters interact directly with and add to the set, is going to be a part of the world, so we decided to lean into it, and we started drawing all over the stage. Want to set the city on fire? Scribble red and orange chalk all over it and smear it a little. Need a river? Some blue chalk on the floor and hey presto! a river appears. Script says a scene is happening in a bar? Write BAR on the wall after you enter. We’re in the countryside now? Here’s some flowers to prove it. Props budget a little tight and we can’t afford any dummies to drop from the rafters in a grisly facsimile of a public hanging? Draw up a hangman, an image so simple and evocative that we literally use it as a game to teach spelling [which, come to think of it, wow, right? ed.]. This genius decision allowed us to expand on that sense of place that the artwork was creating. It also gave us the opportunity to democratize the space; the actors are not trapped in a static world, they are in control of their own environment, and can affect change on the world around them.

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CHALK. Pictured: Raven Bonniwell. Design by Adelaide Waldrop, picture by Tori Boutin.

One of the beauties of chalk as a medium is that it is dry, so it can be applied, seen, and interacted with immediately without making a huge mess or damaging costumes. Another is that is cheap, so we can use it to approximate props or set pieces that would have broken the bank or we just couldn’t have had otherwise; I don’t know HOW we would have done a bridge without the chalk conceit. A third is that it can be cleaned and wiped away with relatively little effort, which is why we as a society use it to teach math and spelling to children and announce the specials at bars restaurants, and why we as a company thought it would be perfect. Draw everywhere for the show, wipe it clean at the end of the night, start with a blank slate the next day!

It turns out it is not quite as simple to clean up as one might believe. The last time the walls of the stage were totally clean was the first time we came into the space after our chalk artist, Adelaide Waldrop, had added her drawings, but before the actors started drawing everywhere. What we had failed to realize was that, if the set drawings are chalk, and OUR drawings are ALSO chalk, when we try to clean it up we will obliterate the nice professional drawings that Adelaide along with our slapdash mid-show sketches. This problem is assuaged somewhat by the fact that Adelaide used some mysterious substance called “chalk markers” which isn’t affected when wiped with a dry rag. It IS, however, just as vulnerable to water as normal sidewalk or school chalk, so we wouldn’t wet-wipe the walls as we wanted [this clause brought to you by the letter W!]. We realized this about halfway through tech, so we had ourselves a desperate little pow-wow about what we should do about this conundrum. Wet-wiping AROUND the permanent art every night would have taken for-damn-ever and ran the risk of accidentally erasing part of the artwork. The designs are too elaborate to erase and re-draw for every performance, even if Adelaide had been willing to do so, which we were reasonably confident she was not. We started to go over the designs with paint to em-permanent them all but realized we wouldn’t have time to go over everything, and thought that it would look bad if part of the set was restored to pristine blackness and part was left dusty. We were at a loss.

Aftermath Panorama

CHALK. Pictured: Bridget Grace Sheaff. Design by Adelaide Waldrop. Picture by Kerry McGee.

What we decided to to, as you can see, is nothing. We leaned into it again, a favorite tool of mine, because it lets me be very lazy. It occurred to us that it made a lot of sense to the themes of the show for there to be physical evidence of previous performances on the stage. So much of this play is about cycles of history, about gradual change and the way that the past echoes in the future. The ever-present chalk dust establishes that on both a textual and metatheatrical level. Our city of Tuzla and the surrounding countryside is permeated with the dust of revolutions past; every action anyone takes, every thing they draw, is happening on top of what happened before. Zeke and Natalya both recall the rebellion in Persia, and they trace clear parallels to the current uprising. That rebellion was put down but the memory of it echoes in this one, and the memory of this rebellion will echo in the future. No matter how hard you try, you can’t completely erase the past, you can’t start over with a clean slate. From a metatheatrical level the mess of chalk dust hanging around the space reminds the audience that this is not the first time we’ve done this. The performance you’re watching isn’t the only performance we’ve done, and it didn’t just happen. The dust looks back at the show the night before and the week of tech rehearsals in the middle of June, and reminds us that the show didn’t always look like this, and it might not look like this tomorrow. Theatre doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it would be a mistake to forget that. When rehearsals started in mid-May the play was still being written. The purpose of rehearsal is to learn how to tell a story, so things by necessity will change. Then tech started, and we had to learn how to fit the story into our space and integrate technical aspects. And then we found out what works and what doesn’t with an audience on opening night. The chalk dust reminds us how we got to where we are, and that things are neither as permanent nor as transient as we may believe.

I hope reading this has been as illuminating and enjoyable for you as writing it was for me. If you had no idea what I was talking about, it’s probably because you haven’t seen the performance yet and don’t have any context for what I was saying. But fear not! We still have a week’s worth of performances left in the run, from this coming Wednesday the 6th until Saturday the 9th over at CHAW. There is still time to see it, but that time is running out, so don’t delay! Come on by sometime this week and check us out! Tickets are available HERE. Mention that you heard about it from Keith when you come! It won’t, you know, matter, we won’t do anything special for you, but it’d make me feel good if you told everyone the reason you did something was because of what I said.