Getting the Look

Following the Path of Theatrical Designers

Every drama takes place somewhere, somewhen. The playwright may not describe a setting, may make no mention of the season or the day or the country in which the action of the play unfolds, but as long as there is action, the play is grounded in time and space. Which means that when the play is given life on the stage, some character, some identity must be given to that time and space. Every drama must have a Look.

In the theatre, there are masters of the Look, artists whose purpose is to divine a sense of time and place from the text and the vision of the director and translate that into visual impressions. With tools of color, brightness, texture, shape, and mass, they fashion rooms, towers, arenas, landscapes; uniforms, suits, gowns, mufti; glares, phosphoresence, shimmerings, shadows. These interpreters of setting are designers.

If you aren't a member of a play's production team -- and sometimes even if you are -- designers tend to be shadowy figures. They are not seen during performances, and they rarely take bows at curtain call, something even directors and playwrights occasionally get to do. They do the bulk of their work before the show opens (a significant amount of it before rehearsals even begin), and what they do they do apart from the other artists working on a production. They are known by their work -- the Looks they invent -- and those of us who aren't designers tend to think of them in terms of that rather than as artists taking part in the creation of a theatrical project, spending hours upon hours conducting research, discussing ideas with other artists, sketching concepts, building models, finalizing designs, seeking out materials, and realizing their visions in three dimensions with hammers and needles and gels.

For three weeks, beginning July 19, an art exhibition at The Artspace will bring a few of those masters of the Look out of the shadows. Visions of Theatre: A Process puts on display sketches, models, and other representations of the designers' art by a baker's dozen of the Central Texas area's professional stage designers. The idea, according to exhibition organizer David Ketchum, is to provide a forum for greater appreciation of the designer's contribution to a theatrical production and some insight into the ways these artists conceive and develop the images of time and place for plays.

In developing Visions of Theatre for the Artists' Coalition of Austin, Ketchum sought to showcase artists who had made stage design their life's work. To assist him in finding qualified designers in the area, he turned to Robert Schmidt, an established scenic designer and Associate Chair of the UT Department of Theatre & Dance. "With Robert Schmidt's help," he says, "I assembled a list of professional people who are making a living at designing -- and designing not just in Austin, but throughout the nation -- and are choosing to live in this city." The depth and breadth of professional design talent they put together is most impressive, ranging from such stars of the local design scene as set and costume designer Michael Raiford (Rockin' Christmas Party, Forever Plaid) and lighting designer Robert Whyburn (Five Guys Named Moe, The Water Principle) to longtime Southwest Texas State University faculty members Sheila Hargett (costume design: The Tempest, Hair) and Dan Hannon (scenic design: The Tempest, Playboy of the Western World) to UT faculty members Richard Isackes (scenic design, Boston's Huntington Theatre, Chicago Lyric Opera) and James J. Glavan (costume design, Santa Fe Opera, the Guthrie Theatre, Bolshoi Theatre).

Many of the artists featured in Visions of Theatre boast national and international credits, such as Ballet Austin lighting designer Tony Tucci, who has also worked with American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet, among others, and is designing lighting for the 1996 Summer Olympics; Christopher McCollum, who occasionally takes a break from designing sets for Zachary Scott Theatre Center (The Sisters Rosensweig) and Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre (The Water Principle) to assist designer/director Robert Wilson; Susan Tsu, head of UT's Costume Program, who has also designed for the Alley Theatre, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, among others; and Schmidt himself, who has also designed for the Alley, as well as numerous other resident theatres, including the Cleveland Playhouse, the Denver Center Theatre, and the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre.

But as much as he hopes to help Austinites understand what a wealth of world-class design talent lives in their midst, Ketchum is even more interested in helping them grasp what these artists do. He notes, "I think there are a lot of people out there who are very interested in theatre and go to theatre but don't have any idea that these artists are toiling for such a long time over such small items. The people who are going to come and see this show are going to see the preparation of the design, how one gets to that design concept." In addition to asking the artists for pieces which depict their vision of a project or projects, Ketchum has solicited comments from the designers explaining the steps in their creation of the design. As the full name of the exhibition makes clear, designing is a process and this makes the effort to communicate some aspect of that process.

Some lovers of the stage turn away from such attempts to pull back the curtain and expose the mechanics behind the magic that theatre creates. They fear that the wonder they experience when all the elements of the art -- light, costume, scenery, sound, words, direction, performance -- combine will be diminished, perhaps even lost, by seeing it dissected, in parts. But looking at the sketches for an Elizabethan tunic or a model for a ramshackle apartment in New Orleans' French Quarter will no more lessen the wonder of them seen on a stage than looking at a map will lessen the wonder of Big Bend when you see it in the flesh. The marvel is in the essence of the thing. All a representation of it does is isolate some aspect of it so that the singular beauty of that aspect may be gleaned and better appreciated. The designs exhibited in Visions of Theatre: A Process are maps to some of the dazzling vistas created for the stage. The masters of the Look have created otherwhens and otherwheres in which great dramas and comedies have occurred, and they're sharing with us the routes they took to those enchanted realms.

Visions of Theatre: A Process runs July 19-August 10 at The ArtSpace, 403 Baylor.

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