Putting It All on the Table

by Natalie Robin
in Feature

A production photo of Rocket to the Moon, with lighting design by Elizabeth Harper
A production photo of Rocket to the Moon, with lighting design by Elizabeth Harper
Exciting art comes from clear communication among all members of the creative team

Communication is the key to good collaboration, and from good collaboration comes good, or at least exciting, art. Design meetings between directors and their team can be a time for dreaming and plotting and problem solving. But they can also be a hotbed of misunderstandings and disagreements. And translating those dreams from the brainstorming stage onto a drafting table, into emails and to comprehensive renderings can open the doors to other miscommunication with the technical team. But a little bit of attention to how we communicate can ensure this process runs smoothly.

 

Lighting designer Elizabeth Harper
Lighting designer Elizabeth Harper's rendering for A Rocket to the Moon

I spoke to a variety of people involved in production to get their thoughts on how make communicating about design and intent easier. All of them agreed that the first step to good collaboration is getting on the same page; speaking the same language, creating touchstones in the ideas of the play and finding a common vocabulary all help us create a new and complete world onstage. From the very first meeting, designers and directors learn how to talk to each other through the lens of the project. HERE artistic director Kristin Marting believes that “designers are some of the best dramaturgs.” She involves designers from the beginning when making a devised work: “I really think of design work as so integrated into the creation of the work.”

 

Even in more traditional processes, designers and directors explore the play together. Lighting designer Trad Burns says, “In the initial stages of discussion I tend to really focus on the dramaturgy of the play and how we all can reach a common ground about the material. I am not a big fan of projects in which the director and other designers come into the first discussions without hearing everybody thoughts on the work.” Scenic designer Kathryn Kawecki agrees: “I think we need to talk about communication both in relationship to ideals and reality. Just talk—to give ourselves the opportunity to understand what everyone finds mutually important about this script, this production. I find that taking the time to share research allows a team to develop a vocabulary for the project and bring everyone into the same world.” Keeping the conversation tied to the text and in a clear “ideas-only” stage can open up the group to dream big. As lighting designer Elizabeth Harper notes, “I like to talk about ideas and keep visuals rough at the beginning because for me that focuses and clarifies dramaturgical intent instead of selling a picture.”

Director Christy Montour-Larson describes her process in the same way: “I begin and end with the text. I start off by sharing what the play is about to me in one word or a short phrase. I like to know what the designer’s reaction before we move to specifics. I love to have the first meeting to be about the play and its ideas and less about the how we are going to do it. Where do I want the phonograph to be? I don’t know yet. Can we talk about the story first?”

Michael McNeill, Karen Slack, Sean Scrutchins and Erik Sanvold in 9 Circles, by Bill Cain, at the Curious Theatre Company; Christy Montour-Larson directed, with scenic design by Guy Wright, lighting by Richard Devin and costumes by Annette Westerby.
Michael McNeill, Karen Slack, Sean Scrutchins and Erik Sanvold in 9 Circles, by Bill Cain, at the Curious Theatre Company; Christy Montour-Larson directed, with scenic design by Guy Wright, lighting by Richard Devin and costumes by Annette Westerby.

Nonverbal Communication

 

But what about once we are past this initial conversation stage? Lois Dawson, a freelance stage manager working primarily in Vancouver, Canada, points out that the process can be as much about figuring out how to have the conversation as about the conversation itself. She explains, “I have been lucky to work with people multiple times which means that I’ve been able to learn how to speak their personal languages—in fact there’s one director who likes to joke that I can read her mind! For some directors, it is most effective to communicate the idea in pictures, for others talking about design in terms of relationships is most helpful.” Trad Burns agrees: “Once we move outside of those initial conversations about the play I will then start to bring my research into the conversation. I spend a lot of time communicating about the quality of light and how I think it should be used. Communicating the broad strokes in our discussion, those key moments in which the light can help move the play forward.”

And research can get us a long way towards establishing the world of the play. From there, set designers can move to models and renderings, and costume designers can create beautiful sketches. But what about communicating ideas about light and sound, which are so much more intangible? Elizabeth Harper uses pencil renderings along with her research and written breakdown. This helps her communicate her lighting ideas clearly within the context of the specific production, as in her rendering and production photograph for Rocket to the Moon. (Shown on page 20.)

Amy Altadonna, a composer and sound designer, says, “Before we are actually hearing things, I don’t talk technology, I don’t talk content even. I talk a lot in space terms and time terms. I think this has to do with my background as a composer and my design aesthetic. I find myself talking about the sound as if it is an evolving landscape that has height and depth and evolves over time. And along with that communication the shape of things, seeing things in 3D and over time has a natural resonance with how we emote so instead of getting hung up on the details.” Amy finds that working this way helps her recognize what kind of imagination her collaborators have. Directors and her fellow designers are already thinking in these three-dimensional terms and this way she can too. She can also avoid listening to cues out of context of the physical design of a production before the team is ready.

Kathryn Kawecki made this digital “sketch” as part of her scenic design for Marat/Sade.
Kathryn Kawecki made this digital “sketch” as part of her scenic design for Marat/Sade.

Inviting the Tech

 

So once the design ideas are on the table, the dialogue opens up to include the technical team. But, interestingly, communicating with the technical team isn’t as different as one might think. Rather than talking only in technical jargon, inviting the whole team into the process can get better results. As Amy Altadonna put it, “Where the overlap occurs is when you ask for something and there is resistance, I will explain what I want to achieve. Being up front around the ideas makes people feel included and invested in executing the physical design.” Bringing the technical team and their problem solving skills to the table can also help us achieve more in the time and budget you have.

Elizabeth Harper uses a more specific example: “Even when I’m talking to the technical staff, I keep the idea in the conversation. I don’t assume they’re familiar with the play, but if you give them your intent as well as technical information you’ll find that they’re valuable collaborators as well. So instead of just handing off a detail drawing showing a light piped off a truss, I might have a conversation or include a note saying that I’m trying to get the longest shadow possible because an actor will play in and out of the light. The ME might just say OK and just pipe the light out or he might have information about a house position I didn’t know about that would make it better.”

 

Okwui Okpokwasili in Sounding, by Jennifer Gibbs, directed by Kristin Marting, with setting by Nick Vaughan, lighting by Rie Ono and costumes by Liz Bourgeois
Okwui Okpokwasili in Sounding, by Jennifer Gibbs, directed by Kristin Marting, with setting by Nick Vaughan, lighting by Rie Ono and costumes by Liz Bourgeois

In Marting’s case, the resident artists at HERE develop their work with the support of the HERE technical staff. “I don’t feel like I change my language,” she says about her direct communication with the technical staff, but “my focus is on different things in speaking with the production staff.” Likewise, Dawson points out that, though we sometimes fall into the habit of using jargon with our technical team, it can disconnect the team. Successful conversations between the artistic and technical teams are “Very rarely technical. As soon as it becomes technical or full of jargon I find I lose at least one of the other participants in the conversation.” Keeping both the technical and artistic teams on the same page can keep us working within time and budget.

 

Everyone has tools to keep this process working well. Burns finds that “Nothing beats being in a room together, I think actual face-to-face conversations make the most successful projects; that said, Skype and iChat have become very important tools in keeping that face to face feel, as you can see the passion on the others in the conversation. Showing drawings and pictures during a Skype call really keep the communication flowing.” Call her a Luddite, but stage manager Dawson thinks that email can sometimes be a hindrance. It makes communication faster, but “it doesn’t relay tone and is not great for dialogue. In fact, sometimes it is not even great for information dissemination. It is always more effective to pick up the phone and actually talk to the person, and more effective yet to have the conversation face to face.”

Likewise, sound designer Altadonna says, with no pun intended, that her best tool is listening: “Because I feel like you have to know your audience and understand how comfortable they are with the difference between a sketch and reality. You need to determine whether they think they know a ton of stuff about technology or do you need to translate it into an emotional language.” And Elizabeth Harper says the most important thing is to keep communicating: “The worst thing you can do is keep things to yourself and take on all the stress of going over budget or risk disappointing the rest of the team if you must cut or scale back. If you just verbalize your choices, you might get great collaborative suggestions or you might just manage expectation and keep the team on the same page.”

Throughout a production designers are called on to communicate with directors and other members of the artistic team; we also communicate with the members of the technical staff (master electricians, technical directors, sound engineers, etc.); and we communicate with those who cross over between worlds, like production managers, props masters and stage managers. We have to speak both art and engineering to all parties— because bringing everyone into the process, regardless of terminology or technical expertise, creates a company of smart, invested creators who can bring a production to life.