Visualizing Aggressive Precision

by Randi Minetor
Other Than Honorable at Geva Theatre Center
Other Than Honorable at Geva Theatre Center

The World Premiere of Other Than Honorable at Geva Theatre Center

In the opening moments of Other Than Honorable, a new work by playwright Jamie Pachino, we learn that attorney Grace Rattigan not only suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has a husband deployed in the Middle East, but that she garnered respect for her own military career—enough that a young woman has sought her out to represent her in a difficult trial. The fast pace of these first few scenes of exposition sets the tone for a production that delivers sharply clipped dialogue, bursts of emotion, and riveting dramatic tension with what director Kimberly Senior calls “aggressive precision.”

“As a director, I think, what does this play need?” Senior said about preparing for the play’s world premiere at Geva Theatre Center, a LORT resident professional theater in Rochester, NY. “I’m thinking about tempo. The scenes slam into each other; we don’t want a lot of long changes. The play is in constant motion.”

No stranger to the stage, Pachino has written a dozen award-winning plays—but the pace of this story of hidden sexual abuse in the military system feels far more like a big-screen movie than theater. One dramatic moment builds on the next with the seamlessness usually acquired in a video-editing suite. In between, frenetic, abstract video projected on a geometric back wall provides fascinating visuals that draw the eye away from smooth, soundless scene changes. Walls slide away and turn around, turntables glide furnishings into place, and the play is on to its next scene in seconds.

“This play wasn’t begging for a super-realistic environment,” Senior said. “I don’t need to see pictures on the wall—what’s important is the movement. The main character is feeling very out-of-body, disconnected—it should not feel cozy. It should be fragmented and alienated.” Other Than Honorable explores “the dusty corners of the psyche. We talk a lot in rehearsals about trauma, and how PTSD manifests itself.”

How does the artistic staff accomplish this symmetry and synchronized motion? This is why Pachino entrusted her play to Senior, a friend for more than a quarter of a century and the director of the 2013 Pulitzer Prizewinning play Disgraced on Broadway. Senior, who currently serves as resident director at Writers Theatre in Chicago, accepted the invitation from Geva artistic director Mark Cuddy to put the play on its feet for the first time in Rochester. “I wanted a really safe environment where Jamie and I could explore and work on the text some more,” Senior explained. “Rochester has a vibrant cultural following, and there are also a ton of vets there who will come to the show. We thought this was where an audience will experience the play in an honest way.” With the venue in hand, Senior brought together a team of designers she knew well and trusted. “For this I needed my best people,” she says.

Conceiving a Visual Metaphor

Senior and scenic designer Jack Magaw have created three shows a year together since 2006, so Magaw was the first designer Senior brought into the mix. Magaw approached this play’s visual theme by devising a system of moving elements, drawing from his personal experience in the military and his knowledge of functional design. “It’s a visual metaphor,” he commented. “The military is this closed-in society that has its own set of operating procedures and rules and court system, modified to be what the organization needs to be able to function. The character of Grace is up against this, by herself. So the scenery feels a little overwhelming, like you can’t get through it. During the course of the play, we will systematically break it apart and get inside of it.”

Two turntables—one in the center of the stage and one that encircles the first one like a doughnut—rotate to bring in simple props and furniture to establish each setting. A couch and a coffee table appear to create Grace’s living room, or a desk, chair, and actor travel the entire arc of the outer turntable to create a courtroom. Meanwhile, the central wall breaks along a seam and reverses, while projections create a suggestion of Venetian blinds or a hint of weak sunlight. The set provides a level of basic functionality that enables the play’s relentless rate of movement. “I can set up scenes out of view of the audience, and flip the turntable around while carrying the other scene off—in two directions at once,” Magaw explained. 

In addition to these automated floor elements, Magaw worked with projections designer Miles Polaski to devise a system of rear-projection (RP) screens within the set’s back wall, on which videos full of rushing images, geometric shapes, pixelated imagery, and more heighten the tension. “In the early stages of design, the entire surface was for projections, but that would be overwhelming in that theater,” said Magaw, referring to Geva’s intimate 552-seat house and partial proscenium/partial thrust stage configuration. “The projection surface is also challenging because we have to flip the wall around.”

Instead of turning every surface on the set into an RP screen, Magaw made some surfaces opaque, breaking up the RP stretches with blank squares. The result may remind audiences of a chain-link fence—a significant symbol in the course of the play.

“A lot of times, it’s easy to put a rectangle out there and project on it, but it’s more difficult and challenging to make a surface that can receive projection and be able to stand on its own without it,” Magaw said. “So it’s about creating scenery that’s amenable to projections, but that can also just receive light. Working with Miles, we had a back-and-forth about what we wanted to see, and finding the right balance for the scenes to happen.”

Some of the decisions came down to the basic mechanics of working with projection screens on moving turntables, noted Polaski. “Jack mocked up this beautiful design and built a working model, and we sat in his office in Chicago one afternoon,” he said. “Originally, he had designed a whole surface from corner to corner that was going to be projectionable. But there would be a crew upstage of the wall who would be presetting the follow scene, and through a bunch of sliding panels, the turntable will rotate for the next scene. If we projected on the screen from top to bottom, we would see some shadows of crew on the stage.”

Magaw used these observations to move to a more abstract construct. “Now instead of the whole surface being rear projection, maybe half of it is,” said Polaski. “Now there are lots of little panels, broken up. It feels more like a mosaic. It’s interesting when you’re working with a piece of scenery that other departments will be touching, and how it informs the process.”

As for the content of the projections themselves, Polaski explained he began with a general concept of architecture—the exterior of a large, industrial concrete building, or the inside of an airport with its trusses and steel structures. He then shot his own photos or searched through archived videos, existing photos, and other reference materials to find the images he needed. Then the conceptualization began: “It’s all sort of slightly abstracted, so we don’t get a clear glimpse,” he said. “It’s a little blurred, or the angle doesn’t quite give us what we are looking at, but the look and feel of it instead.”

Modern Problems: Live Skype

Not only does Other Than Honorable take much of its sense of place from projected abstractions with a military theme, but it also brings audiences a heightened sense of reality with the use of live Skype conversations. Grace communicates with her husband, Billy, in the Middle East—even she doesn’t know exactly where—through video chat generated in real time.

The responsibility for making this work went to the projections department. “We have a live actor playing Billy, and Skyping is a fairly standard practice in their relationship,” said Polaski. “At the get-go, it became obvious to us that we needed to have a live actor, rather than using a recording. Kimberly and I thought it would be much more interesting to see two live actors speaking with each other, and there would be a lot more energy and growth between them.”

Creating the immediacy of a call from a war zone presented some challenges in both projection and scenic design. “Jack set aside some space in the wings,” Polaski described. “We set up the overseas area with backdrop panels behind Billy and have a camera set up there. Kimberly was also interested in projecting Billy onto Grace’s wall in different ways—the screen is smaller the first time he calls, and by the final scene, it becomes much larger.”

Other Than Honorable, the most technologically complex show Geva ever produced, not only received an electrifying first production but it demonstrated its own promise for a life well beyond its Rochester debut.