Friday, May 20, 2011

Inside Production Work: Props & Set Dressing for BMT's RENT

Being part of the production team for Brampton Music Theatre's RENT was a great chance to flex some designing skills.  I was very excited to be part of the team that helped build the gritty, urban New York City atmosphere these characters call 'home'.  Everything the actors interact with, from the set to the props, delve deeper into a suspension of disbelief for the audience.  We want them to feel as if they're looking into a fishbowl, a natural yet carefully staged world they could easily fall into themselves.  The beautiful part about the 'suspension of disbelief' in theatre is the many possibilities the set is constructed itself; it can be realistic and detail-orientated to recreate familiar settings seen in everyday life, or can be a blank canvas of black boxes, used in many Fringe festivals.  The most original - and potentially most difficult - set to design is a 'stationary set', like the one we used in RENT.  I can't take a single iota of credit in regards to design for the set itself, but it was rather masterful for a community theatre production.

I'll have to warn you at this point that I'll be using stage direction when it comes to where things are.  I'll be  referring to the position when I am onstage facing the audience.  So, when I describe what's what on this set, imagine yourself in that picture, on that stage as a performer, with the set behind you.  (In the scene! :) What part would you play?)  You'll see what I mean then.  Example: when I refer to "stage right", look to the left of the picture.  If I refer to "house right", that is your right, as the audience looking at the stage.  Vice-versa for both, too.

What you see here is a two-tiered set, making effective use of levels and space to block the actors.  Because there are many 'lateral' scenes in the show that require two things to happen at the same time in different places, the levels on and above stage make it possible to separate those two entities, as well as more defining positions in poignant areas with the use of gobos and light effects.  Details in the set dressing, such as the hub caps and car door (that hid the band, by the way!), 'junk sculptures', the graffiti paint, gig posters for local bands and strands of multicoloured Christmas lights give the set a little more authenticity in the urban bohemian flavour, setting the tone of the show and the subject of its characters.  One could possibly believe that a group of street artists and 'bohemians' took some of the debris and junk from local dilapidated buildings and attempted to make something beautiful with what was crumbling around them.

Basic movable set pieces had multipurpose uses, strikingly simple and can be easily transformed with a simple gesture by the actors.  If a table became a bed, it was all in the approach to the object and how it was interacted with; one would hesitate to jump into a cozy bed if it looked like a table, so it is up to the actor to make the audience believe this hard wood table is, in fact, a bed.  If it became a door, it was in a different position and used effectively.  All hand-in-hand with the suspension of disbelief, so as long as the object itself is 'believable' in the imaginative sense and the actor is able to easily use it as so. 

Depending on the character's relationship with a certain prop or set of props, it would be most prudent to get it into the hands of the actor as soon as possible, preferably in the earlier rehearsals.  In the case of David Grimason playing Mark and Nicholas Petroff playing Roger, the camera and guitar respectively are 'phantom limbs' of the characters.  Mark is never seen without his camera throughout the show, as he documents the life of his friends and the struggling neighbourhood in which he lives.  It becomes an omnipotent eye that immortalizes the moments and people that define a personal history that will change not only him, but the people he loves.  With Roger, his inner demons overtook his love for music as he tries to find his glory in one song he can leave behind "before the virus takes hold".  Through personal loss and declining health, he's managed to hold onto his guitar, his one outlet in a life of despair and "bohemian poverty".  These props were something that helped define the purpose and drive of the characters, and being able to use them as early as possible into rehearsals helps the actors reach a connection and create personal histories on more complex levels.  It's more beneficial to get the actual prop that will be used onstage during the actual performance for 'tactile familiarity', or at least the next best thing if it's not available immediately.

The script called for a 16mm camera and projector for Mark, but we had a hard time finding one that wasn't a fortune to rent.  It didn't necessarily need to work, but at least be authentic.  My father had a vintage camera collection, a lot of it passed down from his uncle, who was a hobby photographer and videographer.  He had a vintage 8mm camera and projector that had a threaded hole to be affixed onto a tripod, luckily the director liked them and we got to use them.  We had a bit of an incident with the camera at one point, when Abi came running to me with the body of the camera and handle in two pieces.  Without panicking, we tried and tried to thread them back together.  Luckily, this had happened during intermission, so we had some time to try to figure it out.  It had been pointed out to me earlier that the camera itself was sitting askew on the handle from the start, and I was assured that it wasn't abused in any way.  David went to pick it up from a designated chair from the wings, and the handle came away from the camera.  I guess it was just about time, it was already an old camera.  We wrapped duct tape around the whole thing to make sure it would stay in one piece for the second act, and everything went off without a hitch.  Everyone felt so bad about it, but I wasn't too concerned, because it was an easy fix when there was more time and proper tools.  I had actually received an interesting comment from a friend in the audience for that performance, who thought the duct tape was intentional, to show the passage of time, with the first and second acts being separated by a few months or so.  Mark being a starving artist, he can't afford a new camera, so he'll try his best to fix what he has to keep it going.  Accidents like these pay off for those who pay attention to detail.  Take a deep breath, and think of solutions first before thinking of the negative.

Both electric and acoustic guitars that Roger uses in the show belong to yours truly.  The electric guitar is the Fender Squier Propoganda Obey Telecaster, with artwork by Shepard Fairey, most popular for his red, white and blue Obama "Change" campaign poster.  I thought this would be a great departure from the other stock guitars we've seen in some other productions; the artwork is reminiscent of the 'punk movement' in the late 80s to early 90s, even the Telecaster itself is an iconic shape of guitar.  The hardware on the guitar has a rustic finish to make it look aged and worn, which is a great detail for an instrument that has lived in less-than-stellar conditions for its upkeep.  The acoustic guitar is my very first guitar - purchased for me by my father - a Simon & Patrick solid cedar top folk body.  This one's a little smaller, it's been played quite a bit, so it's got some scuff marks.  Nick Petroff actually plays guitar, so it was a relief to know I was entrusting my babies to a fellow musician.  The guitars weren't actually played onstage by Nick, but he knew what and when to do it with the band when it came to his "guitar solos".  In all the pictures I've seen and received, I can't seem to find one of Nick holding the guitar body facing out.  So, that's a picture of the artwork from my guitar, to show you just how awesome this thing is.

Here are some great shots of David and Nick, as Mark and Roger respectively, with their 'phantom limbs'.

Here are a few other favourites from the show's props and set dressing:

The sound system for Maureen's "Over the Moon" protest performance, played here by Erin Hyde, was limited to a roll-on cart - something simple and basic that even Maureen can use, because she would be inept about any of this technology.  I managed to procure a junked Denon CD mixer, power amp and a few powered speakers from BMT's own prop stock, and spraypainted a crackling black paint over any obvious logos or telltale signs of dated technology.  It still bothers me that the microphone didn't have an XLR cable to lead to the speakers, but they had said not to worry about it.  Maybe that's the detail stickler in me.  I was rather proud of this setup, weirdly.

Speaking of period technology, I had never appreciated how difficult it would be to collect 90s-era cell phones and pagers.  We had exhausted every resource we could find for a tape answering machine, but who has one of those anymore, really?  We managed to find something that resembled what we needed, and all was right in the RENT world.  Lumena Daniel, as Joanne, shows here the effective use of early conference calling on her dated cell phone and payphone.

The bedsheet used in "Contact" was never big enough.  We had measured the approximate size of two king-size bed sheets, but even found that to be a little snug for the cast and the effect that the director wanted.  Eventually, I believe Alice, also propsmaster for the show, had sewn together 5 king-size bed sheets ... or four ... either way, more than we expected, but a phenomenal result.

And last, but not least, Dad's projector to go with that camera, so that Mark can show the fruits of his labour, the finished film of his friends, and Roger's tuning his guitar for his "one great song". 

Our production of RENT has received some tremendously positive feedback, so much it had won us Best Community Theatre Production in the GTA Area in, as well as prestigious mentions at the ACT-CO Awards Gala.  The recognition for our production as a whole is a validation of our work as a an artistic team, being able to pull together a focused, unified vision through both character portrayal and the environment they exist in.  We are all very proud of our work and humbled by the accolades and loved every stressful moment to the end.

Keeping clear lines of communication with the artistic team will result in a cohesive design that will elevate the actors' connection to a world built just for them, finding more to play off of and incorporate into their traits, in turn influencing a human instinct that will help the audience 'believe' in these moments.  To see these characters populate a small universe you've helped create on this stage is just the beginning of a rewarding process.  And if all's done right, you'll see the set becomes alive in its own way, and each prop becomes its own character.  Things change along the way, sometimes certain things don't translate and need slight tweaking.  All of this is a learning process that helps improve your next artistic production collaboration.  As an actor working on a "backstage team", you'll build a new appreciation for the big picture of the production itself and acquire new tools for character development.  New experiences are always a good thing!

Many thanks and acknowledgments to Mark Gomes at for the photographs of the production.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...