Section 4: Pre-Rehearsal Period

4.1.      Preliminary designs

During our first brainstorming session, three months before the scheduled rehearsal date, Bruce Barton (director) brought up the idea that a scaffold with broken down pieces might draw associations to the jail in which Henry Cowell was incarcerated. Additionally, it would be effective as the central set piece for the second movement (act two) of the show. At the time, I was interested in an alternative placing of the audience. I wanted them more immersed and less separated from the scenography. Our approach to the scenography focused on how the designs might feel instead of what they might look like (Benedetto 13). The visual must be a consequence of emergent aesthetics embedded in our exploration of the scenic elements during the devising process.

         Barton then started thinking of the design through the lens of intimacy and suggested we create a cluster of rooms to form an intimate immersive environment. Each room would contain 1-2 performers and a few audience members at any given time, allowing for a stronger connection between spectators and performers.                                                          Barton suggested a transition between movement one and movement two because he wanted the set design to provide a magical and unexpected experience (Benedetto 4). The curtains that divided the rooms would disappear and show to the spectators that the world changes from one moment to another as it did in Cowell’s life.

            We decided that there should be 10 immersive rooms in movement one (act one). In collaboration with Jeremy Brown (music director), each of these rooms would be based on a specific moment from Cowell’s life. Instead of building a narrative representation of Cowell’s life, Barton proposed that the piece should become an experience (McKinney and Palmer 68).

            This first meeting with Barton gave me guidance for how to structure my approach to the design task while perusing my interest in process-led design. It helped me begin to explore possibilities that would make space for my interests within the given material constraints.

 

4.1.1    Designing

The scholar Teemu Paavolainen discusses the boundaries between scenery, props, costumes, and affordances in her article “From Props to Affordances: An Ecological Approach to Theatrical Objects”. Paavolainen argues that affordances are what one can do with things and the possibilities they might lead to for interaction in an environment (112). Working with this understanding, I proposed to think of the set, props, and costumes as affordances for the performers and audience members. Thus, I considered carefully how the materialities and relations between people and things can become incorporated in the experience of an audience through the performance (McKinney and Palmer 68).  

            The scenography was conceptualized to focus on embodying the affordances of each moment of Cowell’s life in the designs. For this reason, the scenography should facilitate an embodied experience for the audience member and strengthen the immersive character of the piece. Consequently, I was not aiming to illustrate or represent the selected situations with the room designs.

With the shift from representation to action comes a new focus on the ethical position of the scenographer and their responsibility in ‘not just observing the world but being part of it’. Irwin draws from Barad’s theory of ‘intra-action’, which states that agency arises from the relationships between things, rather than being inherently given to individual things. (McKinney and Palmer 62)

            The creative team’s efforts to push past illustrating dramatic text, and understand the affordances of moments in Cowell’s life, assigned agency to the relationships that an audience member might have with the piece.

This shift in scenic design approach directly affected other scenic elements. Throughout the process, the scenic elements became woven into each other and the designs were developed taking nonlinear and complicated routes. The way in which costume choices affected the process of selecting ten moments from Cowell’s life serves as a good example of a nonlinear route.

 

4.1.2 Costumes

A space designed using affordances from Cowell's life could run the risk of becoming abstract; particularly for an audience member that expects to see a representational approach to scenography. In order to anticipate and accommodate diverse audience members, we decided that the base costumes of the actors should represent Cowell and the people that participated in his life. Most elements of these costumes were thus chosen to establish meaningful representations for the audience members by offering them hints about the characters. These hints were meant to provide information about the characters’ social class and gender and gesture towards the time periods of each selected life moment.

            I also wanted the costumes to impact the performer's bodies. I proposed to Barton that we let one element of each costume be determined by a relationship with the performer. The inspiration to make this proposal for Conduct was inspired by Sofia Pantouvaki's seminar presentation Performer-led Costumes: designing through the performer at the Scenography Working Group of the International Federation for Theatre Research in 2017 São Paulo, Brazil. She presented co-designing with actors as a method for costuming research. Barton named these costume pieces “the personal elements”. I hypothesized that the performer’s personal connection to this aspect of the design should affect their embodied perception of the costume.

These conversations about the personal elements of the costumes directed my attention towards the subject of character. Were the actors representing people from Cowell’s life? Were they commenting on them as characters? Were they a combination of themselves and such representative characters? (See the section “Through Rehearsals” for a more in-depth analysis.)

           When the preliminary designs were due, I needed to provide the costume shop a list of these personalities accompanied by drawings. I had dramaturgical meetings focused on the costumes with Pil Hansen (thesis supervisor and dramaturg of Conduct). Supported by my collaboration with her, I came up with the preliminary designs (see the section “Technical Renderings” to view the costume renderings). Since we had not yet selected the contents for the ten rooms for me to work from, I instead asked Jeremy Brown for a list of ten people he believed had the most impactful encounters with Henry Cowell. This collection of people and their encounters with Cowell offered the direction needed to select content for the rooms.

 

4.1.3 Set design

To enhance the immersiveness of the production, I suggested that we think of the material qualities and the colours of the fabric walls dividing the space into rooms. I wanted the set design to resemble a stereotypical prison environment and thus recommended grey as the overall tone of the color pallet for the set. The projection designer, Beth Kates and I worked together to create a list of fabrics that would be favorable for the projection designs.

       In one meeting with the full creative team, I highlighted the importance of the floor design to the immersive experience of the audience. Immersion is paradoxically connected to illusion; wonder is stimulated to create an experience of amazement, which in turn makes audiences unware of the tricks behind the fictional environment of the piece (Benedetto 3). For example, between movement one and two, the truss lifted all the curtains of the rooms and allowed the audience to see all the rooms at once as a now different yet somewhat familiar environment. At that moment, most audience members were mesmerized by the change of the space and less attentive to of how it happened (see the section “To Performance” for more information). To immerse the spectators we would have to initially stimulate the wonder and make them forget that they were in a conventional theatre space. Moreover, I proposed to the creative team the use of different materials and textures on the floor of these ten rooms, such as cement, foil, and rocks. My intention was to increase the amazement of our audience with extraordinary textures. Working on the design for the second movement, we started out with conversations about the overall size of the scaffold, how we would like to make use of it, and how we could make it safe for a large number of performers.

 

4.1.4 Props

According to the production schedule, the set needed to be designed at this stage for the carpentry to budget and then build it. Subsequently, props could be pulled from storage and sourced from thrift stores over time, allowing me to negotiate more time for process. This meant that I could make prop suggestions throughout the rehearsal process, while either inserting them in the devising work with actors to discover how they affect the actors or simply providing materials in response to needs that arise in rehearsal. Instead of providing sketches I thus merely pointed out how much money we wanted to save from the budget for the props.

 

4.2  After the Preliminaries

The methods in which actors are trained potentially affect their relationships with design elements. This training is essential when working on an unscripted piece. Their training determines the ways in which performers might engage the performance materials for creation. The articulation of ideas is a key to collaboration in such a process. I developed strategies to communicate different modes of interaction between performers and scenic elements. This can bring out the affordances, personae, and representations discussed earlier, and it eventually offers the audience embodied, immersive experiences.

              During a supervising meeting with Hansen, I explained my need to articulate clearly the dramaturgical impact of scenography. Awareness of different perspectives involved in the relationships between actors, costumes, props, set, and space was crucial because different perspectives often affect outcomes. I noticed that the performers struggled in engaging with the scenic elements as physical materials with potential performative effects. Without this ability, the affordances of the scenic elements remain implicit to the actors. Thus, through exchanges with Hansen, I developed and articulated modes of engagement for the actors, by paying attention to the costume design. Note that the sources on which I based my understanding and development of these lenses are cited here; however they were not provided in the articulations I shared with my collaborators and the actors.

 

4.2.1 Modes of engagement for the use of costumes and their critical effect in performance

Costume design is a powerful tool for the construction of a character, persona and a piece, as well as for the interpretation/experience of an audience member. Costume designers often use an aesthetic and representational lens when costuming. The following describes a broader range of tools we can bring to our performance when choosing costume critically.

           Representational: The costume is designed to build and represent a character. This way of designing a costume focuses on connotations, and on what we signal about this character with our choice of visual elements. The approach embeds semiotic information into the clothes for the audience to receive and interpret. This information exposes who the character is and situates her in a historical period and social context. For example: one can represent a character’s age with wigs, makeup and a specific style of clothing. A senior woman with a scarf suggests a specific body to the performer. Depending on the other elements of the performance this body can be related to social class (e.g., add a crown or rags). It can also be made to express the inner emotion of the character (e.g., if the woman is crying, she might carry a tissue in her blouse’s pocket).

               Aesthetic: The costume aims to expose the concept of the piece and fictional elements of it. Colours are used to help establish the fictional world of the story. Aesthetic design is commonly based on the idea of beauty and what is pleasing to the eye. It is often used in movies and TV series, in which an overall pallet generates the emotional tone of the film or show. For example, characters can use contrasting colors if they have a disagreement. Colours drawn from the pallet of a character are then changed to expose and underline the character’s changing inner feelings or conflicts they are experiencing. This tool is focused on the visual message with reference to color theory and psychology (Mollica  51)

               Performative: The costume affects the performers’ body directly. If we worked with a performative costume for the senior woman, we would be interested in exploring how the costume can make the performer older by choosing clothes that affect the physicality of the body. A performative costume can affect the performer’s balance or change their posture and the sound that they produce. It can challenge the performer’s strength and it might be uncomfortable. It is important to choose what the costume should do to the embodied mind of a performer as well as the concepts the artists aim to explore in their piece.

               Physical material/object: The costume becomes a prop and its physical limitations and features are considered. It might produce sound, fall or catch, stick or move, fold and unfold, take shapes, and so on. The costume has its own agency. It is an approach that asks: can this object/clothing respond? For example, a designer working on a site-specific piece in an abandoned house decided to use contaminated clothing from the space, that garment had animals inhabiting it (Manuel 9). The material had radical agency over the performer’s body: it could give them a disease. To offer another example, the costume could be composed of elastics that react to the performers’ movement with its own tendency to stretch, retract or snap. This approach is mainly interactive and responsive, and it is often combined with cognitive and performative approaches to costuming which direct our attention to how the material affects the embodied mind of performers and audience members (Irwin  43).

               Relational: The costume comes into being through relationships: the actors’ relationship with the costume, the conscious connection they can have with an outfit. To facilitate such connections through experiences, the costume can be worn outside of the theatrical context, it can be something the actors own or have a memory of from a more personal context. The costume should be or become a piece of their history, a relational and situated part of the performer’s reality, and something they have a relation to beyond the rehearsal room. For example, Theatre Replacement devised a show based on clothing donated along with a note about its personal significance to the donator (Yamamoto 42). (See the section “Through Rehearsals” for more information.) Through this tool, the personal stories and experiences associated with clothing transcend the rehearsal room and extend into the lived pasts and futures (Shearing 10).

               Cognitive/constrained: The costume gives clues about a character. A costume constructed from a cognitive lens limits who the character might be and how they are likely to act. In other words, such a costume provides cognitive constraints. Instead of designing a costume based on a description in a script, we wanted to choose a blouse and explore the clues this blouse gives us about whom this persona could be in terms of what the clothes invites them to do. From there, a pair of pants provides us with additional hints. Then, when the actor starts to explore this costume, the character already has a frame for to how to behave, determined by the constraints of the clothes. As explained by Evelyn Tribble in her introduction to distributed cognition, our environments typically contain cognitive hints and constraints that limit our possible actions and make us function more efficiently. For example, a restaurant kitchen has tools in specific places to make the process of cooking easier. The chef does not need to think about where the knives are, their memory is triggered by the built environment (134). I argue that costumes provide similar cognitive constraints, and thus shape embodied behavior. In my examples, the actor draws on constraints embedded in costume pieces.

            Every design of a costume can be approached through one or multiple lenses by the designer and by actors. The clarity of the approach chosen can be fundamental for the work if the creative team wants the costume to have a critical effect (Hann and Bech 4). This effect can be on the narrative, on/in the performer’s body, and so on.  Such awareness makes us think more carefully as creators about every clothing piece and what we want from it when relating it to our concept. It also makes us aware of what it might offer a spectator who is unfamiliar with the design and creation process.

            This breakdown of possible ways to engage with scenic elements allowed for different outcomes and methodologies throughout the process. Barton drew on the breakdown when planning different methods to teach his students in the 460 Performance Creation class. In this class, he developed a prototype approach to use when rehearsals commenced for Conduct. I used the breakdown of the approaches to develop charts for the design of each of the ten rooms. These charts helped us consider the strategies and tools we could emphasize in each of the rooms. In extension, they also forced us to become aware of naturalized theatrical approaches, which in turn lead us to make active choices about how to immerse audience members in the scenography while considering their interaction with the space and performers.

              For some of the rooms, I had clear ideas of scenarios that would accommodate sets of relevant tools and could be charted right away. The selection of tools and their associated lenses would provide the actors with a limited, but freely explorable space for creation. However, I did not have predetermined ideas for the other rooms. Thus, I decided to approach the remaining rooms as open research spaces and respond to the suggestions of actors and collaborators.

The charts helped communicate with the artistic collaborators and the dramaturg in a more effective way than a drawing would have. This allowed us to discuss and clarify ideas of exploration for each room collaboratively. It prompted us to view the spectators and performers as scenographic materials (see the section “Through Rehearsals” for examples and more detailed explanations of these charts).

            At times, felt almost impossible to be a designer with an interest and investment in research and process-based creation while also as attempting to meet the technical requirements of the production system. After the preliminaries deadlines, I had to develop methods to keep the designs responsive to the process (i.e., the charts) and try to make the designs realistic within a limited budget. When the production team returned their costing of the preliminary designs, the expenses added up to 65.000 dollars and had to be reduced to 10.000. During the three weeks left before the final designs were due, I mainly worked on excel sheets, calculations, and meetings with the artistic team to determine what could be cut or adapted in order for  Conduct to meet the required budget.

 

4.3 The ‘Final’ designs

When the deadlines for the final designs arrived, we did not have ground plans, sketches, or conventional models for each of the rooms. The Production Team required them. At this point, we knew which moments of Cowell’s life each room would be based on, and I wanted to explore the affordances of each moment through the scenic elements and audience interaction of the different rooms.

            When working with a more process-oriented approach to scenic elements, it is often more important to know ‘how’ than ‘what’. In other words, how to develop the design is more essential than knowing what the design is (Gaspar 209). In the case of Conduct, the approach we proposed for the creation of the scenic elements was incompatible with the production model. The creative and production team often had rather different understandings of what needed to be ‘known’, ‘concrete’ and ‘clear’ at this point. Thus, the feedback I repeatedly received from the production team was that the designs were not consistent enough and changed too much while the creative team depended on the ability to adapt to devise the show.

              As discussed in the section on “Material Constraints,” there is a commonplace understanding that to be a designer, you need to envision something and be able to realize exactly what you envisioned. For devised creations, this perspective reduces the possibilities for and relevance of the scenography. In a devising process you are working with emergent ideas and materials through exchanges with collaborators, there is no script or finalized directorial vision to work from. It makes the process complex.

              April Viczko (this show’s producer and co-supervisor of this MFA thesis) gave me a significant amount of support and taught me important tools for how to navigate these two teams. I had multiple meetings with her throughout this process, during which she advised me on how to improve my communications skills and bridge between the creative and production teams while sharing clear ideas and solutions for the designs. Vickzo offered me tips on how to work with the budget before the ‘Final’ designs were due. She continuously suggested new alternatives to help execute my artistic vision and research. Having Vickzo’s help, allowed me to feel more confident when the creative process of Conduct was messy. The technical abilities I gained after taking her courses in design in my first year also helped me anticipate the expectations of the production team. These skills and this support allowed me to negotiate deadlines and deliverables and find openings in the production model for a more process-responsive design praxis. 

For Conduct, the ‘Final’ Designs I submitted did not comprise the end of the design work as the Production Team might have expected. Although, many elements were as complete as they could be prior to solving practical concerns during the construction of the set, the design remained a stepping stone for the creative team – a beginning.  The real boundaries of the design process became defined by our decisions about budgeting and the scheduling of production labour. Both factors made the final design deadlines significantly reduce our options and rendered some design elements unresponsive to the devising process. These limitations also provided a structure, which can serve a positive factor in devising. Owning some decisions that have already been made throughout the process provides constraints and direction for the collaborative creation of the piece.

The storage resources that were available for the prop and costume shop at the UofC rendered these decisions less limiting than first imagined. Both of the school shops have large storage spaces filled with prop pieces and furniture that I could pull and return to try out options and make changes until a week before the opening.

              I think that the collaboration challenges, which emerged between the creative team and the production team, were increased by the impact words have on the mindsets of people. Our words frame the world we live in and how we perceive our environments (Bazerman 311).  “The Final Designs” imply that things should not change after the deadlines, which is unrealistic in a devising process. Different terminology might help provide everyone with an alternative perception of the design and construction process and thus bridge the different expectations of the production and creative teams on devised pieces.