At the end of last season, the University of Michigan produced a play that should have been a movie. Some of the 33 scenes were less than a page long in Seth Moore’s Jonesin’, a play about a dealer who creates a new drug to cure addictions through a wrenching hallucinogenic experience. The 15 rapidly changing locales include a hotel room, a bar, a bathroom, all viewed from the protagonist’s perspective.
The budget was low and the rehearsal period short, designed to fit into schedules of actors who couldn’t skip history or physics class. Moreover, the student-written play wasn’t entirely finished when rehearsals began, and the design team had to clarify a non-linear plot. That team, except for sound, was entirely made up of students.
Justin N. Lang, who designed scenery and projections, says the artistic team decided on a ritualistic space in which any story could happen—a space with doors, pathways, a stairway, a hallway, perhaps a bathroom. There was talk of something frankly theatrical, Brechtian, maybe, or Greek. Spectators would not be asked to suspend disbelief.
Lang’s set, mainly cubes of different sizes, was simple enough. Some unbleached cotton scrim was the biggest scenic expense, but he set the stage mainly with projections. “Seth didn’t want a movie but a play for our generation—a generation distracted by iPods,” says Lang, who changed images constantly, filling all the walls with them.
These still and video projections would be realistic, yet distorted. They would have to help set the stage, but they would come from the protagonist’s point of view. “A big problem was figuring out which elements would be real and which would be distorted,” says Lang, who captured a lot of footage early on but didn’t begin importing it and editing until they were loading into the theatre.
One problem led to another. “Nobody saw the video until the third day of tech,” says Lang. “Without the video on the walls, the set didn’t exist. If I had to do it over, I would have had it in there on day one.”
Lighting designer Craig Kidwell says that, although he spent most of spring break prior to rehearsals storyboarding and talking to Lang often, he had difficulty knowing what the lighting needed to look like without the video and without a finished script. He knew only that he would need distinct lighting to establish each location.
“The director [Malcolm Tulip] lets things evolve. He doesn’t preach from on high,” says sound designer Henry Reynolds, the only non-student on the design team. Reynolds would create 120 sound cues for the 90 minute show, and only some of these would repeat. “Sometimes, two or three or four things were going on at once,” he adds. In addition to trying to create some clarity by suggesting time and place through sounds, he knew he had to “create an emotional component.”
Lighting, sound, and projection cues had to be coordinated carefully and be as precise as they were fast. When operators hit “go,” sound and lighting shifts would be immediate, but because the video involved a network of computers that weren’t as fast, video operators would have to receive cues at different times. Once programmed, concern set in that computers might break down or be stolen. Did they need a fallback position?
Designers would also have to deal with ice water and blood. “In one out of every three scenes, there’s a character submerged in a bathtub full of ice water,” says Lang. Ongoing play revisions left costume designer Rachel Jahn unsure about when she needed duplicate costumes for a character who might be bloody, then not bloody, in the same garment. Finding a blood recipe that would wash out between performances was essential.
“I did my best to confuse the stage picture in an artistic way,” says Lang, who wanted to give the impression that all the video had been captured through the eyes of Terry, the dealer. If he was sitting in a bar, and he saw a piece of paper fall, Lang recorded the falling paper, not because it helped establish the bar or anything needed for the scene. “In the end, intense specific details did convey what was needed, but it was not the first thing you would think of in Scenery 101,” says Lang, adding that, if he used a realistic image, lighting or sound would be somehow distorted. “In every real moment, there was always that idea of the unreal,” he says.
The first and last scenes are literal. “Everything in the middle is out of time,” says Kidwell. “What I wanted to do was create a more and more crazed world as the script gets more and more twisted and as the main character’s world moves toward a final climactic swirling. Light snaps him out of that, and we’re back in reality.” He adds that the production was to be bright and clear, but then Tulip decided to darken it. That threw the young LD off, but not for long. He drew detailed Adobe Photoshop renderings and started to make it a darker, shadowed piece, with blue drifts and a good deal of green light to mask video lighting. Still, he stopped short of extreme darkness after talking to his adviser, LD Rob Murphy, who cautioned him not to try to match the darkness of the script.
Jahn’s sketches and Lang’s model proved useful to Kidwell. By putting a flashlight behind the scrim in the box, he learned that top-light would provide the only possible shot into the room, but other things changed when they got to the theatre. “Justin would put up video, and I would match the color, the shape, and the intensity,” says Kidwell. “He had filmed a candle on the side of the bar building. I made a flashing effect cue off that, and the director really liked it. I had a little more flexibility and a lot more technology than video did.”
“We decided to be literal with the soundscape for real events and to create an emotive soundscape for the imaginary parts,” says Reynolds. “It was partly to help the audience with where the heck we were, which wasn’t always clear.” Since all locales in the script are in or near a hotel off an interstate, Reynolds played with droning truck sounds. Whenever the door to the hotel room opened, highway sounds became louder and lights changed. In one scene, a truck seemed to drive through the room, lights glaring. “A character enters who is trying to escape from the conflict, and a truck horn pushes him back into the room. I gave him a reason to be pushed back into the room,” says Reynolds.
Reynolds worked with students to compose music. Even though events that occurred inside the protagonist’s mind in the script are sometimes random, the music isn’t. “It is melodic—not tonal, not noise, not random—sometimes with an edgy counterpoint,” Reynolds says, explaining that one piece is overtaken by another, so if timing of lights, projections, or stage movement changed a little, musical transitions would still seem natural.
Reynolds and Kidwell coordinated in the theatre in the dark, asking each other, “Should we lead with a light cue to take us to the next scene, or should sound do that?” It was easier to coordinate conceptually than technically; three monitors for video and four for lighting ran almost constantly. The designers credit stage manager Stephanie Schechter for coordinating complex cues and making the show run smoothly.
Lang says using a Dataton Watchout setup helped in the unique focus of the projectors and gave him the flexibility to serve multiple pieces of video in different areas simultaneously. Some scenes take place in a room enclosed by two sides of a tri-fold scrim wall, with an Epson 8300i 5,400-lumenprojector coming at it on an angle so it stretched across all three screens, even though they folded. An Epson Powerlite 8212,000-lumen projector wasfocused on a 12'x9' opaque textured panel floating upstage right.
Lighting gear, controlled via an ETC Eos console, included nine Vari-Lite VL1000 TS fixtures, a Barco/High End Systems Cyberlight SV, a range of ETC units (52 Source Four 25°-50° Zooms, 34 Source Four 15°-30° Zooms, 32 Source Four jr. Zooms, 12 Source Four 36˚ ellipsoidals, 16 Source Four 26˚ ellipsoidals, 13 Source Four 19˚ ellipsoidals , and 30 Source Four PARs), as well as five R40 four–circuit 8' strips, six mini 10s, and two photofloods. “The Eos is the novelty. There is no other in Michigan,” says Kidwell, proclaiming it “absolutely wonderful.” He notes that he used the VL1000 TS units to create motion, while the Cyberlight proved useful in mimicking glaring headlights.
Reynolds used Stage Research SFX software for audio playback. To protect against computer breakdown or theft, students backed up effects on CDs and mini-disks, and the operator rehearsed with an alternate cue sheet. “We never needed it,” says Reynolds.
As for the ice water, Lang says, “Malcolm wasn’t worried about it, so I got not worried about it.” He filmed video with cast members in tubs but didn’t fill a tub on stage. Characters sat in dry tubs and wet themselves down with water from a bucket when the scrim was opaque. Plastic ice cubes created sound as well as the suggestion of water.
The clothes for the contemporary show weren’t supposed to be brand new and pressed. “These were old-friend, lived-in clothes,” says Jahn, who shopped most of the show in thrift shops. A student in the wardrobe crew took responsibility for the blood. “She made it every night and made sure the actors had it,” adds Jahn. Her recipe for the dark, congealed blood was a mix of “12 to 14oz. Hershey Syrup, 2oz. Karo Syrup or white corn syrup, a teaspoon of liquid red food coloring, and then to ‘taste.’ It can be changed to get a more arterial blood look.” In both cases, the formula proved easy to wash.
Davi Napoleon, who posts content at www.thefastertimes.com/theatertalk, has school creds, too. She studied at the University of Michigan, then did a doctorate at NYU. She taught theatre history at Albion College and dramatic literature at Eastern Michigan University and directed at Albion and at Washtenaw Community College.