LD Venus Gulbranson and production creatives take us backstage on My Mama & The Full-Scale Invasion on this week's Plot of the Week.
My Mama & The Full-Scale Invasion is set both in an apartment in Ukraine and in a fantastical world.
On the one hand, the play is about the conflict between a daughter who wants to get her mother out of the apartment, out of the Ukraine, and a mother who won’t budge. On the other, an alien wants to help Mama get out of Kiev, too.
When director Yuri Urnov told lighting designer Venus Gulbranson about the play, she was confused. “He was describing Mama being in her apartment, where she finds comfort, and everything outside is on a spaceship that landed on this planet sent by aliens to give her a life outside Ukraine.”
Eventually, she, “learned the rules. Mama is only in the apartment. Other characters can live outside it. I will go crazy outside. And inside we will always have a sense of home,” Gulbranson says. “In today’s times, you’re not thinking about the warmth of a home in Ukraine. It was very important to me to embody this. Misha shared photos of Ukrainian homes and his parent’s home.”
“I started from the apartment because it was the unit that had the most constraints. I didn’t want anything inorganic in there from outside,” she says, explaining that she relied on practicals, mostly floor lamps, overhead lighting, and windows.
“I leaned into this mechanical world outside of her beautiful apartment,” Gulbranson says. “I went about it kind of crazy with lights everywhere, wrapping around the theater. The pod rotates 360 degrees. I only have a finite amount of positions. You can have it at 180, 90, 45 but any more we have to talk about it,” she told the team.
“I’m surprised and proud of the work I did on the show. The topic itself is very sensitive. I felt I was going in tip toeing to be respectful. How are we doing a comedy on Ukraine right now. Are we crazy?” Gulbranson wondered. “But we are not ridiculing the suffering. The humor is born out of fear, the absurdity of the war.”
“Venus lit it almost like a dance piece,” says Kachman.
Gulbranson worked closely with projection and video designer Kelly Colburn who says they didn’t hold back on imagined scenes, which were “wild and full of color…But it’s about a real person and a real struggle in Kiev right now. How do you display humanity through chaos? What is happening in Kiev? Mama having dinner with heads of state. The play blurs fantasy and reality.”
Colburn mixed live feed, video, and projection, using documentary imagines Denisova provided, including pictures of her mother and herself as a child in their apartment. “We thought about [the movie] War Games with Matthew Broderick and old school video games from the 1980s.”
With the help of her assistant, Dylan Uremovich , she created deep fake videos that allowed French President Emmanuel Macron to morph into German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during two-way Facetime conversations with Mama.
A laptop and iPod fed documentary footage of Kiev into the projection system. Colburn used a three-display system with a front projector and one in the grid hitting the back wall and a TV on stage. Mobile devices had backups in case one cut out.
“Venus and I stayed in contact a lot. We knew the back wall was very dark and the deck of the floor was vivid red, so we decided to lean into side light, so it doesn’t come down and hit the live feed. Lighting for the stage is completely different than lighting for film,” Colburn says, explaining that the trick is to achieve something that looks good on stage without blowing out faces on camera.
Colburn and Uremovich used AI algorisms to do the deep fakes. “I think the deep fakes are a silly and wonderful concept. We talked a lot about the use of AI algorithms to build these things. How do we responsibly use these advanced algorithms?” Colburn wonders.
The video was also critical to conversations between Daughter and Mother. “When Sasha and Mama talk, they’re never in the same room. They talk through a screen. Their communication is mediated,” says Kachman. “It’s a metaphor for their relationship.”
Kachman says that auditions they recorded over Zoom during the casting process were more successful than those done in person “because there was a screen between us.”
“Kelly’s work is brilliant,” Kachman says. “There is no visual wallpaper, no projections are trying to establish a location. They are telling stories that only projections can do.”
Photo credit: Misha Kachman