At Soulpepper, a Toronto-based theatre company that brought several productions to New York this summer, design becomes part of the agenda in the rehearsal room. Designers build new work from the ground up with directors, writers, and actors. “It’s really an attempt at a holistic approach to theatre-making,” says resident designer Lorenzo Savioni.
Treating design as part of the collaborative process, “was transformative for me as an actor,” says Albert Schultz, an actor, director, and Soulpepper’s founding artistic director. He remembers the terror of performances at traditional theatres earlier in his career. “You have this horrible period when you go into the theatre wearing something you wore for a five-minute fitting, you’re not used to the set, and suddenly, there’s a bright light in your face, and you’re supposed to remember what you did in rehearsal. It’s not conducive to making new work.”
Designers find it transformative, too. Resident designer Ken MacKenzie has done it the old way, creating a plot after seeing a run-through, but bringing a few lights into the rehearsal room, which has a 16-channel console, and responding to what actors improvise is more fun. “Design is not a static object. It is something that moves, that is temporal, like a performance,” he says. After all the improvising, “there is a full tech period to polish and solidify.”
“We’ll use rehearsals as a way of beginning the design process,” Savioni adds. When designing costumes, for instance, the creative team pulls racks of clothing from stock into the rehearsal room for actors to try. “We get an immediate reaction and fun ideas of variables to throw into the design,” says Savioni. “Then we pull it all together in a contained aesthetic.” Savioni might use what they pull from stock, adapt those garments, or build new costumes that carry through essential features of those the actors liked. He experiments with lighting throughout the rehearsal period, too. “The creative process doesn’t suddenly stop for a week for techs.”
The theatre balances each season with some traditional plays done in traditional ways. There’s no messing with the Beckett or Albee estates, for instance, and the sets are pretty clearly defined, but for a play like Of Human Bondage, one of the productions Soulpepper took to New York, this kind of collaboration was ideal.
“Playgrounding,” as Schultz came to call it, began five years ago, when the company started to work with the novel. “I came in with an idea that the entire cast would be on stage the whole time,” says Savioni. That may sound like a directorial idea, but Soulpepper doesn’t limit designers to designing any more than it limits actors to acting, but the protagonist, it turned out, was limited to stay within a 16'x16' space.
Paintings Without Paint
Schultz, who directed Of Human Bondage, says he thought he was looking at a film script, with 100 very short scenes. How could they represent all the locations in a finite space and with a finite budget?
Schultz and Savioni met early, and the designer came up with an idea for a space that would be open for discovery and serve as a metaphor to ground the production. “We were then able to make design decisions in rehearsal.
There were even some serious design decisions made when Lorenzo wasn’t in the room,” says Schultz. When Savioni saw them, he would tweak them. “Everyone on stage owns the work and owns the storytelling,” says Schultz.
“Lorenzo created a large open space with a 16-foot square of deep red floor. It looked almost like a square of liquid blood. There were nine lamps descending along the side,” Schultz says, adding that the lamps moved down to become a cage. “The play deals with the medical profession and, at the same time, the landscape of the heart. That was where the color metaphor came from.”
The cage was a springboard to other possibilities. The protagonist, afflicted by a club foot, feels trapped in his body. As the story winds through many locales, he stays within the square; he’s even there during intermission. “The book is about how all the threads that enter the fabric of one’s life is the life. Every piece of the story is a thread entering the life of Philip Carey,” says Schultz.
Schultz doesn’t always have answers to questions that come up in rehearsal, so the company playgrounds them. How can they have paintings without walls? Schultz split the group into four, and they went off for 45 minutes. The groups could consult with Schultz or a stage manager, try props or costumes, use flashlights for lighting effects, and create sound cues, too. Schultz then edits what they bring back. “When we get close to an audience, I start honing and being very specific,” he says. “It’s all about creating a sense that every idea is worthwhile and welcome.”
“If you’re devising something from scratch, a designer in the room creating as things go along will develop a close relationship with the actors and the directors,” Savioni says, adding that he finds it more satisfying to work with actors who understand his aesthetic—“bold minimalism”—than to work in a studio by himself or in meetings with a director. “Often I don’t see choices that are too outside the realm of what I’d been interested in initially,” he says. “If you have a lot of ideas generated quickly, some may be terrible, but if one is a golden nugget, we can work with that through rehearsal.”
For a scene where a woman destroys Carey’s paintings, the theatre might have built many paintings so some could be destroyed at each performance. Savioni might have figured out a trick to pull them apart and put them back together, but the idea the group improvised was to use empty frames. Performers could stand behind them, as if they were on canvas. “The final articulated image was integrated into the performance,” says Savioni.
Bondage costume designer Erika Connor sought simple silhouettes and neutral colors that wouldn’t distract from the epic story that spans a long time period. Since actors play multiple roles and have quick changes, costumes had to be easy to change. Sometimes adding a pair of glasses or rolling up sleeves while crossing the stage was enough.
Connor did a good deal of research “to find the essence of the look,” but she didn’t do renderings with swatches. Instead, she created a photo book for each character. Then she pulled some stock pieces that might be appropriate—lots of blacks and grays and neutrals—and brought them to rehearsal. Once everyone collaboratively decided on a style, she had the garment rebuilt in the color she wanted. “Actors came to me with ideas. They are on stage, so you want to make them feel the costume speaks to them,” she says.
Gregory Prest created the role of Philip Carey, but he doesn’t think of himself as the star of the show. He’s worked at theatres “where there are stars, and you know your place. We don’t have that. We all can speak to each other as colleagues, and it’s always about the work. It’s a beautiful way to be with people,” he says.
The design is not the star either. Actors are never tyrannized or upstaged by it, but sometimes it does the job for the actor. By working this way, Prest says, actors understand what each moment is. “I don’t have to be telling this part of the story as an actor because I know the lights are doing that,” he says.
In the end, the director still must tie up all the threads. Schultz says he’s extremely detail-oriented when working with performance, design, and tech, but he directs in the moment. “What I try to do is create a free, healthy, safe, creative environment. There’s tons of laughter, no matter what play we’re doing.”
Stay tuned for more in Part Two!