June 1, 2011

Set design study with the playwright involved — via Skype

Models of the students set designs can be seen on their Flickr site.

On their last day of class, students in Drama 210 meet the playwright for whom theyve been designing a set — for the second time. But the School of Drama didnt have to pay the playwrights airfare and hotel bills; her visits came via Skype.

Its all part of the major assignment students have in the Theater Technical Practice class, which introduces undergraduate students to the art of designing sets. Theyre asked to read a play, talk to the playwright about it and then — with another student as a partner — design a set for it. At the end of the quarter, the playwright looks at and comments on models of the sets students have created.

Chloe Myers, left, and Sarah Sutin set up their model of the set for “Magnificent Waste.”

Mary Levin

Chloe Myers, left, and Sarah Sutin set up their model of the set for “Magnificent Waste.”

“I always find that students respond better to the assignment when they realize that a play is written by someone flesh and blood, a real person,” said their teacher, Robert Mark Morgan. “So I began calling on playwrights that I know and have worked with, asking if they would be involved with my class.”

According to Morgan, the playwrights almost always say yes. Then, midway through the quarter, after the students have read the play and gained some basic design skills, the playwrights appear in class via Skype and the students ask them questions about the play.

Morgan keeps the process organized by scheduling the Skype session a half hour into the class. He and the students brainstorm questions to ask in the first half hour. Then, during the Skype session, individual students stand near the computer monitor and ask their questions.

The subject this quarter is Caridad Svich, author of a play called Magnificent Waste that recently had its premiere at a small theater in Washington, D.C. Svich was smiling and relaxed, and seemed happy to answer as many questions as the students could throw at her. It even turned out that though the play is set in the New York art world, it has a local connection. She did the major writing on it while she was a writer-in-residence at Hedgbrook on Whidbey Island.

For many of the students, talking to the playwright makes a difference.

From left, Kyra Williams, Valezrina Pham and Drama Professor Robert Morgan work in the dark supply room to shoot digital photos of the students model under different angles, intensity and colors of light.

Mary Levin

From left, Kyra Williams, Valezrina Pham and Drama Professor Robert Morgan work in the dark supply room to shoot digital photos of the students model under different angles, intensity and colors of light.

“When I first read the play I was taken aback at all the immorality and how toxic the characters seem,” said Sarah Sutin, a junior in pre-architecture. “My picture of the story was bleak. But speaking to the playwright broke my own conceptions and let me see some soul to the story that I had been too shocked to accept. It brought the characters and their world into a more touchable reality. My partner and I were then able to make a design that combined unnatural shapes with recognizable structures.”

Heather DArnell, a double major in drama and dance, was similarly influenced by the playwright. She said she was struck by Svich calling her characters “damaged people in a damaged culture.” “That was key to my understanding the play and how I went about designing the ‘world of the play with my set,” DArnell said.

Beyond the effect on the sets, however, Morgan thinks the interaction with the playwrights has an effect on motivation. “The students see the value of doing the best they can on the project because the person who wrote it is going to judge it,” he said. “I think they have a little more invested when its that way.”

Most of the students in the class have never designed a set before, so Morgan teaches them perspective sketching followed by watercolor rendering, and finally they work on models using Bristol board, an uncoated, machine-finished paper board. But Morgan encourages them to bring in other items to adorn their set models — feathers, candy, bells — whatever seems appropriate.

Each student team is supposed to depict three scenes from the play. When the models are finished, photos of them are uploaded to a Flickr site where the playwrights can have a look. Then, on the final day, the playwright Skypes in again and the student teams sit, one by one, in front of the monitor and explain their choices in set design. The playwright provides feedback.

DArnell called the process “super fun and collaborative.”

Students Jackie Blodgett, left and Liz Lay show their design to Drama Professor Robert Morgan.

Mary Levin

Students Jackie Blodgett, left and Liz Lay show their design to Drama Professor Robert Morgan.

Sutin enjoyed the challenge. “I was the costume designer for Into The Woods, which I loved, but I was really working with the directors concept and needs,” she said. “With this project, my partner and I can take the design any way we wish. It is so liberating but also pushes us to be strong as our own critics. As this play doesn’t have an obvious set solution, everyone’s work is so extremely varied. I love it!”

Needless to say, the students learn a lot.

“Many students say they never thought they could design before, and they come away feeling like they can,” Morgan said. “A lot of undergrads fancy themselves actors or directors; not as many think about design.”

The exercise also introduces students to contemporary plays by playwrights who are often not much older than themselves — playwrights who are taking on the issues of today. “Thats the theater of tomorrow,” Morgan said. “Not to say theres anything wrong with designing for Shakespeare, but hes dead and I cant call him.”