Twelfth Labor Production Blog 2nd Installment
Second Design Meeting, March 27, 2012
Tutto board members Ervin, Brock and Robinson drove to a house in near south Austin, the home where designers Natalie George and Ben Taylor Ridgeway reside. Board member Pidge Smith was absent, having given birth three days previously. We saw Tara Chill waiting for us out front and noted designer Ia Enstera’s old International Harvester vehicle, similar to a Blazer, parked on the street. The meeting was held in this location because Natalie George was feeling under the weather and did not want to travel to another location. We greeted Tara and walked into the living room.
The living room, as would be expected in the home of designers, was filled with art and design appointments. I noticed three cabinet doors set in the wall over one of the couches, artfully arranged, which could have come only from the bizarre set of “Machinal,” produced in 2010 by Paper Chairs, another independent Austin theatre group. Natalie lounged quietly on the couch beneath the arrangement, and Ben Taylor Ridgeway sat on a cushion at a glass-topped coffee table, sketching with colored pens.
Ia Enstera walked in from the back porch and sparked ten minutes of chatting. The pleasant talk created a low-key, relaxed atmosphere. Artistic director Gary Jaffe walked in unannounced and called the meeting to order. He reminded us that this meeting was to report the initial design concepts the designers were pondering. By this time, the designers should have read the script, perhaps more than once, and have a pretty good knowledge of what the play is all about. Director Jaffe added to these impressions with his own vision and imagery of the play. He spoke in word pictures, embellishing his speech with many arm gestures. Against this backdrop of imagery, he asked the designers to report their current ideas in turn.
Ia Enstera had been spending her time viewing old documentaries of twentieth century Western life; she gave two titles: The Plow that Broke the Plains and Fight for Life. She showed still images on her iPad and noted that people and homes of that time period had a home-made look and one of permanence, patched and repaired. Throwaway culture came later.
Further talk in the realm of the set and theater took a random course, with people asking questions of Enstera and adding impressions of their own. The meeting fell into all-talk-at-once on the issue of seating and flats for the set. Of course, nothing was resolved on those points.
The talk of costumes, the design realm of Ben Taylor Ridgeway, turned naturally to the play’s characters, their motivations and personalities. Director Jaffe led the discussion here, giving his ideas of who they are, based on his readings of the play. Ben showed his sketches, small color renderings of each of the characters arranged in two lines on the page with a sunset landscape behind them. These were the sketches he had been working on when we had come in. His words to describe them were few, saying mostly that while most of the characters were members of the same family, their clothing was characteristic of them as individuals and that, as above, clothing had a sense of permanence: clean, repaired and maintained. Regarding the Hens, three female characters representing neighbors and townspeople, Ridgeway viewed them as country fops and caricatures. Their costumes should accentuate their bodily differences.
Ben Taylor Ridgeway is young and a huge design talent. He has significant experience in Texas and the East Coast, where he worked in the fashion industry and off-Broadway.
In Austin, he is a B. Iden Payne award winner. Overflowing with talent, Ben is the type who designs everything on him and around him—hair, accessories, T-shirt, shoes, magazines on the coffee table—thus his appearance is different every time one sees him. He also says what he thinks, in the moment. He did not let it pass that he was the only designer present who had actually prepared materials for presentation in the meeting—ignoring Enstera’s iPad images. I was satisfied that I would never be bored in a design meeting.
Natalie George, not feeling well, talked slowly about lighting ideas. She spoke, however, with keen awareness about integrating set and costume design areas by means of lighting. Lighting can change a character’s demeanor by the light reflecting off the costume. In this regard, some fabrics are better than others and must be chosen well to succeed in this task. Also, the lighting design must resolve an important issue in this play. How can lighting transform the set from dully realistic in Act I to Technicolor/surreal in acts II and III? Natalie viewed this issue as the core of her effort in the lighting design.
After the presentations, Director Jaffe reiterated the production design needs of the play. He summarized sound design issues, saying acts I and IV have mostly wind sound effects and few music effects. Acts II and III have many more music and sound cues. He passed along Playwright Stevens’ phrase description of the music effects: “creepy memory music.” Although Playwright Stevens has apparently prepared all the sound effects, Jaffe proposed retaining an Austin sound designer to troubleshoot issues with the sound effects when we receive them, saying the cast, several of whom have singing parts, would be more comfortable with such a person on hand during rehearsals. No decision was made on the question, although a few names were proposed for the position. The meeting ended on Director Jaffe calling for more detailed, slightly more concrete design plans, tentatively scheduled for April 24th.