Monday, April 23, 2012

12L Production Blog--2nd Installment

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Twelfth Labor Production Blog--1st Installment

Twelfth Labor Production Blog – 1st Installment

This series of blogs will be posted periodically to record the creation of Tutto Theatre Company’s production of “The Twelfth Labor” by Leegrid Stevens.  The goal of the blog series is to form an eyewitness record of this new play by an emerging playwright, auspiciously produced by Tutto Theatre Company. 

A play production has an immense lead time requiring planning more than a year in advance.  To those involved, all the work seems like isolated points in interstellar space, seemingly disconnected but gradually coming together in time and space to become a living, breathing human experience named live theatre.  To those fascinated with this art form, the process of all the disconnected points coming together appears mysterious.  My blog will confront the mystery and pull out a few, but not all, of its secrets. 

As of this writing, March 17, 2012, the production has accomplished two milestones, the auditions/casting (January 7, 8 and 14, 2012) and the first production design meeting (February 20, 2012). The performance is scheduled for the first three weekends in August, 2012. 

Earlier, the production budget was built from Tutto Theatre Company’s City of Austin contract services matching grant for the 2011-2012 biennium.  The match was accomplished out of the proceeds from prior productions including Leegrid Stevens’ award-winning “The Dudleys! A Family Game,” donations and in-kind services.  These funds were secured largely before the selection of the play. “The Twelfth Labor” (12L) was of interest to Tutto Theatre Company because it is a new play.  Producing new, contemporary plays is a commitment stated explicitly in the mission statement of the company.  Tutto queried the possibility of producing 12L during the production of “The Dudleys! A Family Game.”  To the surprise of everyone, playwright Stevens stated his enthusiasm for a Tutto production of another of his works.  The deal was only closed, however, after a very long series of phone calls, e-mails, texts and face-to-face meetings in the spring and summer of 2011.  The finished deal was that Tutto Theatre Company would give the play its first full-scale production running for an industry standard three weekends, or twelve performances.  Artistic director Gary Jaffe would direct the play, and Erin Treadway would play the central character of Cleo, per the playwright’s wishes.  The dates of the play were only specified as sometime in the second half of 2012.  The venue of the performances would be sought by Tutto and it would be a locale that would meet the production requirements. 

The venue selection turned out to be a circuitous and involved process in its own right.  The board members and AD Jaffe phoned, e-mailed and texted as many theatres and performance spaces as they could recall, touching almost all of their collective theatre connections.  At that time, in the summer of 2011, MacCallum Fine Arts Academy in central Austin was finishing construction of their new, very large arts center.  They set a grand opening performance for September 30, 2011 on their state-of-the-art proscenium stage.  The Tutto board of directors and AD Jaffe turned out in force for the event and were highly impressed with the facility and the performances.  By a unanimous act of will, the board and AD Jaffe made contact with the director of the theatre division of MacCallum Fine Arts Academy, M. Scott Tatum.  The goal of this contact was to gain a space for 12L at the Macc.  The surprising aspect of the negotiations was that they became an extended game of media tag, just like dealing with the playwright and making contact with venue managers.  Nothing’s easy.  It was not until December, 2011 that Tatum agreed to a production of 12L at Macc.  The performance space would be a black box theatre near the arts center. 

With the venue secured, the 12L performance dates tumbled into place.  The show would premiere August 2 and run through the following two weekends, until August 19, 2012. 

Auditions were held January 7 and 8, 2012 in the old theatre auditorium at Macc.  The auditions were a combination of open calls and requested appearances.  Callbacks took place on the following Saturday, the 14th.  The whole process was arduous.  Auditions and callbacks by themselves surely justify hour-by-hour descriptive blogs to give the least sense of this essential component of the playmaking process.  It suffices here to state that AD Jaffe considered the readings and all the actors’ performances in excruciating detail.  Phone calls and social media blasts occupied the entire weekend, well past the scheduled afternoons.  The result, gained by this arcane divination called auditions, was an impressive and complete cast. I’ll have much more on the cast members in later blogs. 

 The final getting-the-ball-rolling event was the first production design meeting held in the Macc black box on February 20, 2012.  Board members Matt Ervin, Daniel Brock and David Robinson met with Director Jaffe, Stage Manager Tara Chill, Set Designer Ia Enstera, Lighting Designer Natalie George and Costume Designer Ben Taylor Ridgeway.  The meeting was strictly an introductory meeting between the staff and the designers.  The discussion was almost exclusively a chat session, as all the designers know each other and have worked together on several previous productions.  The only takeaway from the meeting was the agreement to show initial design concepts at the next production meeting on March 27th. 

Upon leaving the meeting, I felt that the vastly separated points were somehow less disconnected, that the stars were beginning to align, almost imperceptibly. The premiere was slightly less than six months away, and we had started the process more than a year in advance.