The actor stands in darkness on stage as the curtains part. An eerie foreboding intonation of sinister music begins to fill the performance space and the auditorium with dread. What is to become? What is to be? The music builds to a crescendo as we are jolted in our seats by a booming thunder-crack that reverberates in and around you. A flash of lightning exposes the actor on stage just as her face is lit from beneath and her body lit from behind to produce the most ethereal scene you have ever witnessed in a live theatrical production. The rags she wears are barely recognisable as clothes. A festering gash lies weeping on her arm. You gasp. You are on the edge of your seat. The music, the atmospheric noise, the harsh but intimidating lighting, costuming and makeup have put you there. You are tense with anticipation. You can feel the hairs on your arms standing to attention, held up by your goose-bumped skin beneath.
Incredibly, not a word has been spoken. Not a move has been made.
A primal scream echoes forth into the auditorium from the speakers behind you. You are surrounded, stricken with fear. You feel your muscles tighten. Your eyes begin to glisten as your fear forces your eyes to well up. What is happening??
You are in the moment. The actor has done nothing but stand still and look forward. And yet, your senses are heightened to the point of potential fight or flight. You must know what happens next. You are fraught. You are alive. You. Are. Gripped.
Take a breath…
This is the effect that design can have on us. The creativity of design. The emotion of design. Too often, directors, actors and producers are focused on/caught up in/restricted by the direction of the performance and the actor’s ‘interpretation of character’.
Let me pause for a moment. This is not a haranguing of actors and directors. But this is a commentary on what productions can be like if designers are not consulted and/or their full talents are not exploited for the betterment of the production overall. As Stephen Curtis suggests in his article The Designer: Decorator or Dramaturg? …designers are often misunderstood as mere window dressers instead of meaning-makers intrinsic to creative process. It is these designers of stage, set, lighting, sound, costume and makeup who truly add the atmosphere, the raison d’être to a production. A performance is not a production but a production, is a performance.
Now, more than ever in our increasingly narcissistic world where the focus continues to sharpen on the me and not the we, it is time to take stock and look with an objective set of eyes on the pursuit of the perfectly polished production. It is not one where there’s exquisite direction or sublime acting, it is one where exquisite directing and sublime acting must be enveloped in an consummately striking performance of design. This is one instance, where the whole, is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Creativity is a team sport. Just as Homestead Theatre suggests. The painter would be lost without the framer. The lead guitarist would be drowned in a sea of sound without the guru at the mixing desk bringing his solo to life. The actor is a canvas that designers colour, light and enclose in a performance all of their own. The performance of design.