My Approach to Design
I miss designers. I love collaborating with them, but for the past few years, I've directed exclusively for a theatre company that performs on a bare stage without sets, props or lighting changes; costumes are street clothes, and there are no costume changes. Paradoxically, this approach has suggested to me new and better ways of working with designers.
The Old Way
In drama school, I was taught to dream up a "spine" for whatever play I was directing. Spines are pithy metaphors for a specific director's take on a specific play. One director's spine for "Othello" might be A Deadly Chess Match; another director's spine for "Hamlet" might be A Heavy Weight Crushing Down On A Tiny, Fragile Flower. You may not agree with those spines, and that's fine. They are personal to the director who came up with them.
Spines are useful because they can be re-interpreted by designers. Designers of the above "Othello" might make all the costumes black and white or put a grid pattern on the stage floor. For the "crushed" Hamlet, designers might choose intimidating, high-vaulted ceilings and heavy, cumbersome clothes. Spines are a check, to make sure all aspects of production are telling the same story.
I reject none of this. To me, spines are extremely useful tools. They just shouldn't be the only tools on one's belt.
At my "minimalist" theatre company, we have two main rules: "tell the story clearly" and "avoid redundancy." Since our shows aren't designed, I mostly have to worry about actor redundancy. Actors have a tendency to over explain. They usually do this by riddling their performances with unnecessary gestures. The one I see most often is the "jacking off" hand pump, used whenever a line makes a sexual innuendo.
My stance has always been that if the script is clearly saying something, it's wasteful and inelegant for the actor to illustrate it. It's in the words already, and the actor simply speak those words and credit his audience for being intelligent enough to listen and understand.
Just like actors (and directors), designers can be easily hoodwinked by redundancy, especially when designing from a spine. Yes, the spine is what the play is "about," but do all design elements need to be constant reminders of this theme? Were I in that audience seeing back and white costumes and checker squares on the floor, I'd be jumping up and down on my seat, screaming, "Okay! Okay! I get it already!"
Rule: each element of the production should only convey information if that information isn't already conveyed by some other part.
Taken literally, this means that if costumes already say that the characters are rich, the sets shouldn't also say that. We "get it" from the costumes. We don't need the sets to hit us over the head with it.
Admission: I don't always take that rule literally. One exception might be when the production team consciously chooses to reinforce a point: "These people are rich! Do you hear me? Rich!" They key here is "consciously chooses." In general, eschew redundancy and illustration. Use redundancy as a power tool that you pull out on special occasions. If you're almost never redundant, the audience will prick up their ears those few times that you are: "My word! He's telling me something twice in two different ways. It must be very important!"
Divide and Conquer
Make a list of everything you want to communicate to the audience. Start with the key plot points, because those are the easiest to list. Add any character information ("Katherine is strong-willed"), mood information ("it's a dark and stormy night"), thematic information ("power corrupts") and key factual information that the audience must understand in order to follow and appreciate the story ("Richard is a king of England during the middle ages").
Check off all items on the list that are explicitly stated (or easily inferred) from dialogue. These check marks are your first line of defense against redundancy. I am not telling you to keep all checked items out of the designs. Rather, I'm suggesting that you keep aware that the more of them that are conveyed by the designs, the more redundancy there will be your production. At best, illustrating a stated point puts that point in the stage equivalent of italics; at worst, it says to the audience, "You're too dumb to get it from the text." Do what you will, but act consciously.
Any items that aren't checked – and the checked ones that you want to "put in italics" – are fair game for design. In collaboration with your team, pick which designer should take the lead for each item. The play takes place at night? Is that the province of sets, costumes, sound or lights? The characters are rich? Which designer is going to take the lead in telling that part of the story?
"The lead" is an important concept, as I'll discuss at length, below. If costumes take the lead in stating that the characters are rich. That may or may not mean that other design elements augment the work done by the clothes.
Design conferences should be lively, improvisational playgrounds. Once you've decided to let the costumes lead the "rich" part of the story, throw that idea away (you can always retrieve it from the trash later) and ask what if? What if we told that part of the story with the sets? The lights? the music? with nothing? What then? What would be best?
Don't Work Against Yourself
Okay, the costumes are already screaming "these people are filthy rich"; you don't want to be redundant, but what are you supposed to do with the set? Make it a hovel? No, of course not. These rich characters live in an expensive house. So what set there is should be opulent.
Ask yourself this? If I cut your budget to the point where you could afford costumes but not sets, would the costumes alone be enough to tell the story of wealth? If not, then what contribution do you need from the sets?
(Keep in mind that "telling a story" is usually more of an emotional and sensual form of communication than an intellectual one. Yes, with the costumes alone, the audience might understand that they characters are rich, but will they feel the wealth? Will they revel in it? Will they be intimidated by it? In the theatre, you should strive beyond helping audience just "get the point.")
If the costumes are enough to convey wealth, then consider minimizing the set (unless there are other parts of the story that the set can tell best, in which case, let the set tell lose parts and let the costumes focus on "rich."). What are the bare essentials that the set must contain so that the story makes sense and so that they actors can do their jobs? Maybe some furniture and a flight of stairs. Okay, then limit the set to those items.
Fair enough, but there's no such thing as a platonic chair. You must put some actual chair on the stage. So what chair to you put there to avoid redundancy? Answer: the simplest chair you can find that doesn't contradict the story.
Rich people own expensive chairs. But there are lots of expensive chairs. If the costumes are taking care of "rich" part, find a boring rich chair. Find one that the audience will notice and then dispense with, choosing instead to focus on the costumes.
Rule: items that must be redundant should be boring.
As a director, you'll have to be very careful and politic about that rule. Designers understandably don't want their work to be boring. But just as you don't want Romeo pulling focus during Juliet's speech, you don't want the lights to distract from the sets when it's their turn to tell the story.
I find it useful to go back the basics from time to time: why are we all here? What story are we telling? How can each of us best contribute to that story? When should each of us (the director included) keep out of its way?
Remember the Spine?
Once all the design roles are cast, bring the spine back into play. The costumes are saying "rich," the sets are saying, "complicated, maze-like environment," the lights are saying "mid-winter evening"... but what ties this collage together so that it's harmonious rather than muddled?
Well, what holds the human body together?
Go back down the list items and ask how each element relates to the spine. Not all items need to push the spine's agenda (in fact, they shouldn't, as this would be redundant). But items should never work against the spine – with the one exception being when you purposefully and consciously want to create a feeling of dissonance.
Often, the spine can be key in helping the team choose colors, textures and tones. What colors does A Doomed World suggest? What sounds do you hear when you think of A Carnival of Eroticism?
In fact, the best spines are sometimes expressed sensually rather than as pithy statements. Consider playing a piece of music for your design team – "Puttin' on the Ritz" or "Paint it Black" – and telling them that this is the spine of the play. Or you can show them a painting, cover them with a velvet sheet or feed them slices of expensive wedding cake.
When they're deeply ensconced in the nuts and bolts of design, check with them to make sure that you and they agree that the work is still tasty, disgusting, tuneful, discordant or whatever agrees with your sensual spine.
The More Thing Change...
What about scene changes? What about costume changes? What about new lighting cues and sound effects? Most of these questions can be answered with ground we've already covered: what part of the Act III story do the costumes need to tell? When should costumes stay out of the way? Etc.
Just as each designer tends to feel, by default, that she should tell every physical aspect of the story, designers also tend to feel that they must tell every temporal aspect. For instance, a costume designer may feel that throughout the course of "The Winter's Tale," Leontes changes from a tyrant to a gentle and wise ruler. Should his costume change to reflect his inner change? Maybe so, maybe not.
Is the costume designer leading the story of that change or is that change better told by some other aspect of the production, e.g. acting or text? Sometimes it's fascinating to see a bad guy become a good guy while keeping his bad-guy garb. It changes the way we, the audience, relate to those sorts of clothes: "Wow! A good guy can wear a black hat!" And it keeps us in mind of where the journey started and how wide the gulf is between then (the clothes) and now (the behavior).
This implies that temporal changes should be included on the original story-point list, and indeed they should! A staged narrative is four-dimensional: it has length, breadth, depth and duration. Which design element or elements should lead each dimension?
My Journey Through Time
I needed to escape design in order to return to it. Now, having lived as a minimalist monk, I feel ready to jump back into the world of muslin, plywood, shadows and music. From minimalism, I learned -- really learned in my gut, not just in my mind -- the importance of every last item placed on the stage. I learned to respect the audience. I learned to read scripts with care. I learned elegance, which means that "everything must matter." It means "having fun at the party but not overstaying your welcome." It means "a place for everything and everything in its place."