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The Dramatist and The Designer

When Thespis first stepped downstage from the choir in some ancient Greek religious ceremony, what hell he wrought for us playwrights. Even then, theatrical presentation was an unholy mix of song, movement, and spoken language, its reception at the whim of the Mediterranean sun, which has (like our sun) the annoying ability to slip behind clouds and screw up our sightlines just as we’re trying to pay attention to what’s happening on stage.

Although sound and light design in the theatre is often achieved through collaboration with the director, rather than the performers and the playwright, there have been enough dramatists with fertile and appreciative eyes for art and ears for music to lead one to wonder whether today’s dramatists might not pay a little more attention to the visual and musical elements of their plays. As a gallery visitor, an attendee at new music concerts, and a frequent theatergoer, I do tend to see the same groups at each event, and rarely is there any overlap among them.

It wasn’t always this way. Shaw was a keen writer on music, Brecht counted among his collaborators some of the most accomplished composers and painters of his era, and Beckett and Albee have demonstrated that the sculptural eye and musical ear can be ineffably effective tools in the playwright’s process. And more recently, in New York, artists of the New York School in the 1940s and 1950s and the more explosive, Dionysian aesthetic revels of Greenwich Village in the 1960s saw frequent, if not constant, collaborations between aesthetically-aware creators of all disciplines as they came together in the smaller theater spaces of the city.

In inviting three unique artists in New York’s theatre scene to contribute to this little colloquium on design, I hope, if not to build bridges, at least to suggest narrower distances from one bank of the river to the other.

Sheila Callaghan, in discussing the challenges she poses (sometimes without even knowing it!) for the designers of her plays, describes not only the sometimes difficult dynamics of her collaborators on this year’s New Georges production of Dead City, but also how she wound up writing some rather bizarre stage directions into her plays. Deliberately or not, through her texts she offers designers unique entry into the world of her work, and designers for Dead City rose to the challenge.

Theatre of a 2-Headed Calf’s co-founder and composer Brendan Connelly walks us through a few examples of the ways in which his original music and sound design have provoked and generated the unique theatrical experiences that the 2-Headed Calf troupe, under the direction of Brooke O’Harra, have presented since its founding almost 10 years ago. He also talks about some of the preconceptions about theatrical music that have proven thorny issues in the ways in which theatre music is regarded.

Light designer Lucas Benjaminh Krech has designed shows in a wide variety of performance venues, from site-specific work at the Burning Man festival to opera to dance and more conventional drama, and his essay takes the broadest view. Lucas connects his discipline to the human urge to create and express in a theatrical space, touching on some of the most profound questions about the art that all of us practice.

Three very different voices with three very different approaches to collaboration, design, and the written word. And a reminder, I suggest, of the richness that further explorations might produce.

Many thanks to those writers and photographers who contributed to this section.


George Hunka

George Hunka is a dramatist based in New York and the artistic director of the theater minima company.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2006

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