Saturday, July 21, 2007

From Set Designer Lee Keenan

This is one of those plays that on the first read I was completely engrossed in the wit, characters, style and language. It was stimulating and funny, and I thought this is going to be a breeze to design. Then on the second read I realized there are 17 scenes and 9 locations [for example: the now defunct Petterson’s Frisch Rost (urban legends abound about why its spelled like that)]; where to begin? How about lots of specific research into Culver City? Well we did that, loads of that, I even enlisted family back in Southern California to take photos (see the two below). But what’s next? How to make a lot of locations into one set? How about panic, I like to panic? No, wait…calm down… remember it’s Shakespeare. What do I mean by that? Well, Shakespeare’s rich language establishes locations for you. His plays were originally produced without specific scenery. To design Shakespeare well it you simply need to recreate simple elements that theaters like the Globe had; an upstage center entrance for example. The more I looked at Shishir Kurup's re-imagining of Merchant the more it became clear that Shishir’s language functions in the same way। It is a lush forest of densely packed imagery। He tells us everything we need to know about a space. So where to next? I needed another avenue of research and turned to Bollywood Films. It was a genre I wasn’t versed in, but our dramaturg Lavina is and after borrowing films from her and a great night watching movies with the rest of the design team I had a sense of the aesthetic.

[Now here is the totally random collateral awesomeness that comes from working at Silk Road: the a Simpson’s rerun was on the other day and the episode finished with a Bollywood dance sequence and I suddenly realized Hey! I know that song now! It’s from Johny Mera Naam.]The first thing that leaps out is the colors, bright colors. Well that fits well in West LA, when something isn’t concrete in West LA it is likely to be a bright color. The second thing I noticed was a lack of establishing shoots, the sweeping epic films we watched had loads of locations but skipped the set-up shot of a sign before going into a restaurant that you come to expect in Hollywood studio films. Locations were often simplified, brightened, and beautified. So what the set needed to establish was the feel, and the textures of West LA, it needed to be bright exciting colors, but colors with some potential for danger. A few days of gluing my fingers to each other later I had this half inch scale model.

The action takes place with audience on three sides ( a feature of the Shakespearean stage), on concrete, in front of a cinder-block wall, next to a curved section of corrugated aluminum you see so much in hip LA pre-fab architecture, and under a giant advertising billboard(because what is more LA than a giant billboard). There is more to it than that, but hey I’m not giving it all away for free.

-Lee Keenan

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