Keep designers on their toes

Designers hate boredom; we should do something about that.

Designers want to do the best job they can.  I know that sounds obvious, but they genuinely, pathologically want to light a scene perfectly, or capture a character through costume, or nail a mood through the details of a set.  And in the best of all possible worlds, they want to do something that nobody has ever seen before.

A few years ago, I saw Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice at the Second Stage in New York.  For those of you who don’t know, that play famously involves an elevator into the Underworld that was built on an angle and rained inside.  Let me repeat that, just so I’m crystal clear: It rained inside the elevator.  Holy crap.

Now, the script was terrific and the direction and acting top notch, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how much work went into that freakin’ elevator.  Constructing something that isn’t flush with the floor and still safe for an actor is hard enough.  Think about the plumbing, the waterproofing, the drainage, the simple act of getting a hundred gallons of water onstage every night for months.  The planning had to be insane, the implementation excruciating.  I’m imagining the set designer during previews, soaked from head to foot, clutching a wrench and patrolling backstage for leaks.  And, I’m sure they loved every minute of it.

Here’s the thing, though…unless you’re Sarah Ruhl, you’re going to have a hell of a time selling a play like that.  One of the best things I’ve written is a play called Hum, in which there is literally fifteen words of dialogue in the first act, because the soundscape of the world is dominated by a ubiquitous hum.  This play was read at PlayPenn and produced at Theater Alliance; sound designers love it—a few are absolutely craving to get their hands on it—and I’m having a lot of trouble pulling off a second production.

I understand the theaters’ trepidation.  The play is weird, I’m not Sarah Ruhl, and nobody (including me) knows how to market the damn thing.  What they do know how to market is a romantic comedy set in a coffee shop.  Or a family drama set in a dining room.  Easy to stage, easy to market, easy to design.  But if you’re a designer, and all you really want to do is wow the world with a kickass set or kickass sound or kickass whatever, you’re bored.

So, here’s some awful playwriting advice: write a play with one, messed-up element.  Write a play where it rains frogs.  Or is set in a vat of grape jelly.  Or has a fog horn that the actors have to speak over.  You’ll have a devil of a time selling it, but your designers will thank you.  And if you do sell it, your audience will thank you too, because you’ve given a designer a chance to show off, and that always looks good on stage.

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