Russel Maclin ‘17 fine-tuning lighting cues at the last rehearsal before the opening night for Cap & Bells’ fall production, Exit the King. (All photos: Brianna Rettig)
This past fall, Cap & Bells, Williams’ student theater group, produced Eugéne Ionesco’s Exit the King. Ionesco, a Romanian-French playwright, was one of the foremost figures in midcentury absurdist theater, and his plays are famous for depicting the banality and insignificance of human existience. Several of them star the same character, Berenger, placed into different roles. In Exit the King, he is, well, a king, and the audience watches him confront his own mortality in the final hours of his life as the stage self-destructs with him. Like in many Ionesco plays, changes in the set mirror the events taking place, and by the end of the play the elaborate throne room we began with has become a stage as lifeless as the king.
The production team responsible for creating the world of Exit the King consists of director Alex Paseltiner, set designer and technical director Claire Bergey, light designer Russell Maclin, costume designer Evelyn Mahon, and sound designer Scott Daniel. They graciously agreed to share their thoughts on creativity, collaboration, and production, and how these things came to bear on Exit the King.
PT: What do each of you consider your medium of creation and how do you go about approaching this medium?
Alex: As a director, I feel like the conductor of an orchestra. I can’t step down from the podium and play the violin for anyone, but I can wiggle one hand to tell the violins to speed up and wiggle the other to tell the cello players how to complement what the violins are doing.
Claire: Mine is space. I shape the audience’s perception of space using the tools of forms, planes, colors and textures. On another level, as a technical director and carpenter, I use various tools to construct those platforms, flats, furniture pieces, and curtains, and to decorate them appropriately using many media. At different points in the process, I think of my media and my tools at different levels of abstraction that inform and fold in on each other.
Russell: Although it’s true to say my medium is light, that answer is misleading. Light is intangible; you can’t see it unless it’s hitting a person or an object. I manipulate the effects light has on something—the colors cast, the textures accentuated or hidden—and the composition of space created by lighting areas of the stage differently, and these malleable effects are my medium. A light design carves the set and the actors out of darkness. Light design is one of the most dynamic areas of theatre design—there were about a hundred and fifty changes in light throughout this show.
Evi: I consider my medium of creation to be what we wear. That is, anything we add to ourselves. The most important question for me to ask is whether the world has a sense of a specific time or whether it exists outside of those bounds.
Scott: I consider sound (and silence) my medium of creation. As a sound designer, I’m responsible for anything that the audience is supposed to hear during the performance – sound effects, atmospheric noise, music, amplified dialogue, and so on.
Creating the sound landscape of the fictional world. Screen capture from Scott Daniel.
PT: How do you approach materializing what’s in between the lines of the script? How do you get a feel for the aesthetic of a production?
Alex: Maybe as a result of my English literature background, I ended up doing a large amount of textual research for the play: scholarly articles, other literary works (primarily poetry), Ionesco’s diaries. When I encounter a piece of creative writing, my first reaction is often to try to place it in some relationship with other things I’ve read. In my mind, Exit The King is heavily associated with French poets of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, especially Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Valéry, and also with the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. The surreal and symbolist aspects of their work pushed me to look at forms of visual art with similar qualities. I ended up deeply interested in the art of the Vienna Secession. To me, Exit The King and its dream logic want to be presented in such a stylized way, and the art nouveau aesthetic was something that I definitely wanted to be there.
Claire: When I first read a script, I usually visualize the play in some type of space; this is often the obvious space for the play, to me, but it’s not necessarily the traditional set for that play, or the set described in the script, if one is described. The perspectives from which I see the action in that first visualization are important. Then I move to thinking about many possible places to put the play: What would happen if the play were in a desert landscape, or a building on campus, or a cocoon? Some of these places might charge the words and actions in ways I like.
Russell: For Exit the King, we followed a methodology many designers use to transform our inexplicable emotional reactions to the script into a visual aesthetic. We did evocative visual research, leafing through hundreds of paintings or photographs to find images that remind us in any way of the play, whether that connection was the emotional content of the image, the colors, the composition, the actual image depicted… anything, really. From there, we worked to flesh out and intensify the aesthetic until we came up with a fully-fledged world.
Evi: Usually I read the script through and annotate it before the play is even cast. After the actors are cast, I go to the first read-through to get a sense of what each person brings to the character. Exit the King was particularly interesting, since the characters could be approached from completely different angles.
Scott: A lot of my early sense of what Exit the King “sounded like” stemmed from a single recording that the other designers and I stumbled upon early in the process – a performance of “Ave Maria” by the castrato singer Alessandro Moreschi.
Research images influenced the final aesthetics of the production. From left to right: Cap & Bells’ Exit the King; a painting by the Polish surrealist Bolesław Biegas; David Lynch’s Twin Peaks
PT: How do you collaborate on a shared vision when there are many individual inputs? What is lost, what is gained?
Alex: I was lucky in this production in that all of the members of the creative team are dear friends of mine, with whom I’d had conversations about the show before beginning the process in earnest. Even so, there was certainly a fair share of artistic disagreements. As the director, part of me wants to fully realize my vision for the play; that said, I had a great amount of trust in my designers. When I asked each of them to design the show, I did so because I wanted them to bring their own visions for what this world sounds or looks like.
Claire: Research didn’t align, as it often doesn’t with strong creative minds. We committed to figuring out what production we were going to do together, and not settling on our individual fantasies of what this play could be. Collaboration meant compromising each singular vision to make the best version of the play we were putting on together.
Russell: It’s a hard process, but visual research helps and often one person’s ideas spark many different responses, and this explosion of creativity leads to a more vibrant rendering of the story than is normally possible with just one creative mind.
Evi: The whole issue of getting twenty people telling you how to design the same thing is just kinda a life thing. If you take everyone’s creative input and put it onstage, then you’re going to have a clusterfuck of a show.
Scott: I often find that when I’m talking to the other designers on a production, they’ll articulate my thoughts and instincts about the play way better than I ever could, which is so exciting whenever it happens. And ultimately, when all the designers are on the same page, and the lights and sound and set and costumes and directing are all playing off each other and working in harmony, each person’s vision gets amplified exponentially.
PT: Anything specific to Exit the King that surprised you? What did this play mean to you as a production?
Claire: This play taught me to collaborate. I learned about when to hold my ground, and when to let go of an idea. I suffered with my friends. I’ve done all these things before. It’s hard and instructive every time. I’m never completely happy with my work. I’m proud of us.
Russell: The relationships between characters, though compelling in the script, become much more interesting when put onstage. This play is very literary to me, so it was hard to imagine the characters as living, breathing people when reading, and that made it exciting to watch them become embodied by the actors. I was inspired every night by the urgency and tenderness between all the characters during the final sequence of the play, and I’m very proud of the way all the design elements worked cohesively with the actors to drive that emotional arch home.
Evi: I was really surprised at how emotional people got while watching it. I think that as a designer you get desensitized to a show because you’re reading it, and rereading it, and you’re there for hours and hours during tech, then you watch the show over and over, and once it closes there’s a sort of sigh of relief. But looking back on it, it really is a heart-wrenching story. I think if I wasn’t watching it with the obsession over how everyone’s skirts are lying, I would have seen that, but you’re going to be focused on your work when you watch the performances, otherwise you wouldn’t be designing.
Scott: I was surprised at how hard it was to create this play, although maybe I shouldn’t have been. Looking back on Exit the King, it has really hit home for me that the simpler a play seems on its surface, the harder it often is to create a design that sounds right and resonates the right way with the play. In many senses, it’s way easier to design some production with a ton of cool flashy explosion noises than it is to design a play like Exit the King, whose success hinges so heavily on tiny rumbles and echoes and atmospheres. Ultimately, though, I feel really lucky to have gotten to struggle with the subtlety and intricacy of this play, and I think struggling in that way – especially alongside all the other designers – ended up making the play a lot more meaningful to me.
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