Archive for design

The Deafening Roar of Absence: Why Your Show Needs Designers

Posted in Rants, Theatricality with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2016 by KarenElizabeth


I’m working on a show right now that has no sound designer.

In fact, it doesn’t have much design at all.  The company decided to cut corners on the cost of designers, and we ended up with only two, splitting all of the various departments (lighting, video projections, costumes, props, and set) between them.  Sound got left out, somehow.  The director provided mp3s for a few specific moments in the show, and then was surprised when they sounded compressed-to-hell played over the big sound system (’cause an ipod with cheap earbuds doesn’t give enough depth of sound for you to tell that this music sounds like hissy, flattened crap).  But at least, for all that the costumes got delivered last minute and don’t all fit, for all that there are parts of the set that never got painted, for all that the lighting look for the show is too damn dark, there’s at least someone who’s supposed to be responsible for it.

The sound of this show was cruelly orphaned, and the absence of a carefully curated soundtrack is like an anchor tied around the show’s skinny neck, dragging it down and making it impossible for it to fly.  As a mere hired technician, brought in during the final few days before opening just to press buttons and do what the company says, I sit there listening, every time, for something that isn’t there.  Something that can’t be there, because no one conceived of its necessity.  It’s a problem I can’t fix, because it’s not my job, but it’s no one’s job, and that’s devastating.


I can’t even count how many times I’ve been in early-planning meetings and someone — a director, perhaps, or a producer; someone who doesn’t design and doesn’t know how to — says the fateful words, “I’m not really sure if we need a designer for this”.  Whatever department they’re talking about, it’s a moment when every technician and designer cringes.


“But there’s only one sound mentioned in the script; I’m sure someone can find us a telephone ring”.

“But I already know what I want for the set; we can just bring my couch from home”.

“We really only need two lighting washes, and our stage manager knows how to run a lighting board”.

“The actors can just bring their own clothes from home, and we’ll pick out their costumes from that.  If anything’s missing we’ll go to Value Village”.


It is at this point when any designer, technician, technical director, production manager, or literally any sane person in the room should say “NO!”  Say it quickly, before anyone can even begin to consider this horrible idea of not having designers for every department.  Say it loudly, and in a tone of horror, because no one should ever be considering giving in to this temptation to attempt to do it themselves.

I promise you, the audience WILL know the difference.  They might not know exactly what was wrong with the show — might not be able to put their finger on that feeling of unease — but they’ll feel it.  Deep down they will sense that there’s something wrong with this show; something incomplete, perhaps.  Something amateurish.  Something that could have been better, but then wasn’t; like a parade that happened two streets over while you waited for it to pass at the wrong intersection.


In the case of the particular show that I’m working on, the director wanted lots of silence.  The show is Modern, surreal, industrial, and bleak:  there are long, pregnant pauses and strange moments of dark emptiness.  But silence, in a theatre, isn’t truly silent.  Having nothing is distracting; it feels incomplete.  Much like an “empty” stage still has its architectural structure, its walls, its black curtains concealing the backstage, and the line dividing audience and actors (sometimes deliberately crossed, but always, unremittingly present), stage-silence isn’t, truly, silent.  The audience rustles, coughs, and breathes.  A set piece squeaks as it’s moved into place.  The lighting instruments whir and hum, and the lighting board clicks as the technician presses “GO”.  Actors’ footsteps tap across the stage floor and doors are opened and closed in distant, backstage hallways.  Cars go by on the street outside and the wind moves its way around the building, rattling shutters and whistling through gaps.

Like the architecture that surrounds the stage, the edges of the beams of light, the black curtains that conceal the stage doors, or a coat of paint that makes a plywood table look mahogany, a good sound design wraps the space of the play in a barely-perceptible blanket, muffling reality and subtly shaping the world in which the audience’s disbelief is suspended.  A proper “silence” forms the background noise that gives any space its texture; the white noise that underscores every place and time with its constant, barely-noticeable presence.  The dream in the forest is gently supported by the sound of wind, rustling through high-up leaves.  The tower is made darker by the hollow, echoing sound of its stones.  The mysterious cave reminds you of its proximity to the sea by the distant crashing of waves at its entrance.  The solicitor’s office contains the rustling of paper and the distant clicking of typewriter keys, or the murmur of voices from another room.  All of these various white noises tell us where we are, registering at the back of our minds and then fading beneath the actions of the plot and the words of the dialogue.  They keep us in the space, our disbelief suspended.  The scraping of a chair, the sound of a car outside, someone answering a phone call in the lobby — these things drop us back into reality, reminding us that we’re sitting in a theatre in Toronto in 2016, not on a French shore in 1943, or on a castle wall in medieval Denmark, or in a warm Freudian womb.

A sound designer would have watched a rehearsal of this show and come back with a two hour soundtrack of the various white noises required for each scene.  They would have shaped the audience’s expectations and experiences from the moment they walked into the space with a carefully chosen pre-show playlist, had them discussing among themselves at intermission with further music, and leaving in the right frame of mind at the end with post-show sounds.  They would have masked the creaks and groans of the building, the footsteps of actors, the shuffles of coats, and replaced them with gentle sounds that creep in at the edge of your awareness and are then accepted by the mind and mostly forgotten — but not quite.  They would have wrapped the show in a blanket; sometimes comforting, sometimes scratchy, but always enclosing the space and the dream of the play, and keeping the monsters of reality at bay.

When designers and technicians do their jobs right, you rarely notice that they did much at all.  But you can feel it — or the absence of it — like a joy, or like a weight, or like a blanket of emotions.  Not having a designer is like going to the seaside on a day when the water is perfectly, eerily calm, and having your brain cry out for the lack of waves.

I happen to come from a school of design that was all-encompassing in its scope.  When I design shows, I think not just about how it looks and how it sounds, but how it feels, and tastes, and smells.  What is the temperature in the room?  How do the seats feel?  Is there a scent to the building (and do we want to bring in air fresheners, or pine shavings, or dryer sheets, or stale beer?).  Should we have fans blowing air across the audience’s faces?  I want people to move through the lobby in specific ways, and see things on the way to their seats.  I want to serve snacks so that they all have salt in their mouths and feel the thirst of the characters.  I consider where the theatre is — what city, what street?  Who lives here?  What will the audience have passed on their way to the theatre?  What experiences will have shaped their landing here, in these seats, and how can I harness that?  That is the designer’s job.  The playwright gives you the words.  The director gives you the movements.  The producer gives you the audience, and the actors give you the raw materials.  But the designers give you the space and time and world for all of that to live and play within.

The denizens of that world, then, thank you in advance for always hiring designers, and not falling into the trap of thinking that you can do it yourself.  Because while you might know very well what you want, it’s unlikely that you’ve thought of all the other stuff that’s going to muck it up.

with all appropriate credit to Steve Younkins at

with all appropriate credit to Steve Younkins at

Please, for the love of all the theatre gods, hire designers.


Let’s Try This Again … Sea Cucumbers, Bipolar Disorder, and Artistic Integrity vs. Ego Issues

Posted in Ramblings, Rants, Theatricality with tags , , , , on January 21, 2012 by KarenElizabeth

So … it’s been a while since I’ve been here, hasn’t it?  I have excuses, but they’re not particularly good ones — suffice to say that the past few months have consisted mostly of a series of terrible upheavals that have left me in an emotional state roughly equivalent to the life of a sea cucumber:  waterlogged, squishy, defenseless, and not particularly capable of doing much of anything.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to distract myself with various projects, and the rest of the time being a complete wreck and doing a lot of crying, pacing, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, and various other compulsive activities.  And with so many days when even the simple act of hauling myself out of bed and across the apartment to feed the animals was almost beyond my capabilities, blogging has been pretty much entirely neglected (I say “pretty much” because there have been a few posts I’ve at least *thought* about writing, but that’s as far as I’ve been able to get, of late).

All of this is, sad to say, probably a very clear sign that my bipolar disorder is, once again, out of control.  I was, for several years there, functioning rather well without therapy or medication, but it seems that I really do need to start searching, quite seriously, for a new therapist.  I’ve not had one since before moving to Toronto, so it’s a daunting task, but obviously something I’m in need of.

I don’t think I’ve talked much on this blog about bipolar disorder or my own struggles with it — a lot of it is very personal, emotional, and probably not very interesting because it has to do with things that are all entirely within my own head.  I’ve also been lucky enough to not have to deal with many of the more severe symptoms often associated with bipolar disorder, nor do I have any of the common co-occurring disorders (schizoaffective disorder, psychosis, or PTSD), and thus have been able to live mostly medication-free, through behaviour-management techniques and careful management of my diet and exercise … but my experiences aren’t typical, and thus are unlikely to be very useful to others who suffer from the disorder.  Most people need medication, psychotherapy, and a lot of outside help in order to deal with this sort of a disorder.  I’m just lucky to have relatively mild symptoms most of the time, and I’m also particularly stubborn when it comes to showing emotions to the outside world, or seeking help from it, so I’ve arranged mys life in such a way that it can allow for occasional meltdowns without too much difficulty.

This meltdown has just lasted quite a bit longer than my “usual” ones, and thus has not been so easy to accommodate.

One major factor in the duration of this particular episode has been, sadly enough, the direct result of my usual coping mechanism.  Generally, when I’m having a bad time, I’ll take on a new project or two, to keep myself busy.  Manic episodes are often associated with great creativity (this is why so many famous authors and artists are associated with this disorder), and having a place to channel all of that energy is useful — while depressive episodes are often associated with lethargy, which can be fought against if you’ve got some deadlines to meet.  In this case, I jumped on the opportunity to work on a theatre production, which is normally something that I would enjoy very much.  Unfortunately, I picked the worst possible theatre production to be working on, and in the end it only increased the problem.

Now, most of the people working on this show were absolutely wonderful.  I’d recommend working with any of them — except for the director.  This woman is, to put it mildly, a complete and absolute bully, with no regard for anyone but herself.  Artistically brilliant, yes — her work on the choreography was particularly impressive — but socially?  Completely inept.  For the actors, this didn’t seem to be too much of a problem (although two did walk off the show early in the rehearsal process, citing “artistic differences”).  Directors are often domineering types, and actors are supposed to defer to their desires in the interest of having a cohesive show.  For designers and other artistic workers, however, this sort of behaviour can be absolutely impossible — and, in the end, I had to leave the show a week before opening night, because it had become just too difficult to work with this woman.

I’m sharing this story not to be vindictive or to spread nasty tales — note that I’m not giving the name of the director (though if you are a Toronto theatre artist and would like to add her to your personal blacklist, please feel free to contact me privately for further information), but because I feel that I have an important point to make about the way that theatre works (or, in this case, the way that it *didn’t* work).  This is not the first time that I’ve had to deal with one awful personality ruining an entire show, and I’m sure it won’t be the last (although I could certainly wish that it would be).  The fact that such things happen, though, is a direct reflection of a problem faced by smaller, non-professional theatre companies all over the place: the lack of any established system for dealing with personality issues.

In a larger, professional theatre company where everyone is paid a wage for their work (rather than work being largely on a volunteer, profit-share, or stipend-based sort of system), there’s an HR department.  Artists and workers at any level within the company have a liaison that they can go to if they are feeling abused or mistreated, and there are established protocols for dealing with conflicts.  In smaller companies, and especially in those run largely on volunteer power, there isn’t this option.  Conflicts have to be dealt with very much on a case-by-case basis, and often there isn’t a clear person to whom an abused company member can turn, especially when the abuser is someone in a position of power (a director, producer, or stage manager, for example).  And even if there is someone to whom a wronged party can turn, there may not be any protocols in place to be followed, leaving helpers somewhat muzzled and unable to do very much.  In my particular case, when the director began to verbally attack me and my work, and to claim (loudly) that she possessed “veto power” over anything that I, the designer, might desire to do (a boldfaced lie, of course: the designer is always in ultimate control of their own design), I went to the show’s two producers.  They, unfortunately, lacking guidelines to follow, were unwilling to hand down harsh discipline, and thus were unable to prevent the attacks in any way.  Eventually, things progressed to the point where the director was physically attacking my set (making major changes to it while I was out of the building, without informing or consulting me in any way), and the producers still felt that they were unable to tell her “you can’t do that, put it back the way it was”.  As a result of that, I had the choice to either stay on and simply deal with the fact that the director was making changes and live with those changes, or to walk away.  As an artist, I couldn’t endorse the changes being made (they were not, to my mind, changes that effectively represented the artistic vision of the show), so I had to walk.

Now, obviously there are two major problems here.  One is self-evident: a director who doesn’t know her place, and is treating another artist poorly.  The second problem, however, proved ultimately to be the more insidious and destructive one: the muzzled producers, who did not feel that they had enough power to step in and stop the first problem in its tracks.  They did, of course, theoretically have that power, but since they were unwilling to use it, the director was able to go unchecked.

In light of this, I have formed the opinion that all theatre companies, large or small, should take the time to formalize a disciplinary procedure.  Something should be discussed and written down, agreed upon by all, so that if problems do arise, a person in power (be it producer, director, artistic director, production manager, stage manager, or whomever), can point to that written agreement and say, “this behaviour is inappropriate, and this is how we’re going to deal with that”.  There should be clear guidelines of what is and is not acceptable behaviour, as well as defined levels of punishment (at this level of behaviour you get spoken to, at this level you are under observation, and at this level you are fired, for example).  Just the establishment of such guidelines would likely serve as a force for good — I’m quite sure that if the director I was dealing with had felt her own position was at risk, she’d have stopped with her bullying tactics and tried harder to be a decent team player.  But even in cases where the written guidelines are not enough, you’ve now got an agreement on what should be done when negative situations arise, thus preventing the problem of impotence on the part of the supposed enforcers.

I’m trying very hard not to let the crushing disappointment of seeing my design, my creation, being ripped away from me and destroyed by an uncontrolled bully, stop me from being enthusiastic about continuing in theatre.  I love theatre, and I love what I do within it.  There are assholes to be dealt with in every possible job (I’ve dealt with a few in non-artistic jobs, as well), and one can’t let a negative experience get you too down.

So I’ll push on.  I’ll try to blog.  Try to spend less days lying in bed and lamenting the state of my life and the world.  And maybe one day I’ll reach a level of success where I can crush all the bullies like bugs beneath my sexy, six-inch heels.

What?  A girl can dream, right?