Imagine a group of naked men and women in a dark, empty room mumbling strange incoherencies and running around like chickens with their heads cut off.
You might think these people are performing some sacrificial ritual to honor the leader of their nude cult, or you might think they are insane homeless squatters preparing to eat someone’s flesh. You’d be surprised to find out you’re wrong. These people are, in fact, actors without designers.
Audience members who aren’t familiar with the theater process might see me in a show and just assume that I am always just naturally as attractive in person as I am onstage — that my clothes always look and fit so perfectly, and that there is always a beautiful angelic glow surrounding me wherever I go.
As much as I’d like to believe that I emanate a golden glow on a daily basis, it’s just not true. As an audience member, it’s easy to mistakenly base the success of the show solely on the actors, because after all, they are the only people that the audience gets to see. But actors are just the tip of the iceberg: The foundation of a show, the people that bring a show to life are the people behind the curtains.
Being on stage is one thing, but there is a whole other world living backstage. You’ll find people behind the curtains, under the stage, high above the stage, in the pit, in the wings, in the booth — everywhere — all making the show work like a well-oiled machine.
The machine can’t function unless all of its parts work. A lot of people assume that being a theater major means being an actor, but it doesn’t occur to some people that there is far more to theater than just acting. In our department, we are lucky enough to have incredibly talented scenic, lighting, costume and sound designers as both faculty members and students.
The most exciting part of the rehearsal process for a show is getting to see the design presentations. I love that day in rehearsal when you get to meet the people that are going to bring your show, and your character, to life.
Last semester I was in Temple’s production of “Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill, and I can’t even begin to describe the level of excitement that our cast felt when we finally got to see third-year MFA costume design candidate Rachel Coon’s costume renderings and third-year MFA scenic design candidate Colin McIlvaine’s set design. For that particular show, I got to wear a corset that Coon designed and built.
How many people can say they built a corset from scratch? Not me, that’s for sure.
“I started out in musical theater and eventually realized the power of a costume,” Coon said. “I love the notion that I could give each actor the skin of their character.”
To my surprise, several of the MFA design candidates began their theater careers as actors.
With a similar trajectory to Coon, McIlvaine said, “Honestly, I started acting in high school because of a girlfriend. I transitioned into scenic design because I enjoy shaping the world of the play. I always loved playing with block and scenic design is like a several thousand dollar set of blocks.”
Well, I owe a big ol’ thank you to that high school girlfriend, because without her, we might not have had some of our brilliant sets.
Third-year MFA lighting design candidate Christopher Hetherington took a different route to the theater world.
“I was always drawn to art as a kid, and at the same time I was always around computers. I was a bit of a nerd — still am. It seemed only natural to be drawn into the middle school tech crew for the shows. It just blew up from there. Once I got behind a lighting console, I knew what I wanted to do,” Hetherington said. And, wow, if you’ve ever seen the magic he creates behind that console, you’d know it was what he was meant to do as well.
Lawyers are liars. Farmers are hicks. Truck drivers are crude. Doctors are foreign. Politicians are cheats. Stereotypes are everywhere and they are virtually unavoidable. No one is safe. We are all victims to it and we are all guilty of it.
Like actors, designers face unwanted misconceptions and stereotypes. Perhaps you’ve heard of the term “techie” to describe basically any person in theater who isn’t an actor. And perhaps upon hearing that term, you picture some high school boy wearing all black and probably a little bit of makeup, lingering backstage. Designers are not — I repeat not — techies.
“The word ‘techie’ is actually considered a bad word for most people involved with theater design and production,” McIlvaine said. “It conjures awful images of ramshackle high school plays and community theater.”
So, for all you people, theater majors or otherwise, who use “techie” to describe designers — don’t. Or else.
Despite the annoyance that “techie” evokes in designers, McIlvaine doesn’t consider that to be the chief misconception.
“The most prevalent misconception toward scenic designers is that we are just glorified carpenters,” McIlvaine said. “A professional designer will ideally never pick up a drill or hammer during the course of their process. We provide the big picture for the world of the play, while the technical director engineers the show.”
Lighting designers face a different set of stereotypes.
“They are lazy, take lighting way too seriously, always have a wrench on them, never turn a design in on time. Some [stereotypes] are true — some are more related to being an electrician. I like to think that I don’t fit into any of those categories,” Hetherington said.
But we theater majors learn to just take these stereotypes in stride. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? If people want to assume that all actors are crazy, I’d be happy to oblige them.
Although the set of skills required to succeed backstage are vastly different than those required to succeed on stage, all of us share a singular passion. We all have the same respect and love for theater.
“I think the hardest part of my job is similar to that of an actor,” Hetherington said. “During our design process we let ourselves open up and become vulnerable. We are sharing our emotional responses to the show with an audience of people we have never met. Our designs are just as much about how we feel as it is about making an audience have that same emotional experience.”
No matter where we are in relation to the stage, we are all an equal part of a collaborative art. I’m a poet, and I know it. See what I did there? Anyway, I think Coon sums up basically every person involved in theater in a single sentence: “I did not choose theater, theater chose me.”
If you don’t want to take my word for it about the incredible skills of these three MFA candidate designers, come see Temple Theater’s production of “Spring Awakening.” Coon, Hetherington and McIlvaine designed the costumes, lights and set, respectively. And while you’re there, because obviously you all are currently purchasing tickets, imagine the gruesome scene I described in the beginning and then tell me how the art of theater could be possible without designers.
Viva la theater!
I know, that’s not Spanish. Forgive me, I’m poor – sad face.
Marcie Anker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.