A delivery system for furniture
I’ve just finished reading the recent New Yorker profile of Es Devlin, the theatrical stage designer who has famously branched out into concert productions for the likes of Adele, Miley Cyrus, and my beloved Pet Shop Boys. The article, by Andrew O’Hagan, is maybe a touch too starstruck—we hear of Devlin’s “beautiful skin, dark eyes, and long, lustrous brown hair, usually piled up and held in place with a pencil”—but it also shares one story that I love:
“When I did Betrayal, it was my first big job,” Devlin told me. “And I was doing it as if my life depended on it. I was designing the fuck out of it. That show did not need anything. It was much better as a pure white room, but I was spraying my need over it. And Pinter didn’t care. He’d done it fifty times, he’d seen it the right way fifty times, and here was mine, with projector images of children between the scenes and conveyor belts.” She went on, “Pinter was able to just laugh it off and set me free. But when he introduced me to someone on opening night he said, ‘Have you met Es Devlin? She wrote the play.’”
“Spraying my need over it” is about as accurate a description as I can imagine of the temptation for talented creative professionals to impose themselves on someone else’s material, and to Devlin’s credit, she has clearly devoted a lot of thought since to how the set can serve the play, rather than the other way around. But that tension still remains. To advocate one point of view, the article quotes the British stage designer Ralph Koltai: “I am concerned with conveying what the piece is about, not where it takes place.” And here’s the director Will Frears with the rebuttal:
There’s an argument for not letting the set give the story away…I like to argue it out with the set designer, and sometimes talking about the set as a delivery system for furniture is helpful. You don’t want to turn everything into metaphors that take the audience out of the play.
Devlin, sensibly enough, attempts to stake out a middle ground between realism and expressionism. “England is full of people who will create exactly that room, or execute the detail, way better than I can,” Devlin notes. “Instead, my obsession is to put an audience in an appropriate frame of mind to receive the play.”
These issues might seem remote from the concerns of writers who serve as their own playwrights, directors, and stage designers, but deep down, the dilemmas are strikingly similar. In theater, the difficulty comes down to the interaction between the instantaneous and the gradual delivery of information. A modern stage set can metamorphose and transform itself before the audience in ingenious ways, but for grindingly long sections of the play, it’s static, and even if our eyes wander from one part of the stage to the other, we’re essentially swallowing a bunch of visual data in one gulp. This creates an unavoidable conflict with the story itself, which is transmitted to us as a linear succession of words and actions, and there’s a very real danger that a set by an ambitious designer who thinks in terms of simultaneous visual elements can tip the narrative’s hand too soon. In On Directing Film, David Mamet mocks the impulse “to make each small and precious moment on the stage or screen both ‘mean’ the whole play and display their wares, to act, in effect, ‘sit down because I’m the king of France.’” And if this inclination causes problems for actors and writers, who do have all the resources of gradual development at their disposal, it’s that much riskier for designers, who for the most part are doing their work—and it’s often incredibly valuable—through a medium that naturally wants to give us everything at once.
The logistics of the stage, which for reasons of budget or manpower are often constrained to one or two sets, mean that these issues are especially stark. But it’s no different from the writers who try to achieve effects in a single paragraph of description that might better be conveyed by a character’s actions and words over time. (Devlin brilliantly evokes this in her discussion of the set for the Benedict Cumberbatch production of Hamlet: “It’s thought materializing into space. But you have to be careful, because Shakespeare is already doing that with language.”) No one element is superior to any other, and ideally, each piece serves to catalyze or activate the others without drawing undue attention to itself. Devlin puts it well: “A stage setting is not a background, it is an environment. Sometimes what these people [directors and actors] want is a liberator, someone who might encourage them to defy gravity.” And this can only happen once the designer, or author, takes the needs of the whole into account, without regard to ego or the desire to be admired. A set can serve as either the background or the foreground, depending on how our perspective shifts, just as all the parts of a novel somehow frame one another in a diagram of forces that can only be visualized intuitively. But even if the set is sometimes just a delivery system for furniture, it’s in the magical sense that a house, as Le Corbusier said, is a machine for living.