Tag Archives: Curtis Mueller

“All My Sons”: Designing Realism

All My Sons websiteAt an early production meeting for “All My Sons,” Intrepid’s Season Five opener, lighting designer Curtis Mueller studied a picture of the set design.

“Can we put a curtain in that window?” he asked, pointing to the second story of the onstage house façade. “It will help with the mood we’re trying to create.”

If you have ever wondered what it is like to be a designer on a production of an Arthur Miller play, the answer lies somewhere between realistic authenticity and sneaky, subliminal messaging.

“We’re in the subconscious of the audience,” says Curtis, referring to all of the production design elements that go into making a play come to life onstage. “But hopefully, they won’t know it.

The audience, says Curtis, is not supposed to notice something in particular, like his lighting design. Hopefully, he says, it just blends in with all of the other elements to help tell the story.

Costumer Kristin McReddie sketches out 1940s fashion

Costumer Kristin McReddie sketches out 1940s fashion

For the last two months, while actors have been rehearsing lines and blocking, the designers have been busy creating the world the characters will inhabit for the run of the show. Costumer Kristin McReddie has been scouring vintage clothing stores, Etsy.com and costume rental shops all over town. Prop designer Bonnie Durben has been researching the look and design of 1940s household items. Curtis has been paying a lot of attention to the play of the light throughout the course of one day.

“The play is going to be a slice of life post WWII,” says Kristin. “Hopefully, the audience will take away [from the show] what it looked like and felt like to be alive in that era.”

Set in 1947, “All My Sons” explores the dynamic of the Keller family and their neighbors as they navigate a post-war life and all of the hope and loss entailed in that particular time period. It is one of Miller’s most emotionally gripping plays.

But in order for that emotionally-charged story to unfold, it is necessary to ground the setting in a very realistic place. This means careful attention to detail on the part of the designers who are creating this onstage world.

Properties Designer Bonnie Durben focuses on accurate details

Properties Designer Bonnie Durben focuses on accurate details

“This time period is right at a cusp,” explains Bonnie. “There are still people that are old enough that remember the time period, so you have to be very careful about the type of props that you get – that the glass pitcher looks like the glass pitcher their mother had.”

Bonnie’s script is full of notes on these details, the specificity of each item that the characters handle throughout the story. For instance, when a newspaper appears, it is Bonnie’s job to make sure it is exactly the right one.

“The funny papers were different then,” she explains. “They were all in color and they were all brighter and boxed differently. It’s the little things that, really, you don’t notice, but the people in the audience are going to look at it and say, ‘That’s not right. That’s not how I remember it.’”

The search for period-appropriate costumes is just as specific, says Kristin, who had to research, not only the look of that decade’s fashion, but also how wartime permeated even the closets of these characters.

“In the 1940s, everything was tailored to be more fitted towards the body,” she explains. “They had to use less fabric because all of that wool and cotton was going to the war effort. So it’s going to be interesting to see how the actors are going to adapt their blocking to the costumes and the clothing.”

Lighting Designer Curtis Mueller finds inspiration in depictions of daylight.

Lighting Designer Curtis Mueller finds inspiration in depictions of different types of daylight.

Arthur Miller extends this specificity into the story’s lighting design as well, having confined the play’s action to a 24-hour time period. This means that Curtis has spent a lot of time contemplating his role as the show’s timekeeper.

“The lighting design is going to drive the entire show forward because it takes place in one day,” explains Curtis.  “When you think about it, time doesn’t stop, so it’s going to be interesting to see how the pacing of the show corresponds to where we are in time.”

Despite all of this intricately detailed work, at the end of the day, success for the designers means that their contribution does not stand out on its own, but rather gracefully augments the storytelling of the play.

“I think what makes a successful show in general is something that people can always relate to,” says Curtis. “I think this show does a great job of doing that along with providing an emotional story. I hope the audience leaves feeling everything that we put out there for them.”

–Tiffany Tang

All My Sons plays March 27-April 20 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theater on the campus of San Dieguito Academy. 800 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas.
Tickets can be purchased here

Intimate Details – A Conversation with Lighting Designer Curtis Mueller

Curtis Mueller, Lighting Designer for Oleanna

Curtis Mueller knows better than to be fooled by simplicity.

When asked to design lights for Intrepid’s production of Oleanna (which is now currently running at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas), he was careful not to presume that a two-person play set in the round would be an easy show to design.

“The challenge with this play is that it’s so focused on just a conversation really, one wouldn’t think that it would be that challenging,” says Curtis.  ”But from a lighting perspective, you are really trying to underscore certain moments of the show, depending on that conversation.”

Having designed for Intrepid’s past productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical (2012) and Hamlet, which just closed in February, Curtis was up to the task of switching gears from these bigger ensemble pieces to Mamet’s intimate office wordplay.

“Scenically, we’re in a professor’s office, so we’re trying to figure out ways to make each scene look different, but still not going too far from reality,” he said, explaining that the lighting will play a big part in portraying both the development of the story as well as the passage of time from one act to the next.

Sunlight image for lighting inspiration

“The opening of the show is just a simple conversation,” he says.  ”The audience doesn’t know what it’s going to escalate to yet, so we have more of an isolated look to it.”

Using the idea of the office windows and playing with the amount of sunlight coming through the blinds is one way in which Curtis plans to tell the story, although without an actual window onstage to work with, this gets tricky.  Enter special effects created by lighting gobos that douse the stage with dappled sunlight on cue.

“By the end of the play, the scene is fully exposed, wider and open,” says Curtis.  This brighter lighting also serves to “expose” the action as the play culminates into its most heated moments.

The specifics of these lighting choices will also serve to distinguish each act.  Since the actors never leave the space and the set never alters, the challenge is making sure that the audience understands that each act takes place in a different time.

Lighting effects play out in Act One. Photo credit: Daren Scott

“We made a point that passage of time would affect the lighting design because we don’t want to have the feeling that nothing changes at all – especially with the way the play progresses, and the characters develop, and argument continues,” he says.

Working in the round also presents its own set of challenges, as the designer has to make sure that the actors and the set are cleanly lit from all angles and from all audience perspectives.  Additionally, the blocking – or the movement of the actors – is different from a traditional stage, so there is extra pressure for the lighting to be uniform no matter which direction the actor is facing.

Given these challenges, this piece is a far departure from its surface simplicity, Curtis acknowledges.  ”We can really strip everything away and focus on the details,” he says.  ”I’m actually excited by the simplicity of it.”  – T.T.

Oleanna is a special engagement that runs through April 14 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas, CA.  Tickets can be purchased here.

 

 

A Day in the Life of a Superhero Stage Manager

The lovers hold their sleeping positions while lighting cues are programmed around them.

Once a show opens to the public, it is every theatre company’s hope that the performances seem effortless and smooth. However, the road to awesome is paved with…well, technical rehearsals. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical, has been fairy-wing-deep in tech rehearsals all weekend as we prepare for our first preview on August 30. For the non-thespian crowd, tech days are the very last of the rehearsals – the ones right before the first preview and right after the actors have completely finished setting their movement on the stage. During these final days, the lighting cues, sound cues, and any other technical elements of the show are layered in. These rehearsals are typically lengthier than any others, as it takes time to – not only decide what works best for each and every moment of the play – but also to actually make each and every moment happen.

Jupiterimages/Getty Images

Basically, it looks like this:  actors waiting around to take their places on stage for particular scenes, production crew members randomly popping out of lighting grids, sound cues filtering through the speaker system at odd times during the three or four or eight hours in the theatre that day. The stage is always dark, except for the lekos and fresnels blinking through programmed cues. The stage is also quiet, so those who need to convey information to the directors or stage manager from all corners of the theatre can do so efficiently. The actors give way to the production team, who are coloring and creating the world in which they all will be living for the next four weekends.

Sharon dons coal miner headgear.
“The better to see the script with.”

To give a real behind-the-scenes glimpse into a technical rehearsal, though, there is only one person you need to talk to: the stage manager, aka the boss of the show once it opens. We caught up with Sharon Strich, Intrepid’s resident stage manager, and asked her to give us her moment to moment schedule from one day in her life on this technical rehearsal weekend. She obliged with one caveat:  “This post might scare people.” How crazy can one day of rehearsal be? Well, for one thing, we forgot she had other things to do – like a day job.

Hold onto your seats, folks.   – T.T.

A Day in the Life, by Sharon Strich – Saturday August 25, 2012

1:30am (yes, you read that right) – Wake up to do pre-rehearsal work on script and other paperwork.

4:00am – Leave for work at Starbucks.

9:20am – Finish work at Starbucks. Head to the theatre with really strong caffeine in hand.

9:45am – Set up the theatre for tech rehearsal, including my tech table, where I will live for the next few days.

10:00am – Tech rehearsal officially starts.

10:38am - Mic fittings, check fairy sound cues, organize company.

11:30am – Begin cue to cue lighting and sound rehearsal starting with Act II, scene i.

12:33pm – Break. Place glow tape on the set so the actors don’t kill themselves in the dark.

12:44pm - Continue cue to cue rehearsal, starting with Act II, scene i.

2:08pm – Break. Safety walk with John (Oberon) through his path to the catwalk during Act II, scene ii. Treacherous.

2:24pm – Continue cue to cue rehearsal, starting with Act II, scene ii.

3:21pm – Break. Check progress of the set in the shop. Coming along nicely!

3:27pm – Continue cue to cue rehearsal of Act II, scene ii.

3:54pm - Costume time!

5:00pm – Dinner break. Run for Starbucks, altoids, and chocolate; eat a sandwich for “dinner”; prep the ropes that will be moved later; talk through lighting cues with Curtis (lighting designer); talk about Puck’s pants with Christy (co-director) and Beth (costumer).

6:20pm – Continue cue to cue rehearsal, starting with Act III, scene i.

7:39pm – Break. Talk through more lighting cues with Curtis.

7:51pm – Continue cue to cue rehearsal, starting with Act III, scene ii.

9:04pm – Break. Work lighting looks for the chase sequence.  Very cool.

9:18pm – Continue cue to cue, starting with Act IV, scene i.

9:46pm – Actors released. Scenic work begins with awesome members of the crew.

9:50pm - Work through lighting shifts for the chase. Magical!

10:15pm - Re-hang two upstage ropes, discuss the plan and pick a paint color for Titania’s bower, paint the wood on the ladders and the Puck nest, cover the stairs in fabric and jute, paint the floor, start to dress the Puck nest, realize we need more jute for Puck nest, hang the front curtain.

2:30am – End of day. Head home.

3:15am – Once home, write rehearsal report and send to production staff, send any necessary production related e-mails, work on paperwork.

4:00am – Find my pillow before I hit the floor, pretty sure I will hit the snooze button when my alarm goes off in two hours.

Notes, iPad, script, water, caffeine, snacks, and aspirin make for a happy technical rehearsal.