As a boy, I was thrilled with an invitation to ride with my friend, Jimmy Wolf, to the Texas State Fair on Elementary School Fair Day. His father had a workshop/studio on the fairgrounds in what later became the Women’s Museum. Jimmy and I could just ride through the gates of the fair with his dad, no tickets necessary. Little did I know that when the day was over, I would be more fascinated with the studio and shop of Peter Wolf, the renowned theater set designer, than the fair itself. The old painted sets from South Pacific, Oklahoma, and others were stored in his immense workspace. His craftsmen were busy preparing sets for productions that I could only imagine.
Like other Dallasites, my first introduction to theater was through the Dallas Summer Musicals. Up close, these sets looked like cartoons. It was hard for me to understand how billboard-sized illustrations could appear to be so realistic during the musicals. What magic transformed the two-dimensional flats into a South Pacific island in WWII, another place and time? This experience may not have had an influence on my career in architecture. But, I certainly see the connection today between my architectural practice and the design of theater sets.
I was reminded of this youthful amazement when I saw the sets for The Ghost Sonata, an upcoming play by August Strindberg at the Undermain Theatre. Stephen B. Chambers Architects, Inc. is a sponsor of the Theatre and our Marketing Director, Stephanie Chambers, is on the Board of the Undermain. We read in the newsletter that Strindberg’s Chamber Play will have phenomenal set design. I was curious to walk through the set and see what it might be like. I grabbed my camera and headed downtown to the theatre’s home under Main St. in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas.
Artistic Director Katherine Owen graciously greeted and led me on an impromptu tour of the set. The architecture of the scenery for The Ghost Sonata drew me in immediately and opened the door into Strindberg’s world, a surrealistic setting far removed from downtown Dallas. This creative theater company makes their basement locale of structural columns and low ceilings suddenly disappear in innovative tales through the immensely talented assemblage of set, lighting, costume designers, directors, and actors and top-notch construction team.
The themes in Ghost Sonata relate mainly to secrets, illusions, disappointments and tragedies of lifePaintings on the floor assist the audience in the suspension of reality, catapulting them into the dream-logic of the playI know little of the art, science or history of stage set and lighting design, but deeply feel its relationship to architecture. In many ways, the theatrical scene designer is much like a conventional architect. The designer must make real what only exists in his/her imagination and provide the vision in a graphic form for use in building the sets. Both architects and set designers use a flat page of two-dimensional construction drawings to communicate what the three-dimensional structures will be. Set design has a similar ability to elicit specific emotions and create mood with the use of perspective, space, scale, light, color, detail and proportion. It helps to define the characters and propel the ideas of the playwright. There is a language in theater scenic art that signals sophisticated clues to the viewer. Through its subtext it telegraphs context, location, relationships, time, mood and space.
Different from architecture, scenic designers must knowingly create environments that have a brief lifespan, are moveable, do not require the same rigor in construction, and are generally viewed from only one direction. Theater sets do not need to have complete integrity in the structures that they are meant to depict. Stage design and lighting create the illusion of three-dimensionality and can manipulate time and place. Audiences will not walk around and through rooms to experience the massing, proportion, mood and emotions its spaces create. The set designers develop a world for the play, which becomes a real construction project, ultimately introducing their imagined world to the audience. The skill of the lighting designers, directors, actors, and costumers complete the transformation.
Though written in 1907, Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata is highly unusual modern theater in many regards. The relatively swift three-scene structure is based on sonata form, rather than traditional theater construction. It creates an atmosphere by repeating various themes, rather than developing a story through conventional portrayals of character and a linear plot. The Undermain’s interpretation and production of this play will, no doubt, thrill serious Dallas theater followers. But, the sets and lighting for this production, for me, stand alone as compelling art.
- Examining The Given Circumstances In Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata (bradstephens.wordpress.com)
- Interview With Paul Walsh, Translator Of The Ghost Sonata (Extended Version) (bradstephens.wordpress.com)