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 Radium Girls – Reno Little Theater – February 2016

I had a conversation with a director for a show during tech week whereupon he began questioning the still-as-yet-to-be-exactly-decided-upon tracks for pre-show and intermission music. The show was a period piece and he was really interested in exploring the themes of the show with these musical choices, not necessarily sticking to the time period we’d set for the play. And he had wonderful ideas. Song choices were brilliant and exciting – they would have definitely gotten the audience jazzed about the performance. The problem was it would have been false advertising. This music would have primed the audience for a show that was edgy and timeless in its presentation. The show we were putting on was most definitely not that. We were presenting a true period piece. It was a good show, but it wasn’t that one.

So I said that those were great music choices, inspired even, but to take this one production element and skew it so far away from where the rest of the departments were going and how this script itself was being presented might harm the overall experience of the audience. It’s like the old Sesame Street game – One Of These Things. Something isn’t part of the group and in theatre that’s generally a bad thing. It can be done, but it has to be done so well, so meaningfully, as to not only look(sound) purposeful, it has to feel purposeful. It should do a better job of communicating the story than a choice that fits within the production design.

Alternately, a whole production design can be changed to suit a particular vision that may not immediately be a part of the script. Take the myriad productions of any Shakespeare play set in the Wild West or World War II or on a fictional Caribbean island (I’m looking at YOU, Orson Welles). But if it isn’t done with thoughtfulness and so thoroughly as to not distract from the story being told a disservice has been done to the script.

I made that mistake on a scenic design for a production of Harvey many years ago. I had what I thought was an inspired design choice – as the play progressed more and more pieces of the scenery turned into rabbit themed versions of themselves. The fireplace eventually added large, marbled rabbit’s feet and marbled carrot details. The knick knacks on the bookshelves were eventually replaced with all rabbit-themed tchotchkes. And all the flowers became stalks of bunches of carrots. It was totally fun but it fell flat. Nothing in the direction added to the conceit nor did anything from the other designers. It only looked like a random design choice made to elicit a smirk from the audience versus what I was hoping it would do: further the idea that it was hard to know what was sane or insane, who was crazy and who wasn’t. But it was what I found and latched on to in the script. Not what the director found and thus, none of the other departments.

That’s why someone has to be in charge of a unified vision for a show. Someone needs to understand the script, the choices the director is ok-ing for the actors, the way lights are being hung and gelled and programmed, the way the scenic painting is being accomplished, etc… And if changes are happening that aren’t necessarily readily communicated at production meetings, someone needs to pass those along and see if it alters the end result.

And they should do it before tech week.

About the author: 

Chad Sweet worked professionally as an actor, director, and designer in theaters across the country and in Mexico for a decade before moving to Reno in 2004. After taking a hiatus to start a business and paint full time, he returned to theater in 2010 first acting then making the leap to Producing Artistic Director of Good Luck Macbeth for three years until landing at RLT. Some highlights of his career include FOLLIES at Paper Mill Playhouse (1998) working with Stephen Sondheim, Ann Miller, Jerry Mitchell, Donna McKechnie, and Tony Roberts among others; touring the U.S. with educational theater shows for over two years; and spending many beautiful summers at Cortland Repertory Theatre, The New London Barn Playhouse, and The New Harmony Playhouse. He currently serves on the Marketing Committee for the Reno Arts and Culture Commission.

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