Monday, March 8, 2010
I had a 3 month artist residency with the Theater Department at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
It was nice to get a change of scenery but it turns out the scenery in Western Mass. ain't much different from the scenery in Western Alabama.
You got the broke down houses, lush green landscapes, Walmarts, hinterland accents, Confederate Flags, and guys decked in hunting gear riding in pickup trucks . New England is 'UP SOUTH' in many ways. Big differences are there's a whole lot more money in the north and very few Black folks in rural areas.
My long time friend and mentor, Gilbert Macauley, Chairman of the Theater Department at Umass, brought me in as a collaborating artist to help develop AND JESUS MOONWALKS THE MISSISSIPPI, a play by fellow faculty member and noted emerging playwright, Marcus Gardley.
As Production Designer, I was provided with a private office and full access to the massive state-of-the-art scenery shop. I was also honored to have a reliable and skillful team of assistants and artists to help mid-wife the vision. The team included undergrad students, grad students, professional costumers, lighting experts, and hardcore union guys who truly are the kings of the world.
The play takes place in post Civil War Louisiana but I kinda just took everything I've seen (and heard) in my experience in the deep South and brought it to the stage. This includes visual markers like the ubiquitous vultures. Probably my favorite beast of the South and well-deserving of an homage.
Sean, a second year grad student in set design along with prop master, Rob, helped create this vulture machine.
It's a hand-cranked contraption to be operated by an actor. It casts ominous shadows throughout the theater during a battlefield scene.
A "Tree of Life" figures prominently in the script. I wanted to construct it in such a way that it would become a virtual character - an object with animate qualities. It had to move, spin and transform as well as interact with and find enhancement through a live video feed and innovative lighting design.
Heavy metals, welding, and precise woodwork made it so.
Our "Tree of Life" is inspired by the crude murals in that weird junk yard off Highway 80 going east toward Demopolis and Selma.
Through our cut-out tree you can view the back wall of the theater onto which I had begun to scrawl biblical text as well as text from the actual script.
This is a common approach to graffiti in the region. It's obsessive, intensely non-secular, and visually rich.
The set is less Set and more Installation. The audience is immersed in the environment of the play along with the actors. I needed to add a texture beyond the artifice of painted surfaces and objects. Something more authentic and tangible on the one hand, but reasonably ambiguous on the other.
We created armatures with wire and PVC.
We collected leaves, branches, and used burlap potato sacks to fill out these large bulbous forms. We collectively identified them as "Mojo Bags".
Another layer of burlap will conceal the leaves. A strong lightbulb was placed inside the bags and connected to a dimmer switch. The Mojo Bags projected organic silhouettes and shadows into the performance space, creating an unexpected ambiance.
The floor design is borrowed from the famous quilters of Gees Bend, Alabama.
We managed to get a patchwork effect using only paint, tape , and stencils.
An army of undergrad students assisted in the painting of over 100 folk art style paintings. Each painting corresponded to phrases, images, and characters in the play.
I sketched things out on scrap wood, used doors, old picture frames, felt, and masonite. I gave some initial guidance in terms of color but the students eventually made those decisions on their own, allowing me to focus on the larger, more crucial pieces.
The paintings are what really set the overall tone. They surround the entire performance space including the audience, providing a sense of immersion and an excursion into the unconventional.
I wanted to mirror the cluttered but energetic mode of display I observed at the Kentuck Arts Festival in Tuscaloosa. But obsessive-compulsive, auto-didactic yard art is referenced as well.
In the scale model, I included everything I could imagine creating for Marcus' visionary play. The tree, the quilted floor, light boxes, mojo bags, shadow puppets, paintings, the graffiti wall, video and image projections are all represented to some extent.
Thanks to the master technicians and artisans at UMass Theater Department, everything worked out pretty good.
I thought the show was excellent and it was very well received. It's something the entire cast and crew can be proud of.
One final beer with Shop Master Mike and Director Gilbert and I was soon gone. I was really missing Alabama and looking forward to getting back. But, first, a few stops on the way down.
The Beautiful Peoples Republic of Brooklyn where I saw two of my favorite citizens, Willow and Sonia.
One of the glories of glorious Queens,NY is sister Samita. She's one of the higher kilowatts of my life.
And we eat.
A walk through Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with Professor Steve Stern of Gettysburg College.
I been knowing this man for over 30 years. We started as arch enemies in high school but that lasted only a day or two. We eventually formed a creative alliance and raised a bit of heck together.
Of course the Underground Railroad ran through Pennsylvania. I found a real "Slave Hideout" with runaway slaves still hiding out in there.
These crude mannequins were creepy and just plain wrong. They gave me a queasy feeling. I wished they weren't there. I'd prefer to take in the space without the cheesy fabricated props. What if they installed cheap mannequins at every historical attraction in the world? The Horror...The...Horror.
Getting back to Alabama, I realized how very enchanting this place can be.
I can also breathe easier and relax.