Friday, December 17, 2010

Revealing the Elephant Man

One of the unique facets of BoHo is our gatherings. The first “rehearsal” for each production is a party, usually hosted by a member of the company, which allows the cast, crew, and designers to get to know each other in an informal setting. The centerpiece of these gatherings is the design presentation, in which the director and designers outline for the cast and company their vision for the production. These presentations include all manner of media, from costume sketches to set elevations to sound and music samples, as well as a slew of inspirational images. This is the event which gets the ball rolling, and having all of the artists in one room, presenting and trading ideas, is an exciting way to begin the process.

Lighting Design color conceptual image:
Circus Parade by Georges Seurat.
Our upcoming production of The Elephant Man (opening Jan 7th) recently featured just such an occasion. The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomernace was written and originally envisioned in a Brechtian style, which means the action was not to be depicted as a realistic slice of life. This was a deliberate dramatization, with actors not hiding that they were performing a collection of scenes. In fact, the actor playing the “elephant man” John Merrick wears no prosthetic make up in this show. All is communicated through acting and action.

Lighting Design conceptual image:
painting by Frances Bacon

The director for BoHo’s production, June Eubanks, is embracing this style in her vision. The inner workings of the play will be laid bare as what they are rather than concealed in an attempt at realism. Many of the actors will play multiple parts through simple costume changes in full view of the audience. Set pieces will be versatile and move fluidly from scene to scene, becoming whatever is needed for each location. The lighting design will make use of actors carrying hand-held lights to create dramatic atmospheric shifts. And perhaps most excitingly, sound designer Joe Griffin explained at the gathering that the show’s sound effects will be provided through onstage foley created by the actors themselves. Anyone who has watched a foley artist at work knows the unique energy it brings to the onstage action. (If you haven’t experienced onstage foley yet, check out the amazing talents of Rick Kubes in ATC’s It’s A Wonderful Life this month.)

Set design rendering, featuring a
projection of Dr. Treves and the actor
playing Treves in front of it.
These ideas, taken alone, could be mistaken for a gimmick. And though theatre is, by its nature, full of spectacle, it only becomes a gimmick when used without foundation. By unmasking each of the artistic elements in The Elephant Man, Eubanks is echoing the play’s theme of concealment and revelation as well as its unique performance conventions. The technique at the idea’s core—that the actor playing Merrick uses no makeup to communicate the extent of his deformity—requires the audience to use their imagination to create part of that character. By doing so, the audience must make an investment in the character and in the world of the show. And as Anne Bogart writes in her book And Then, You Act, "ask an audience to supply their imagination, and the results will transcend anything that you can ever afford to put physically onto the stage."

Lighting Design conceptual image:
still from the 1980 film by David Lynch

Following along these lines of the open process, Mike Tepeli, who is playing John Merrick aka the Elephant Man, will be submitting blog posts describing his process in discovering and recreating this fascinating real-life person. Does the process move from the inner personality to the physical embodiment, or vice versa? What exists when we peel back the layers of a human mind? What kind of experimental leaps are made in the rehearsal room, and which mistakes blossom into inspired ideas in the end? Tepeli’s blog will be posted here every week, so come back often to continue peeking behind the curtain on this amazing show.

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