Friday, April 20, 2012

The Caucasian Chalk Circle--Scene and Lighting Design

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertolt Brecht was produced at Brigham Young University-Idaho, fall semester, 2008 in the Snow Black Box Theatre.


The play begins with a town meeting at the close of WWII where the people vote to determine whether a piece of land that previously belonged to the goat farmers should revert back to them or be given to the fruit growers.  They determine to give it to the people who will use it best rather than worry about previous ownership.

At the end of the meeting, a singer tells a parable about Grusha, the handmaid of Natella, the Governor's Wife.  When the Governor is executed, Natella is more interested in her fine clothing rather than her baby and flees without him.  Grusha is left to care for the boy, and endures great hardship keeping him from the Ironshirts who will kill him on sight if they find him.

After a reverse coup, Natella seeks to regain power but must have the boy in order to do so.  Grusha and the boy are found and brought before Azdak, the judge to determine who the true mother is.  After all the arguements have been spoken, Azdak devises a plan.  He will draw a chalk circle on the floor and the boy will be placed in the circle with each of the women holding one of his arms.  When the signal is given, whichever woman can drag the boy from the circle will be the mother.  Grusha can't bear to hurt him and lets go repeatedly, at which point Azdak determines that she is the true mother because of her unwillingness to cause him pain.  This echos the theme of the prologue where ownership is determined by need rather than prior claim.


Richard Clifford, the director and I began working on this production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle nearly a year before we actually presented it.  It was Richard's desire to have the audience experience Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt, or distancing effect.  This is often mistranslated as alienation.

The alienation or distancing effect is an attempt by Brecht to get audience members to become more consciously critical observers rather than losing themselves in the story or characters.  This is done with devices such as characters breaking into song at odd moments, a play within a play format, or telling a different story before the first story has reached it's conclusion. 

We decided to attempt this.  We discussed the idea of drawing the audience in to the story and then frequently reminding them they were in a theatre.

Richard said he'd like to do the play with scaffolding as a backdrop and much of the furniture and other scenery being created by warehouse debris and actors.  We also discussed the idea of a large tarpaulin hanging on the stage as a projection surface.

Another obvious conceptual choice was the idea of circles.  This is a circular story, it ends where it begins.  Circles would be very important to us in this production.


I drew the following sketch on a trip to Phoenix in March of 2007, shortly after our discussion about scaffolding and the verfremdungseffekt.  The two figures at the bottom are cameramen who I wanted to film the scene in the courtroom where the two women are trying to pull the boy out of the circle.  This was to be projected on the tarp.  It would have been very powerful and dynamic, but unfortunately it is one of the things we eventually had to cut.

Thumbnail sketch of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, March, 2007
I was to be the scenic and lighting designer on this production.  I viewed it as an integrated design and considered shafts of light to be architectural in nature.  For this reason I decided to use haze fog during the show.

We conceived early in the process that the environment we wished to tell this story in was a civic building that had been damaged in the war but not ruined.  We also determined that the building was being restored or renovated but was still the only building in the village that was large enough to conduct a town hall meeting.  That would justify the scaffolding and the tarp.  Richard also requested seeing hanging warehouse lights with what he called, "China Hat" shades with cages around them.  These fixtures became one of the more important elements of the lighting design.

But we also wanted to be able to remind the audience we were in a theatre Richard requested a video wall and I suggested a turntable in the middle of the stage.  I scribbled out a groundplan which turned out to be very similar to what we ended up with.

Thumbnail groundplan of The Caucasian Chalk Circle
 We decided at the beginning that we would not try to motorize the turntable, but rather work it into the action under human power.  I thought that would add an element of Russian Constructivism to the piece.  We decided to use "L" bars to turn it most of the time but in scene 4, The Story of the Judge, I had an idea to strap Shauwa into a parachute harness and attach it to the turntable and have him move Azdak around in a kind of 'Volga Boatmen' fashion. 

Quick sketch of Shava attached to the floor on parachute harness

I situated the stage in the northwest corner of the Snow Black Box Theatre so I could use the roll-up shop door for actors' entrances and a lighting effect.  The set seemed simple enough but we were able to create some wonderful moments with just these elements.

Stage layout, showing scaffolding, tarp, video wall, turntable and debris
The debris around the theatre became set pieces.  We had planks and ladders that became a mountain pass, crates and boxes became tables and other obstacles.  Loose doors became table tops and, well, doors.  The actors climbed the scaffolding at times.  The singer often perched on the scaffolding as he was narrating and at the moment when Grusha is climbing the mountain in the snowstorm, we had the singer climb ahead of her with an old looking fan and handfuls of confetti which he blew in her face to suggest the snow.  Because we had already established the type of show it was going to be, the audience didn't laugh at the snow effect.  It turned out to be a really great moment.

Grusha crossing the 'bridge' made of a plank, some boxes and an actor
Grusha climbing down from the 'mountain' made of planks on ladders and crates, but being assited by spotters
Loose door being used as a door, operated by an actor
The singer perched on the scaffolding
The snow effect

We used the human powered turntable in several creative ways.  We used it as a travelling device to highlight Grusha's journey.  We used it as a disorienting element during a scene with the Ironshirts, and we attached Shauwa to it with a parachute harness and moved Azdak's judges seat around to face petitioners.  The turntable gave us a very theatrical device which helped us establish the verfrumdungseffekt.

Grusha travelling
Disorienting scene with the Ironshirts
The enslaved Shauwa moving Azdak into position
Lighting Design

The three "China Hat" lights over the stage were the jumping off point of the lighting design.  I built the beginning cue in every scene in the play within the play with the three practicals and their supporting lights and then filled in the rest of the theatrical lights a few seconds after.  Once again, using a design element to remind the audience they were in a theatre.  Above each of the practicals, we hung four source four fixtures from the compass points as down lights to give us the distinctive pools of light on the stage.  Each of the four downlights were gelled differently so we could warm or cool the stage as necessary.

Three practicals, three pools of light
I also used a great deal of down light and back light in this production.  I felt that this play lent itself to silhouettes, halos and shadows.  I deliberately allowed actors faces to dip into shadow from time to time, with the blessing of the director.

I also used three source four fixtures fitted with an aftermarket followspot rig and spotlighted the singer mainly, and also Grusha from time to time during the show.  The followspots werre placed around the theatre, one behind the audience and the other two behind the stage.  There were times when we hit the singer with spotlights from behind, over both shoulders.  Jeff Gonzales, the actor playing the singer had a very interesting face that created great shadows when we did this.  It is still one of my favorite images from the show.
Simon in backlight silhouette
The singer, spotlighted from behind
The tarpaulin became a very important element for scenery and more importantly lighting.  I designed it with a slit in the middle so it could be used as an entrance but we used it for far more than that.  The fabric was a large piece of scenic gauze from Rose Brand.  The scenic artists took it outside, laid it on the bark landscaping, threw handfuls of bark all over it and then sprayed a wash of Raw Umber with a Hudson Sprayer.  This became a canvas for me to express in lighting what I felt in the show.

I used the tarp as a cyclorama to give a big color statement about certain scenes.  I used it as a front projection screen for several moments in the play, such as the beginning we had a montage about war during the prologue and then when Grusha was going through the mountains.  I used it as a scrim during an early scene where the supplicants are being ignored by the leaders.

My favorite use of the tarp, though was when we created shadow plays behind it.  There are a few moments when the singer says, "Now listen to what they thought but did not say".  At that point the actors on stage spoke the lines but stayed in place and we had actors backstage dressed as them who performed the shadow play.  It was very compelling.
The tarp as a cyclorama
The tarp as a front projection screen
The tarp as a scrim
The tarp as a shadow screen
The shadow play, "Now listen to what they thought but did not say"
There were a few other lighting effects in this production.  There were several scenes that involved opening doors.  We used a physical door without a frame, operated by an actor.  When the door would open, we had a light cue that caused a shaft of light to pour through the 'opening'.  It was critical that the actors holding the doors placed it exactly on their marks every night, and to their credit they did.  The shaft of light was created with a source four fixture shuttered to a rectangle.

We had another shadow play when Grusha has to bathe Yussup, her inconvenient, abusive husband.  We placed the actor behind a screen and lit him from a harsh angle.  The effect was quite horrific.

Finally, at the climax when the two women are attempting to pull the boy from the circle, I designed a light cue with straight downlight, once again being motivated by the practical.  This time we used only the center practical and as the judge counted down, the circle of light shrank to a small pool on just the boy and the ladies.  Something as seemingly simple as that, was actually the most difficult cue to write in the show.  It involved three downlights and simultaneously raising and lowering levels to create the same intensity of light across the circle as the circle became smaller.
The door effect
Yussup's bath
The Chalk Circle
I have had the privilege of working on The Caucasian Chalk Circle twice in my career.  Once as a scenic artist in Buffalo, New York at The Studio Arena Theatre and the second time as a scene deisgner and lighting designer at BYI-Idaho.  The second production was one of the most profound theatrical experiences I have ever had.  I am grateful to have been able to work on this production.
My favorite image of our production
Production Details
  • Directed by Richard Clifford
  • Scene Design by Gary Benson
  • Lighting Design by Gary Benson
  • Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
  • Sound Design by Erin Vinton
  • Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
  • Costume Shop Director:  Patty Randall

1 comment:

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