Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Night of Medieval Theatre: The Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac and The Summoning of Everyman--Scene and Lighting Design

Abraham and Isaac

The Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac (author unknown) and The Summoning of Everyman (author unknown) were produced on a double bill in Spring Semester, 2010 in the Snow Black Box Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho

Synopsis of The Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac
The Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac is a medieval mystery play.  Medieval mystery plays were not so much about mysteries in the modern sense, but rather were plays that focused on the miracles of the Bible.  Such is The Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac

The play begins with Abraham praying to God for his good fortune, in particular his son Isaac.  God hears Abraham's prayer and decides to test him.  He sends an angel to give Abraham the commandment to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  Abraham is distraught but makes the decision to be obedient.  He and Isaac begin the journey to the place of sacrifice.  Abraham's grief is made worse because Isaac does not yet know he is to be the sacrifice.  When Abraham finally tells him, Isaac does not wish to be sacrificed but when he learns that God has commanded it, he tells Abraham to strike quick so he doesn't have to feel the pain.

Moved by the obedience of Abraham and Isaac both, God sends an angel to stay Abraham's hand and provide a ram for the slaughter instead.  At the end, God speaks a monologue telling Abraham and Isaac that He will bless them with great posterity.

Synopsis of The Summoning of Everyman
The Summoning of Everyman is a medieval morality play.  Morality plays evolved from mystery plays and often were done allegorically with characters being named for different moral attributes, who try to convince the main character to live a Godly life rather than an evil one.

The Summoning of Everyman begins with a prologue by a messenger telling the audience to pay attention to the things they will learn during the play.  In the next scene, God describes humans as being obsessed with material riches and laments that they have turned away from Him.  He sends death to Everyman to tell him to get his life in order because he is about to die.  Everyman attempts to bribe Death and begs for more time but death refuses.  Finally Death capitulates on one point and allows Everyman to find one person to travel the road with him.

Everyman first asks Fellowship to accompany him but Fellowship refuses, preferring to stay and party among the living.  Kindred and Cousin are the next to refuse him.  Everyman surmises that he spent so much time loving Goods in his life that she would go with him.  She refuses as well.

Finally Everyman turns to Good Deeds who says she will go with him but she is too weak because he didn't love her enough in life to give her the strength to accompany him.  Good Deeds calls her sister, Knowledge to go with them to see Confession.  He offers Everyman the opportunity to make Penance and Everyman accepts and scourges himself, praying for forgiveness.

At the end of Everyman's penance, Good Deeds is now strong enough to accompany him on his journey.  Knowledge and Good Deeds are the only attributes to follow Everyman to Death, and finally Everyman succumbs and dies, whereupon he enters God's presence.

At the end, the messenger returns and sumarizes the story.

Concept
Richard Clifford, the director approached me about the idea of doing this night of medieval plays as a runway type show with audience on two sides, opposite each other.  He also said he wanted to put cushions on the floor and allow the audience to sit there if they so chose.  We also discussed the necessity to have a platform for God at one end of the theatre.

I pondered this idea of the runway show and came back to him with the idea of building the stage as a Swiss cross.  With a heaven platform at one end and an earth platform at the other.  Eventually we decided on a Latin cross instead, and Richard said that conceptually this design would say, "The only way to heaven is through the Cross".  That statement became the guiding principle of the scene and lighting designs for these two plays.

Additionally, for The Summoning of Everyman, Richard wanted to make the play a little more contemporary at first and transition it to medieval by the end.  That would be done mostly with costume and lighting.

Execution of the Scene Design
The set design was simple and I felt very elegant in the simplicity.  There was a 6" raised platform in the shape of a Latin cross.  The cross was 32" long (tall) by 24" wide at the widest point.  The "timbers" were 8" wide.  That was the acting area.  We did place cushions on the ground in the corners of the cross and encouraged audience members to sit there if they wished.  Some did.  We also used this as a device during The Summoning of Everyman to bring characters from the audience up on the stage. 

I asked Scotty Bateman, a scene design student to assist me on this project.  She was taking a drafting class at the time and I asked her to draft the show.  She did a terrific job for me on this show.

The Latin cross

The earth platform was faced with wood and made to look like it was growing out of the floor, while the heaven platform was taller and open underneath with iron pipes for legs and stairs that seemed to float in the air.  The heaven platform was also shrouded with a curtain of theatrical gauze from Rose Brand.  The theatrical gauze worked very much like a scrim, allowing God and the angels to be seen behind it when they were lit.

The earth platform with the altar on it
The heaven platform with gauze scrim

We outfitted the guaze with cabone rings and eleven pic points so it would gather up in a disorganized Austrian style to suggest clouds.  We used this for a few moments when God had a soliloquy or as a door when He was going to walk the earth.  The gauze was really pretty when it was lit in the up position.

The gauze as clouds

Execution of the Lighting Design
Because the set was so simple, this evening of medieval drama was really more about the lighting design than the scene design. 

For the lighting design I divided the cross into six lighting areas roughly 8" by 8" and had another area for the heaven platform and one more for the earth platform.  Each of the areas on the cross were lit from eight directions plus downlights.  I designed the lights to come from the compass points, N, E, S, W and from the mid compass points, NE, SE, SW, and NW.  The lighting angles were fairly steep for two reasons, first I wanted to confine the light to the stage as much as possible and I liked the way a steep angled light caused deep shadows on the actors faces.

  The earth and heaven platforms could not be lit the same way as the cross because they were close to the edge of the theatre and there weren't hanging positions available for all of the same lights.  It was okay, however because I had always intended to light those platforms differently than the cross.

In addition to the regular lights, I also used two intellibeam fixtures for moving lights and other effects and three source four lights equipped with follow spot rigs from City Theatrical.  I also used several lights as specials, some of which I'll talk about further in this post.

The Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac opens with a scene in heaven, where God and the angel discuss Abraham's obedience and God decides to test him.  This was done behind the curtain with heavy downlight to create a scrim effect.  The image for this moment is shown above.

  The next scene is Abraham and Isaac working together to establish the love they have for one another.  I lit this as a fairly standard scene, warm key light, cool fill light, side light, downlight etc...

When the angel comes to Abraham and tells him of the task he must fulfill, the lighting became more dramatic.  The angel was lit with a followspot and I allowed Abraham's face to fall into shadow.  I did this to help the audience realize how contemplative Abraham must have been during this time.

Abraham contemplates sacrificing Isaac

Abraham committs to be obedient to God's will

The play continues with Abraham and Isaac travelling.  There are two or three mini scenes where they travel, make camp, sleep, awake, and travel again.  In all these scenes, the angel was travelling with them in the followspot.  During the daytime scenes I used warm downlight for a halo effect and the rest was lit in a fairly standard fashion.  In the evenings I went with the stereotypical blue light.  I guess we keep doing that because it still works.

Travelling with warm downlight

Nighttime with stereotypical night lighting, angel in spotlight



Finally they reach their destination and build the altar.  Abraham then tells Isaac he is supposed to be the sacrifice.  I lit that moment with strong face light from the heaven side and almost no light from the earth side.  Isaac's face was lit but Abraham's was not.  The image is above for the earth platform.

Isaac submits before the Lord and Abraham binds him to the altar.  He wrestles with sacrificing Isaac even then, attempting and pulling back several times.  Finally he is fully committed and the angel appears and intervenes.  She then provides a lamb for the sacrifice and Abraham blesses God for his mercy.  Isaac has a poignant scene with the lamb before the sacrifice is made.  I lit this sequence as an evening cue, getting darker but introducing a pink sunset light that was fairly direct and softening.  As the cue progressed, I also began introducing lavender light as well until the moment of the sacrifice when most of the stage was dark.

The angel intervenes in harsh light

The sun is setting as Abraham prepares to sacrifice the lamb

Isaac's moment with the sheep in lavender and flame colored light

The last major lighting effect was the burning of the lamb at the altar.  This was a combination of lighting and set design since I designed the earth platform with an expanded metal grate on top.  We put several lights down in the hole, focused up and programmed them in a random chase. Then we introduced theatrical fog which we shot across a fan which was blowing straight up.  The altar and the faggots of wood under it served to hide the grating while allowing the light to come through and it also dispersed the fog and made it appear as smoke.  I used a straight down light gelled with a flame color for the rest of the light in this cue.  This was the effect.

Abraham sacrificing the lamb

The Summoning of Everyman opens with a lamentation by God about the state of humanity and how they worshipped riches instead of remembering Him.  At the end of his soliloquy he calls the Angel of Death to summon Everyman to him for his day of reckoning.  Death does as she is commanded and goes to Everyman who attempts to bribe her.  She allows him to invite a friend or an attribute to come with him and the rest of the play is about him trying to get someone to come with him.

We set our version of this play in modern times and had God give his soliloquy while the characters were dancing in the club scene.  I used heavily saturated blues and purples for the clubbers in the lighting as well as gobo rotating effects from the intellibeams.  All the while, as God was walking around and through the dancers, we held him in a tight white followspot.  The spotlight operator was under strict orders to not allow the light on God to spill over onto any of the revellers.  God then went back behind the veil and summoned Death.  I used a scrim effect for this moment in the play.  The theatrical gauze is a different weave than true scrim and we had it loose rather than taut so the scrim effect was best accomplished when the rest of the theatre was black and only the heaven platform was lit with downlight.

God walking through the revelers

God walking through the revelers

God summons Death behind the veil

After the club scene, Everyman was then going home on a subway, where he encountered Death for the first time.  I attempted to keep Death's face in the dark for as long as we could, until she removed her hood.  I also kept Everyman spotted while he was on the subway and the rest of the patrons in lower light.  We also wrote an effects cue for the subway which was meant to replicate a subway car going past the lights in the tunnel, window after window.  This was done with the strobe in the intellibeam.  We flashed the strobe, reset the mirror to the next spot, flashed it again and so on and so forth.  Coupled with the subway sounds, it worked pretty well.  Unfortunately it didn't photograph particularly well.

For The Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac, I worked on more realistic lighting, with key and fill lights so that the actors would be well lit for most of the play.  For The Summoning of Everyman, however, I was much more interested in harsh lighting with faces emerging from shadows.  I accomplished this by shooting light from a single direction at times.  As the play progressed, and Everyman grew closer to making his reckoning with his Maker, I added more and more fill light to show that he was becoming more and more optomistic.

Death comes to Everyman


Death comes to Everyman

 Each time Everyman asked one of his attributes to accompany him to the afterlife, I chose to light the scene in a different way.  This was mainly acheived by using different color and different lighting positions for illumination of each scene.  For Fellowship, I wanted a cool light so I chose a blue gel that verges on green.  I'm not sure what the gel number was because it was a standard color on our color scrollers.  For Kindred and Cousin, I chose to light the scene with pink gel.  Finally, for Goods, I chose to light her scene in cool colors, blues and lavenders.  Inbetween each attribute, Everyman had a soliloquy and I lit him with a followspot on those.  The pictures don't show it, but for every scene with the attributes, the scene started off fairly normal and the color grew more saturated as the attribute rejected Everyman.

Fellowship

Kindred and Cousin

Goods

Everyman's soliloquy

The only attribute that didn't abandon Everyman was Good Works.  When he met her, she was weak and couldn't move for herself.  I lit her in a teal green spot at first and as she grew in strength as Everyman repented and humbled himself, I lit her more and more in white light.  The scene with Everyman and Confession was nicely lit I think.  Lavender and blue light onstage but white spotlights on the two main characters in the scene.

Everyman and Good Works


Everyman with Confession and Knowledge

Finally, Everyman is escorted to his grave by his Five Wits, Good Works and Knowledge.  I had a special focused at the center of the cross and shuttered to the dimensions of the actor playing Everyman to create a symbolic grave.  When Everyman finally was laid to rest, his arms went straight to the sides and I added a crosswise special to create a cross in life, symbolizing that Everyman had finally taken up the cross and therefore able to enter into the presence of God.  It really was a powerful moment in the play.

Everyman and friends at his grave

Everyman takes up the cross

This was a special set of plays for me to do.  I love working with what I call 'high concept' which is what I consider this one.  The idea that 'the only way to heaven is through the cross' was a great motivator for me in all aspects of the design process.  I am also thankful to work in a theatre department that is focused not just on entertainment but also on academic theatre.  Our department came to a crossroads several years ago where we had to decide if we were going to merely entertain the university community or if we were going to educate them as well.  We voted for academics.  I'm thankful for that.

Production Details
Directed by Richard Clifford
Scene Design by Gary Benson
Lighting Design by Gary Benson
Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
Sound Design by Troy Hinkley
Assistant Scene Designer:  Scotty Bateman
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director:  Patty Randall

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