Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bielzy and Gottfried--Scene Design

Messrs, Bielzy und Gottfried
Bielzy and Gottfried, an original play by J. Omar Hansen, was produced Fall Semester, 2012 in the Snow Black Box Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Bielzy and Gottfried are businessmen, or producers or perhaps they are allegorical characters representing God and Satan...

Bielzy and Gottfried get together from time to time to contend for the love of the audience and have directed five mini morality plays.  The idea is that the audience will have to decide which one they wish to follow when the evening is over.

*The first play is called Pandora and is about the creation story as told from a couple of points of view. 
*The second play is called The Stone Thrower and is about a man masquerading as Joseph McCarthy. 
*The third is called Sister Prescott and is about a woman speaking in church who has misplaced her talk and so she wings it with some rather personal information as she melts down 
*The fourth play is called Job and deals with suffering, pain, ridicule and mercy.
*The fifth and final play is called Ole and Ed and is about a soul who is lost and waiting for his son to take him to the Spirit World.

In between scenes there are musical interludes by three singers.

In the script, the playwright suggested Mr. Bielzy and Mr. Gottfried to be businessmen.  In our original concept meeting, the director, Justin Bates suggested we go with that idea and set it in modern time.  He also suggested he wanted to do it as a runway show, meaning audience on two sides and the stage in the middle.  I could tell he wasn't overly happy with the businessman concept and I felt as though I had license to conceptualize further.

I agonized over the concept for a few days.  I tried to remember everything I could about morality plays and Medieval theatre.  I thought about morality plays, cycle plays and pageant wagons and tried to incorporate some of that aesthetic into the concept.  The trick was that we had to keep it in the modern day.

The idea came to me in a shower moment.  Einstein said the best places to think were the bed, the bath and the bus.  This was one of those.  The jump-off point for me was the idea of the Hellmouth wagon in the pageant wagon shows.  At the end of the pageant, the main characters were either taken to the Heaven wagon or the Hell wagon.  Depending on how they had lived their lives.  From historical accounts, the Hell wagon was always the most interesting.  They had devils and minions jumping around, making a general ruckus whereas the Heaven wagon was quiet. peaceful and rather dull in comparison.

I wondered how I could do a modern version of the Hellmouth.  From working with Omar on several other shows including several of his original works, I knew he liked the idea of a Hellmouth.  I was committed to getting one on the stage. 

Then it came to me where I'd seen something like that before.  The funhouse at a travelling carnival often had a giant clown face with the mouth being the entrance doors.  I had my concept.  I put it together over the next few hours, found some images online and made a few sketches and then went in to discuss it with Justin.  He bit.

Sketch of the Hellmouth

Sideview of Hellmouth

3/4 view of the Hellmouth

I was very careful in my pitch to stress that I was not trying to minimalize, marginalize or trivialize the script in any way.  If anything, the carnival side-show aspect of it would serve, I thought, to allow the audience to partake of the festive atmosphere and maybe they would make decisions on the material without feeling coerced.  I believe we were successful.

I had the Hellmouth for Bielzy and I knew I would have a carnival style castle for the Heaven platform for Gottfried, but I needed the stuff in between.  I decided to keep the pageant wagon ideal and began sketching three mini stages for a progression of the play toward the Heaven platform.

Justin had been clear from the start when I pitched this alternate concept that he did not want it to be a three ring circus.  I started out by drawing different polygons, trying to maximize the playing areas as much as I could.  In the end, Justin and I decided that round would be best.  I asked him about the three ring circus ideal and he said it didn't bother him anymore.

For me, carnivals, sideshows and circuses all kind of go together.  Circuses and carnivals both travel and both of them travel with sideshows.

I started with the Hellmouth at the south end of the Snow Black Box Theatre and the Heaven platform at the north end.  Between them I designed three circle stages which were offset from each other in a zig-zag pattern and used small platforms to connect them.

Segment of drafting of the Hellmouth.  Notice the "Alice Cooper" eyes. 
I did that on purpose.

Bielzy entering from the Hellmouth

Pandora and the Singer in front of Gottfried's place

The three mini-stages and their connecting, zig-zag platforms

I also wanted each mini-stage to have something unique, something carnival like to put it in the world we were creating.  On stage number one, I designed a bottomless trunk where several characters entered and props were handed up through.  On stage number two I designed a spinning, hypnotic wheel for the scene where Sister Prescott has her meltdown.  Stage number three had pop-up tombstones reminiscent of the haunted house attraction often seen at a carnival.  We needed under the stage access to each of these platforms so the connecting platforms became tunnels for the technicians and actors to make it to their assignments without being seen by the audience.

Snake entering from the bottomless trunk gag.
Based on the old clown car gag.

Props being handed up through the bottomless trunk.

Sister Prescott melting down on the spinning, hypnotic wheel

Sister Prescott melting down on the spinning, hypnotic wheel

Sister Prescott melting down on the spinning, hypnotic wheel

Ed and Ole at the pop-up tombstones

The three singers

In addition to the Hellmouth, the Heaven platform and the min-stages, we also designed ten sideshow banners, two for each scene that depicted something from the scene in a sideshow style, such as Sister Prescott on a tightrope for one and as the Incredible Melting Woman on the other.  These were hung just behind the audience, five on each side and each side was different.  Between the banners we also hung large pennants.  In the middle of that array we painted a banner that said, "Messrs. Bielzy and Gottfried, Night of Morality Plays."

My assistant designer, Kyrie Bayles designed the sideshow banners.  She captured the essence of the sideshow very well, but unfortunately, the photographer did not take any pictures of them.  Regrettable because they were really the finishing touch to the whole design.

Topping it all off were six strands of mini pennants, 'spiderlegging' across the stage and the audience.  The banners and pennants truly did create a festive atmosphere for the whole show.

Banners and pennants

The Lighting Design
I felt the lighting design needed to be mentioned in this posting.  We invited a student, Kolby Clarke to create the lighting design.  Both Richard Clifford and I have had him assist us on other designs and we felt he was ready to solo.  He created great atmosphere and produced interesting looks for this story to be told.  Great job Kolby.

Kolby Clarke's lighting
The full stage
As always, it was a pleasure to work on this production.  I believe the scene design aided in telling this tale.

Production Details
Written by James Omar Hansen
Directed by Justin Bates
Scene Design by Gary Benson
Lighting Design by Kolby Clarke
Costume Design by Patty Randall
Sound Design by Aimee Phillips
Assistant Scene Designer:  Kyrie Bayles
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director:  Patty Randall


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  2. Thanks, for sharing the information, it’s very informative post!
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