Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spinning Into Butter--Scene Design

Scene from Spinning Into Butter

Spinning Into Butter by Rebecca Gilman was produced Fall Semester, 2004 in the Kirkham Arena Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Sarah Daniels is the dean of students at a mostly white, fictitious private university in Vermont.  One of the African American students has been targeted for hate crimes.  He has received threatening letters addressed to "Little Black Sambo."  It is Sarah's responsibility to get to the bottom of it and punish the perpetrators.

In the meantime, one of the white student body officers comes to her to propose a seminar against racism for the student body.  They hold the seminar and the black students find it patronizing and demeaning since none of them are really invited to participate and it ends up being a bunch of privileged white kids saying we shouldn't be racist etc...

Sarah works hard to do her job to ease racial tensions, but in the meantime we learn that when she was hired to be the dean of students, the university had been under fire for having an all white faculty and administration.  Sarah had been working at an all black university in Chicago and the administration hired her without an interview, thinking she was black.  They were all surprised when she showed up as white.  This caused some consternation among the other administrators.  They felt lied to even though she hadn't lied.  They assumed she was black.

In a moment of honesty and clarity, Sarah confides to her one friend on the faculty that she left Chicago to come to Vermont to get away from black people.  She loathed herself because she was a closeted racist.  She tells him when she rode the bus she'd first look for a white person to sit by.  If one wasn't available she'd look for a yellow one.  She'd stand rather than sit next to a black person.  She wrote some of this down on a notebook and then they left to get dinner.  While they are away, one of the administrators who disliked her entered her office and snooped through her stuff and found the incriminating evidence.  Confronted with this evidence Sarah decided to resign.

In the meantime it is discovered that the black kid who received the threatening notes had written them himself.  He claimed to have been out of his body while he saw himself writing the notes and tying them to the brick and hurling it through his window.  Because of this, he is expelled.

While she is packing up her office, Sarah tells her friend the story of Little Black Sambo.  The story goes that Little Black Sambo was walking through the forest in his finest clothes.  A tiger saw him and threatened to eat him.  Little Black Sambo gave the tiger his fine new coat in exchange for a promise not to eat him.  The tiger went on his way thinking he was the most fabulous tiger in the forest.  Little Black Sambo encountered another tiger with a similar result.  This happens over and over until Little Black Sambo is left only in his underwear.  Meanwhile, the tigers all encounter each other and each thinks he's the most fabulous tiger in the forest.  They are all jealous of each other and start clawing at one another.  As the fight, they start spinning around in a circle and the spin faster and faster until they spin themselves into butter.  At that point, Little Black Sambo collects his clothes and puts them back on and scoops up a bunch of butter and takes it home.  His mother makes pancakes for the family and they spread the tiger butter that Little Black Sambo has collected.

Sarah and her friend realize that the black student who wrote the note was manipulating the administration, causing them to spin themselves into a frenzy.  As she leaves, she makes contact with the black student and tells him not to be so hard on himself.  As a result of her being there, things actually got better, and because of her confession, she felt cleansed.  We get the sense that even though she is going away, Sarah Daniels will be okay and will be less racist.

The play takes place entirely in her office.

A Note About Little Black Sambo
When I was a boy in the 1960's, there was a restaurant chain called "Sambo's."  It was a pancake house.  Every time I went to Utah with my family and spent the night, we'd get up the next morning and eat at Sambo's.  I remember they had good pancakes.  There was a wallpaper frieze in the restaurant that told the story of Little Black Sambo and the tigers, and you could purchase the children's book from them.  It was a different time, I was just a little boy and had no conception of what all of that meant.  It was just a story to me.  I liked to go there because of the good food.  All but one of the Sambo's restaurants have either been sold to other chains, had the name changed, or closed for good.

As I read this script, on about page thirty I had a very clear image of what this set should look like.  I continued to read and the further into it, particularly when Sarah reveals her inner racist I knew that my inclination was correct.  I read it again and could see the play done in no other way.

I phoned the director, Hyrum Conrad and asked to come to his house and talk about the play.  It was a Saturday.  That's how excited I was by this concept.  It was very early in the process.  We had just barely received our perusal copy of the script and Hyrum had not yet created a production concept.  I told Hyrum how I felt about the show and how I felt it should be done.

I thought we should actually build her office on the Kirkham Arena Theatre stage.  All four walls with two doors.  A front door and a back door.  I though there should be a wainscot and a crown moulding around the top.  Where the walls should be, between the wainscot and the crown moulding would be gone.

Hyrum didn't bite immediately, instead he asked me to justify and intellectualize my feelings.  Up until that time, my thoughts on this show and this design were just feelings.  Hyrum often wants to hear from a designer's creative side and intellectual side.  If those two aspects of the personality can come to agreement, it's often right.

From an intellectual point of view, I decided we needed a barrier between us and Sarah.  I wanted each audience member to have an individual response to this play, even though they may be sitting next to their spouse or best friend or a boy or girl they were trying to impress.  I coined the term in that meeting, "Audience as Voyeur."

I wanted every audience member, as Sarah talked about not wanting to ride the bus next to a black person, to ask themselves, "Have I ever done that?" or "Would I ever do that?"  I wanted the audience members to confront whatever demons they had inside of them on this issue.  I felt that placing the barrier between them and the actors would help them do just that.

I also wanted the audience to look across the set and see the other audience members, like a mirror.  Sarah says some very regrettable things about herself.  I thought the audience needed to feel like they were looking through a keyhole or listening in on a conversation they shouldn't be and feeling a little guilty about it but not turning away.

Hyrum agreed and we went ahead with the concept.  This is one of only a handful of times in my career where I came to a production concept ahead of the director.  Typically the director comes up with it and the designers design within it.  Hyrum had just started working with this script and hadn't come up with the production concept.  That was the first and only time while working with Hyrum that I came up with a concept before he did.

I built a white model for this play.  Sadly, none of the pieces of that model exist anymore.  When I took it to the meeting, I brought along a pair of scissors, an exacto knife and some masking tape.  It was a very nice white model.  Hyrum and I and the other designers had been working with this material for awhile and we had agreed on things in principle, but this was the first time anyone had seen it in three dimensions.

I could tell that Hyrum was hem-hawing about something on the set, but because it was a pretty model, he seemed reluctant to say anything negative about it.  This was in a production meeting with all of the faculty, not just the ones working on the show.  Finally I asked him, "If there was one thing on here that you would change, what would it be?"  With that invitation, Hyrum mentioned something at the top of the set that he thought shouldn't be there.

With that, I reached into my back pocket, grabbed the scissors and hacked it off.  One of the other faculty members threw himself across the table trying to stop me from hacking it up.  He was too late.  It was pretty funny.  He appeared to me to be in slow motion, shouting (also in slow motion) "NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

Once the model had been desecrated, we were then able to go to work.  I got out the tape and the scissors and the knife and made it available to Hyrum and the two of us hacked and taped and worked over the model together.  I love working in this way.

When we had the design the way we wanted it, I then drafted it and made a painted model of it.  Here are some images of the painted model.  This was many years ago and many of the model pieces no longer exist.  All that is left of this one is the skeleton.  Still, it shows the concept we were working with pretty well.

Model for Spinning Into Butter

From another angle

And another

And another

Detail of the door

The idea of the barrier was visceral, but we also wanted to treat this in a very realistic way, so I had to justify and rationalize everything in it.  In addition to the basic set design, Hyrum suggested that there be an indication of tiger stripes here and there.  I decided that all of the paneling in the office should be painted to look like crotch figure mahogany.  That particular woodgrain has inherent tiger stripes.  In addition I painted a marble floor with burnt orange veins, also to represent tiger stripes.

As far as the room went, I decided that this was a building that was more than a hundred years old, in the east, and one that was built before central heating, plumbing and electricity.  As a result, I had a two inch water pipe in one corner, and a raised wooden dais in a different corner with a heating vent in the middle of it.  There was also a long unused fireplace in another corner.  These signified that they were placed here after the fact, after the building had been built.  Retro-fitted if you will.  We wanted this to be old.  An old place with old ideas.

The dais with the heat vent in the front of it where the desk sat
The water pipe in the corner

Tiger striped panel in the crotch figure mahogany

The marble floor

The fireplace

I don't remember why I painted it green and black marble but I do remember I wanted it stripey

The door with vinyl letters on bubbled plexi-glas

Sarah was the dean of students but it was well known to her and the administration that she was supposed to be the dean of ethnic students.  They were trying to shed the allegations of racism at their university.  Trying to shed it without actually trying to make inner changes.  There was a certain hypocrisy among the administrators as well as within Sarah.  Because of this, I coined another term called "ethnic chic."  I decided all the set dressing should appear to be from other countries, particularly Africa, Asia and Australia, but if you looked on the back you'd still see the Pier 1 Imports price tag.  I also placed some National Geographic Magazines on the fireplace and found one with Bengal Tigers on the cover.  That one went on top.

Ethnic Chic.  To show that she didn't get it, I added a "Cigar Store Indian" to her office

Ethnic Chic.  Indonesian basket in front of fireplace.  African masks and National Geographic Magazines on top of the fireplace

The set from one direction

From another direction

And another

And another

The cast of Spinning Into Butter

A Concluding Thought
One of our colleagues did not like this set design.  He told Hyrum, "I would never let Gary do THAT to me!"  Hyrum asked him what he meant by that, and he said his students told him that the set made them uncomfortable, like they were Peeping Tom's.  They told him how they felt ashamed when certain lines were said and that they didn't feel a group dynamic with the rest of the audience.  Hyrum said, "Oh, that is exactly what we were going for."  The other colleague seemed disappointed by that.  I felt vindicated.  I always try as a designer to help to tell the story, rather than just creating an environment where the story can be told.  I feel that I succeeded on this one.  I loved this play, I loved our cast, I loved this design.  This was a good experience for me.

Production Details
Directed by Hyrum Conrad
Scene Design by Gary Benson
Lighting Design by Ray Versluys
Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director:  Patty Randall

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