Let us be brave, and let the work continue.
The Scotland program was one of the biggest selling points of attending Pepperdine from the moment the school entered my radar. The opportunity to design for an original piece of theatre is enticing enough, but add a trip to Scotland into the mix and there’s no contest. Still, I never expected to be a part of this prestigious company as a first-year student. Fast forward to the Spring break of 2018, and I was seated at a table right next to playwright Davey Anderson. The journey had begun, and I couldn’t be more excited.
Going into the week, we had a draft of the script, a table and chairs, a brilliant playwright and a committed company. Beyond that, all of the details were up in the air. We had no idea what the show was going to look, feel, or sound like, and we only had five days to find out. Of course there were nerves, but there was also an infectious energy in the room. Everyone was anxious to dive into the script and subject matter, and really decode the intricacies of the Alt-Right. We had all done research leading up to the process, but there was still a layer of mystery that we were anxious to get beneath. We sat down for the first time with Davey, and all we knew was that he wanted to hear our thoughts on the movement. We understood this as research, but that wasn’t what he wanted.
He began to ask us for our stories. Davey didn’t want us to regurgitate articles and books, he wanted to hear about our own personal experiences with hate and prejudice. Everyone had stories to tell, ranging from passing comments to deeply personal moments. It didn’t take us long to realize how important this story was, and how blessed we were to have the opportunity to share that story with the world. This put us in the headspace to jump into the script, and we took off running. We began to read the script scene by scene, stopping and discussing along the way. Davey knew exactly what he wanted to hear from us, and every comment was taken as seriously as any other. I wasn’t expecting the collaboration to come as easily as it did, but the company fell into a groove of discussion where every voice was heard and considered. We began to fall deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, and before we knew it the day was over.
I am still in awe of how truly considerate Davey was of the company’s thoughts. As Assistant Director, I had the blessing of sitting in on the meetings between Davey and our director, Cathy Thomas-Grant. Not a day went by when he didn’t use our progress as the basis of the day’s schedule. Every exercise, every improvised scene, and every discussion was placed as a direct response to what the company had given him. The process wasn’t run as a dictatorship, but as a true democracy. Davey and Cathy were the guides, but the show adopted an organic life of its own. Every scene grew out of a discussion, and the script began to transform before our very eyes. With every improvised scene or movement exercise, a new idea would spark and we would blast off in a different (yet unified) direction.
As a designer, these scenes and exercises were just as informative as the script. Watching the actors devise a scene out of thin air established a tone and a context, but completely devoid of setting. A script can tell you where you are, but improv finds a setting through natural discovery. I began to see images and shapes come out of the exercises that words on a page couldn’t conjure. My notes multiplied until I had pages and pages of ideas, all stemming from what I saw in the movement and spirits of the performers. Our first real production meeting came along, and we found ourselves in the middle of a creative explosion. We began to define potential forms out of abstract concepts. Research images were cited and discussed, and we began coming back to the same key elements and themes. The meeting may not have ended with a finalized design concept, but it provided a diving board from which to leap.
As a designer, the most significant moment of the process came about by complete accident. Every element of the scene was present for an individual reason, and we had an epiphany. We had built a wall of string and paper for a movement exercise, so why not experiment with it while the actors were away? We had some flashlights laying around from a previous exercise with shadows. Why not add those too! The actors were all off working, so the designers started playing with the toys we had. Soon, we had created an entire scene of shadow and sound.
Moments like the shadow wall encapsulate what made the week so exciting. All of the best work came out of a willingness to experiment, a willingness to change. Everyone involved had permission to run off of their creative peak, with no holds barred. No recommendation was too outlandish, no idea too mundane. Everything was considered. Nobody was turned away. Through this constant support, we found bravery. I hope that as the process continues, this openness remains. Let us not be afraid to give this subject the attention it deserves. Let us not be afraid to fully give ourselves to the artistic process. Let us be brave, and let the work continue.