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On Poor Set Design

February 12, 2008

One of the most unfortunate things about Word for Word's production of Sonny's Blues is the set design. It's worth mentioning because the way a stage looks is one of the most important elements of a production and at the same time, one of hardest things to complain about. This is due to the widely held (and mistaken) belief that you have to have a lot of money to make a set look right, and money, as everyone knows, is something that very few theatre companies beyond Broadway and the largest regional houses have in abundance. As a result, audiences and critics often avoid mentioning a crap-looking set in order not to appear rude (or, in the case of reviewers, they conveniently run out of space.) Frequently, people block the set out completely and concentrate on the words and acting instead.

In a good production, the set is an actor. It can communicate the atmosphere of the scene and often conveys some symbolic meaning too. Working in combination with the lights, sound and costumes, the set design is what throws us into the world of the play as soon as the curtain rises.

One of the most evocative -- if extreme -- sets I've seen since moving to San Francisco just over seven years ago, was Killing My Lobster's design for its Circus of Failure sketch comedy show of 2002. Upon entering the theatre, our eyes were greeted by colorfully-painted, extravagantly-detailed panels depicting circus big tops and side show acts. The first thing that happened as soon as the lights went down was that the set completely self-destructed. The panels crashed to the floor and the actors performed the rest of the show clambering all over the back of them. What a brilliant and theatrical way to get across the idea of the circus as a metaphor for a madcap, but not inconceivable world, where city supervisors have shiny green skin and antennae and George Foreman grills sell out at the local Walmart.

I'm not suggesting that a set design has to walk about the stage or fall flat on its face to be effective. But the set design for Sonny's Blues fails because it's so inert. By "inert," I mean that it doesn't behave like an actor. Besides the lush lighting which hits a backdrop mottled with what looks like the windows of a tenement building to create different "moods" for scenes , we don't learn much about the play from the visual design. It makes the production look like something a bunch of high-school kids produced in a rough workshop production rather than the work of a professional theatre company. (Two professional companies, as a matter of fact: Word for Word produced the show in collaboration with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.)

A high chain link fence stuck haphazardly in a back corner of the stage serves multiple purposes from the edge of a schoolyard to the wall of a jazz club, but it constrains a lot of the action to one area of the stage. It further doesn't help that director Margo Hall blocks one of the most dramatic scenes in the production behind the fence, thus diffusing the impact of the story of the narrator's uncle's death at the hands of some drunk-driving white men. A few tufts of random foliage adorn the rafters here are there like hairs sticking out of an old man's nose. I have no idea what they're for. Most annoying of all is a scraggy-looking table which gets carted on and off throughout the play. I can just about put up with it being used as a table, but when a rectangular box is stuck on top and the actor playing Sonny sits behind it and pretends to play it like a piano, I can barely watch. Neither resembling a real musical instrument nor abstract enough to carry some symbolic value, this cloodgy, half-hearted bit of stage furniture is totally pathetic. In short, this kind of design reflects very badly on the production as a whole.

Creating sharp, engrossing visual images doesn't have to cost a lot of money. In fact, bundles of cash can be detrimental to the look of a production, as flashily-designed but inexpert productions like 2005's Broadway non-starter Lennon the Musical and ACT's After the War proved. Bare stages are great if they fit with the director's vision for the production -- but the blocking, writing and acting had better be engrossing to make up for the lack of other visual signs.

Whatever the design, it must be meaningful. In other words, the "student workshop production" look doesn't go over unless there's something specifically about the play that warrants this aesthetic. As far as Sonny's Blues goes, I say out with the chain link fence and leafy fronds and in with a real, beat-up, upright piano. A few relatively small and inexpensive changes would help our ability to immerse ourselves in the story immensely.

Like all of Word for Word's productions, Sonny's Blues isn't a genuine play but a piece of staged prose lifted from a short story (in this case, by James Baldwin.) As such, the actors speak the lines of the text exactly as they were written by the author with all the "he saids", "she saids" and visual descriptions intact. How ironic that a company that takes such a literal approach to theatre should abandon the actors and audience to grapple listlessly with a couple of cheap wooden boxes in place of a piano.


  • What is your problem? This production of Sonny's Blues was one of the best shows I've seen in years. It's not about the set. It's about the words of James Baldwin. Did you even hear the story? It's not about money it's about simplicity and minimalism. Margo Hall did an awesome job, and the cast was astounding! Are you a frustrated set designer or something?

    By Blogger Unknown, At February 23, 2008 at 9:35 PM  

  • I will preclude this by letting you know I am acquainted with someone in the cast.

    Something you probably weren't aware of: The set for this ultra-low budget production was made with the requirement that it would be able to be broken down and loaded into duffle-bags/messenger bags/carry-ons/whathaveyou, and transported easily, by hand, to three other locations where the play will be shown.

    I'm not in the theater set design critic myself so I don't know what is kosher or not. But before you condemn the set of any production wouldn't it be prudent to get some background info or perhaps at least speculate on why a set may be built a particular way?

    Last time I checked, a piano cannot fit into a duffle bag.

    By Blogger Unknown, At March 3, 2008 at 4:07 PM  

  • Thanks for your thoughts, Mark. I don't think you (or anyone else) need to make excuses for the set in this particular show, though I appreciate your sensitivity to the matter.

    A critic gets into strange territory once she starts over-speculating. I mean, if I felt the need to ask questions about why the Sonny's Blues set looked cloogey, then I might as well feel equally obliged to find out why any particular actor in any particular show seemed a bit off color (could it have been to do with splitting up with his partner the night before? had he eaten fish curry just before the performance?) or why the lighting cues seemed out of place (might the lighting board operator have been drunk? was there a technical problem?)

    I appreciate that Sonny's Blues might have been low-budget, but it's the designer's responsibility and challenge to create evocative, resonant scenic design no matter the available funds. Frankly, if the stage had been bare for Sonny's Blues, that would have been an improvement. The fact that the set had to fit into duffle bags is neither here nor there as far as I'm concerned. There's no excuse for not creating something that works on stage -- no matter how little money is available.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At March 3, 2008 at 6:12 PM  

  • 1)Your title of ON POOR SET DESIGN sets me off immediately. Are you reviewing a play or avoiding it by talking about something else on the stage? It makes me wonder if you are somehow involved with one of the the actors or maybe the director? Know them too well to let you know your thoughts about their work?
    The set is not an actor. It is the environment in which the actors have to move, based on where the director wants them to go. If you are focused on the set design, there is already a problem on stage.
    There is a saying: If the curtain goes up and the set gets applause, it's going to be a horrible play.
    2) To the the part where you charge other reviewers with -- conveniently running out of space--when it comes to set design critique: Wow. You, my dear, have got some nerve. Hopefully you will get a paying gig one day where you can say that to their faces.
    3) Comparing a circus like sketch show set to the set of Margo Hall's SONNY'S BLUES is just tacky.

    By Blogger Robindra Goth, At March 5, 2008 at 11:31 AM  

  • Dear Robindra
    Thanks ever so much for your feedback. This is a blog post about the show's set design, not a review of the show. For my full review, please visit SF Weekly's website. The piece came out in hard copy a few weeks ago so the SF weekly website is the only place you can find it (other than the "work" archive on my own website.) If you read it, I think you will find that my criticism of the play extends well beyond the way the stage looks, though I think set design is a crucial element in any theatrical production.
    Here's a link to the story:

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At March 5, 2008 at 1:33 PM  

  • I have to go with the idea of z-secure, although other people made great observations. You are either a frustrated set designer, your best friend is, or you are sleeping with one.

    In all of San Francisco in the last six months, this is the only set design you single out to be crap? Ridiculous. The backdrop was gorgeous and everyone who sat around me thought so. You're so wrong about this one.

    You must have figured this out, I see. I couldn't even find this on your blog and had to have someone who saw it send me the link. Have you buried it because you realized how wrong you were?

    By Blogger theatergeek, At March 6, 2008 at 11:11 AM  

  • After reading your review, I was taken aback by your constant references to other productions which had both nothing to do with this play and its concept, and were obviously plays working with a bigger budget with a staff of skilled carpenters which completely contradicts your point that a budget shouldn't be important to creativity. I enjoyed this play, the cast and the set. I didn’t sit there wishing for a light display to flash for a new mood or obsess about a chain link fence just to work out some OCD issues. Everything had its place and from what I know about the director and cast, this set was everything they needed it to be. They have a set able to bend, fold, pack and ship as many times as they need so they can bring these words to life as they should be. Whatever kind of day you were having, you can’t blame it on the set or the play.

    By Blogger theaterjunkie, At March 12, 2008 at 11:20 AM  

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