Garden-Themed, But Definitely Not Grey

December 3, 2009

The key to the visual design of Grey Gardens at the Philadelphia Theatre Company seems to have been the second word of the title. Projection designer Jorge Cousineau envisioned garden-themed wall paper decorating the walls of the East Hampton, NY estate where the musical takes place as the feature that carries the action from scene to scene, decade to decade and mood to mood.

The play takes place on the estate of the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and details their descent from the wealth and power of upper crust society in the 1940s to the reclusive isolation in (to quote from the script) "a refuge for 52 stray cats, a few rabid raccoons and its two reclusive inhabitants, all living in an environment the Health Department calls ‘unfit for human habitation.'" In the design envisioned by Cousineau, director Lisa Peterson and set and costume designer David Zinn, that estate would be a character in the play.

Cousineau says that rose-patterned wall paper was Zinn's idea. "It fit the time when floral patterns would be used on the walls." He took the idea to heart, using digital projectors with the TroikaTronix Isadora programming control to blend, expand, move, and modify images projected on Zinn's set. From the very start, that set was intended to be primarily a projection surface for what Cousineau calls "digital scenic and emotional enrichments."

Isadora allowed the image of the first scene of the show which takes place in an overgrown rose garden, complete with shadows of neighboring trees, to morph into the ordered décor of the Bouviers' drawing room where the rest of the first act takes place. The concept allowed a wide range of moods and locales through the coordination of the stage turntable with projectors embedded in the upstage wall, the sides and on the balcony rail all controlled by the Isadora program on an Apple MAC Pro from the back of the house.

The ability to use the images to underscore short moments without requiring actual movement of set pieces was amply demonstrated in the song "Marry Well," which invokes images of both golf and patriotism. The character of JV "Major" Bouvier tells his nieces, Jacqueline and Lee, "with your eye on the ball and your feet on the fairway, hit it high, little girls, Marry well." With that line, the projection could rotate down to the grass on the ground creating a golf-course in the blink of an eye. When the song briefly turned to patriotic themes, Cousineau brought up flags and bunting over the basic set.

Cousineau found one capability of the system with Isadora particularly valuable. "I've never had such freedom before," he says. "We could play with color saturation and balance in real time. During tech, we worked through a number of ideas with Lisa, and when she liked one, we could add it to the routine." He provides one example: "When Big Edie breaks into a brief Japanese song, we brought in a hint of an orange hue and quickly reverted. She loved it so we kept it in."

Not all the effects were impressionistic touches. There were moments that called for more realistic representations. When Little Edie and her beau, young Joe Kennedy, stroll through the still manicured gardens of the mansion, it was a photograph of a garden that set the scene.

Cousineau is a German-born sound and projection designer based in Philadelphia where he and his wife operate Subcircle, a collaborative performance/installation company. He sees nothing particularly unusual in being both a sound and projection designer. "Actually, my degree from the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden is in painting, but I found I was much more interested in a mix of the visual and aural and this led to work on spatial installations with my wife, who is a dancer."

Cousineau has worked at the Philadelphia Theatre Company a number of times, twice in the company's old building and once in its new 365-seat house, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, which opened in October 2007. In this house, he designed both sound and video for Bill Irwin's The Happiness Lecture.