March 3, 2009

It didn’t sound like a typical project even from the start: any time-traveling play that skips back and forth from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century would give designers plenty of opportunity to be creative. But Joseph McDonough’s characters in Travels of Angelica include a young woman who sketches, and those sketches both illustrate and affect the events in the play.

What’s more, director Edward Stern, producing artistic director at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park where the play received its world premiere, saw those sketches as dictating the use of projections as a key design element. He added projection specialist John Boesche to the design team that already included Joseph P. Tilford on sets, Thomas C. Hase on lights, Fitz Patton on sound, and Susan Tsu, costume designer.

Tsu says she “just loves to draw,” so her pursuit of a visual look for the play added a distinctly non-wardrobe aspect to her contribution. As she began to produce costume sketches, she also worked on sketches that would eventually become the drawings created by the young character. She found expression in watercolor, charcoal, and ink, but with an attention to what would be historically appropriate. “I began to think of what would have been available to the young girl in 1657: What could she sketch with? What would she use for paper? What could she use for ink?” As a result, she ended up grinding berries and boiling yellow onions to get the right colors and textures. Since some of the sketches were supposed to be done by the character at a very young age, she did some of her sketching using a quill with her left hand (she’s naturally right handed).

Tsu points out that scenic designer Tilford is “a stickler for historical accuracy— like me.” He had a concept for the set that included a weathered wooden backdrop behind a stone floor with only minimal set pieces: a bench, a table, a chair. Along with Boesche, they considered the surface for that weathered back structure, how it would accept projections, and what its surface texture and tint should be to make the projections as effective as possible.

Boesche adds that the bath of light from Hase could be “just as effective as any projection to set place and mood,” while the floor could also be a surface on which to project images. The entire performance space, then, became the surface hosting images projected by the twin Sanyo PLC-XF46N video projectors in custom acoustic isolation boxes, or flooded by Hase’s supply of theatrical lights.

Tsu’s sketches included such fanciful designs as a man riding a dolphin and mermaids. For the dolphin, she referred to illustrations on maritime maps of the period and for the mermaids, the colors drawn from those ground berries stood out on the onion-yellow paper.

The sketches were only a part of the projection-intensive design. Boesche created “a vocabulary of images” for various landscapes and seascapes that helped tell the story of a playwright and his daughter emigrating from anti-theatre, Puritan England to Virginia’s Chesapeake shores.

Boesche sought out water scenes, cloudscapes, sunsets, and star-fields which he could manipulate in order to create, for example, a moving scene of the waves of the Chesapeake topped by scudding clouds as day transits to night. “We sought a fluid piece to create both movement in water and sky and changes from the past to contemporary day,” explains Boesche.

The sketches, ostensibly by a girl of the 17th century, weren’t revealed all at once. Instead, fragments of a sketch imposed itself on a surface at one point, faded, and then contrasted with other fragments as the play progressed. “Susan’s drawings were all on traditionally shaped pieces of paper, but the projection surface was twice as wide as high,” Boesche points out. “We revealed only one part at a time. You didn’t really see the drawings in full view until the end.”

That progression of projections played a part in the evolution of the play itself. As a world premiere at the Playhouse where he premiered One in 2003 and Stone My Heart in 2006, McDonough worked with director Stern and his team during rehearsals, which included making changes. Among them: the ending of the play adopted the use of the sketches for a visual climax. 

Sketchbook: Travels of Angelica
Designers Give Production The Look Of One Character’s Thought