Old Things

Article by Mike Wangen

I recently received a photo taken by a friend of a very clever homemade animation device which attached to a PAR 64 light.  She was setting up a show for a touring dance company which had several of these.  It was a circular disc with many random sized holes cut in it, which rotated in front of the light and, apparently, created a very realistic fire effect in a very low tech way.  No fancy video, LEDs or expensive animation units.  Please don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite, I’ve recently designed two shows in town which made extensive use of LED units.  It’s just that it made me consider the idea that OLD is not necessarily bad and NEW is not always good.  It all depends on your perspective.

This also reminded me of a production of In The Red and Brown Water, produced by Pillsbury House Theatre at the Dowling Studio.  It featured a striking shimmering water effect on a painted backdrop and many patrons asked what type of special effect device we had used to achieve it.  I was done by setting 12 plastic bins of water in a line on the floor with small lights focused on them and bits of hard foam attached to coat hanger wire all strung together with fishline and running offstage where a stagehand gently tugged on it to create ripples in the water which were reflected onto the backdrop by the small lights.  What made it work was the randomness achieved by a human hand.

When thinking about the articles for Technical Tools of the Trade that I’ve read and curated over the last nine months, I’m struck by a theme which has appeared over and over again, that as we age as artists our creative spark often grows and strengthens rather than dissipates.  We acquire new perspective by recognizing the circular patterns that rotate around us.  What is OLD or NEW is not as important as recognizing the patterns that emerge and what can be gained by studying those patterns and building upon them.  

As a young lighting designer, I worked with an ensemble theater company that had embraced the ideas of Jerzy Grotowski and who treated his book Towards A Poor Theatre as their bible. He espoused the idea that theatre should, and could not compete with the spectacle of film and therefore should return to its roots of direct actor interaction with the audience.  As Peter Brooks said “Grotowski was showing us something which existed in the past but had been forgotten over the centuries;  that is that one of the vehicles which allows man to have access to another level of perception is to be found in the art of performance.”  An old idea which was revitalized through many experimental theatre groups in America in the 60s and 70s.  Over the last several years I have worked with two new theatre groups of young performers (in their 20s and 30s) who have again discovered Grotowski and embraced his ideas.  Thus, the world continues to turn.  The discoveries and explorations of the Olympia Arts Ensemble, the group I worked with in the 70s, led to my development as an artist and, through their exploration and expansion of Grotowski, the groups I am working with now are adding their voice to the development of our art.  

I am a student of history and am a firm believer in the theory that to know where we are going, we must examine where we have been.  America is often seen as a country which worships youth.  I believe that as mature artists we (myself and those who have written articles for this journal) must continue to work, grow, and recount our past experiences so that others can understand and build on the foundations we have laid down, as we built on the foundations of those before us.