Sightlines: What We Lose

Article by Roberta Carlson

Roberta Carlson has been composing music for theater for many years, doing an enormous body of work for the Children’s Theater and Illusion Theater, among many others.  This month, she offers perspective on what we’ve lost (and gained) in today’s world of theater and considers the importance of in person discussions and meetings as opposed to the very common long distance design meetings which are so prevalent today.  - Mike Wangen

It is easy to reminisce about the past and, looking through rose-colored glasses, be nostalgic about “the good old days”. That nostalgia is usually concerned more with the fact that our youth is receding in the rear view mirror than with old practices and philosophies. But there are some things that were accepted as the norm in the 70’s and 80’s theater world that are disappearing in today’s world. Some of them deservedly so; others regrettably being eliminated. One in particular I regret to see becoming “outdated” - design meetings.

I miss the practice of design meetings. The idea of the scene designer, the costume designer, the director, the composer, the sound designer, the lighting designer - and in the case of a new play, the playwright - gathering in the same place for a day of brainstorming is not and should not be a luxury. It is the process that fosters sharing ideas, bouncing design possibilities off each other, and even inspiring each other to develop new concepts. We all know the reasons and excuses: too expensive, too much trouble to get everyone together, the director is too busy, etc.. The first suggestions are always “ Can’t we do this online? “ “Just email everything ?“ “Use Goto Meeting ?” “Use Dropbox?” Sorry - but no.

There simply is no substitute for a group of artists gathered around a table, sharing ideas, sketches, possibilities - and that interchange strikes sparks that can infuse a production with coherent life. Exchanges on line simply lack the immediacy of the chemistry that lights those sparks. As to expense - there can be real savings sometimes. If a sound/music cue was recorded to be a normal transition suggesting change of location or time passing and you discover in techs that a particular piece of scenery or some mechanical function is disturbingly loud the first question is always to sound and music: “Can you cover that” Often the answer is “Yes, but it will mean first coming up with an idea and sounds that can cover it, and then we’ll have to go back into the studio and record it, then mix it, and then tech it in”. Which means rewriting the light cue, changing the timing of a costume change, which means some re-structuring of the costume in the shop - - - - all of which means further expenditure. And all of that could have been avoided with a thorough discussion between designers before construction and development began.

Some directors seem to think that it will all somehow come together, without all that time in design meetings. They apparently subscribe to the belief that mediocrity is good enough. And mediocrity is what they achieve.