The Influence of Design



Esteemed playwright Carlyle Brown muses this month on how design elements in production have shaped and influenced his thought process in writing a play.  The idea that the words on the page can take on a sometimes surprising life through the efforts of the design team is just another example of what makes theater a magical and unique artform and one which we should all value.  A true collaboration. - Mike Wangen


In the very early beginnings of my career as a playwright, I had the good fortune of working with three extraordinary theater designers; set designer Doug Stein, lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes, and costume designer Paul Tazwell. The theater was Arena Stage and the production was my now much produced The African Company Presents Richard III, the story of a group of free Africans putting on a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in New York City in 1821. The play was yet unfinished and needed fixing in places that I was yet to discern. What I learned from these three talented gentlemen was that in the experience of a piece of theater what we “see” is as important as the text in the telling of a theatrical story. 

There is a scene in the play where the character Sarah has fashioned an old, worn “pigeon-tail coat” with colorful patches for Papa Shakespeare to make amends for her former ill-treatment of him and to celebrate the opening of their production in the ballroom of a hotel, next-door to the powerful white theater that previously had them shut down. Excited and joyful for the gift of reconciliation and the redemption of their production, Papa Shakespeare exclaims to her, “Oh Sarah, it be just like the Bible say you reap what you sow”. Instead of hearing “sow,” because of Paul Tazwell’s colorful patchwork costume, the audience heard “sew.” Suddenly, unintended and unforeseen laughter and a surprising pun was born out of text. We kept it, of course, because the colorful costume had transformed a piece of exposition into a theatrical moment.

Likewise, in another scene a character is reminiscing/reliving a hurtful moment in the past in a monologue when another character enters with unpleasant news of the present. The transaction of moving from the character’s internal moment to an external one eluded me. But Lighting Designer Allen Lee Hughes resolved the problem with a light cue, a shift and bump of light that simply said, now you’re in your head and now you’re not. Place also became an issue in that production. Of all the locations where scenes and action take place - a rehearsal loft, a hotel ballroom, two theaters, a street - which should be central? In the end, we settled upon the rehearsal loft because that was the place where the most interesting scenes took place and its design in relationship to all the other locations was the most serviceable to staging and direction. But, in a subsequent production to be toured with the Acting Company, Doug Stein designed the play around an idea rather than a location; a simple, raked platform from stage left to stage right framed by the wooden ribs of a slave ship symbolizing the journey of these new African-Americans in a cultural affirmation through Shakespeare to a new world. In its surreal way, it was a design that was more real than realism, speaking fundamentally to the ideals of the play.

Since that production, I have come to respect and appreciate designers as story tellers in their own right, painting around the edges of words to collectively create a theatrical world. The associated artists of Carlyle Brown & Company are mostly designers; lighting designer Mike Wangen, sound designer C. Andrew Mayer, set designer Joe Stanley, costume designer Clare Branch, and properties designer and instillation artist Kellie Larson. They support me, challenge me, and keep me honest. Their analysis is as good as the best of dramaturgs. Under their influence, my stage directions have become sparse to nonexistent. Their aural and visual imaginings are far more insightful. In some strange, ethereal and indescribable way, they are with me when I sit down to write. Not looking over my shoulder, but opening doors to imaginative possibilities. They are more than colleagues or even friends; they are this playwright’s family.


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