Sunday, May 25, 2008

From Page to Stage: Part 2

In a six-part special for the Globe and Mail, theatre critic Michael Posner takes us through the process of producing Fuente Ovejuna for the 2008 Stratford Shakespeare Festival season.

This week, we learn how director Laurence Boswell and designer Peter Hartwell create a "visual look and feel" for the show.

"For any stage designer, of course, the first consideration is always the raw material of the stage itself. Here, that meant the Patterson, named in honour of the Festival's founder. The Patterson features a thrust stage surrounded on three sides by tiered seating. Its size (480 seats) and shape (long and narrow) confer a certain intimacy, but they also impose clear constraints: Attempts to overdress the venue work against its inherent minimalist ethos.

"Hartwell and Boswell have fit their design ambitions to the given realities, but they are aiming to dress up the simplicity with colourful costumes that reflect the class divisions of Spanish society at the time. 'We both share a belief in simplicity of design,' says Boswell. 'And the Patterson enforces it. You just have to enjoy it and spin it a little bit. It has its own aesthetic.'

"With Boswell in London and Hartwell in Niagara, their first collaborative gulf was vast – the Atlantic Ocean. 'The distance forced me to take a different kind of process,' he recalls. 'Back home, I'd say to Jeremy [Herbert], "pop around," and we'd sit in my kitchen and drink tea and talk. That was impossible with Peter, so as I was doing the script [Boswell wrote a new version of a Fuente Ovejuna translation], at the end of each act I would write Peter a guide to the themes of the play, the characters and their relationships. Basically the feel of each scene. That's how I like to work. I'll throw a million ideas at something.'

"The problem was not resolved by the magic of e-mail, because Hartwell has stubbornly resisted modern technology. However, his partner, Jane Dagg, read e-mail messages to him and typed his responses. Says Boswell, with a laugh: 'Peter is working toward computer literacy.'

"Later, Boswell would fly over on a Sunday, and spend two days in Hartwell's basement studio before going on to Stratford. 'He's a great smoker and I'm an occasional smoker, so we called it the smoking room.' In that basement, and later, on long walks in Niagara-on-the-Lake and in Stratford, the design vision for Fuente Ovejuna was conceived, articulated, elaborated and massaged. 'The creative process is exciting,' says Boswell, 'but there's a lot of anxiety.'

"Their main difficulties, no surprise, concerned money. At Stratford, budgets reflect what a show can likely earn, and shows at the Patterson inevitably earn less than shows at the larger Avon or Festival theatres. But with a cast of 29 actors, several in multiple roles, the costume budget was in danger of serious overruns. They scaled it back, but they are still wrestling with how many pigs and capons to use in a scene in which the village commander returns from a military triumph and the peasants greet him with a living, oinking tribute."

Read the entire article online.

Catch up on the series: Read Part 1

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