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Last April I gave a talk bolstered by a PowerPoint document
consisting only of a single Saul Steinberg drawing, which was
essential to a point I was making. That single image was one more
than I usually have. Speakers about to address an audience of
designers are invariably asked to produce their “visuals.”
“Visuals? I don't even have actuals,” I say, or
at least I did until I noticed that no one was amused. When my
hosts discover that I really mean to show no images, the response
is a disbelieving, “But designers are visual people!”
The author's lone visual: October 6, 1962 cover of The New
Yorker illustrated by Saul Steinberg.
“Yes,” I say. “And that's one reason I didn't bring any visual
support. Designers can see images in their heads. It's your
clients who need pictures—the clients who protest, 'I never
thought it would look like that!' after you've explained at
every step exactly how it will look, and have a stack of signed
approvals as backup.” Since part of the design process is
envisioning a result, the act of seeing is for designers a sharply
Not everyone needs to develop that skill so finely, but
designers are not the only ones who see pictures in their heads. A
great many people, in a great many activities—reading, for
instance—find they can supply their own visual support. Consider
theatrical productions. A well-designed set can immeasurably
enhance the experience of seeing certain plays. You can't have
drawing-room comedy without a drawing room. And the applause that
greets the raising of the curtain on an empty stage is an
expression of admiration for the set designer, irrespective of what
follows. But if there is no set, there is a chance that a practiced
audience can meet the production halfway without penalty.
The power of modern drama to work without sets or props may have
been popularly demonstrated first when monologists, forced to
travel without scenery, developed ways of compensating for its lack
by using random bits of furniture to represent places and even
people. Actors like Cornelia Otis Skinner and Ruth Draper were
celebrated for one-woman shows in which they played all the parts,
often without significant changes in costume—a hat or a scarf were
suggestive enough—and often on a bare stage. By their ability to
see what was not there, audiences colluded with the actors in
evoking both an environment and the people who inhabit it.
A staging of Our Town. (photo: Flickr user woonhian
The effect was not lost on playwrights like Thornton Wilder,
whose Our Town proved that if the play and the actors were
good enough, the audience would rise imaginatively to the occasion.
Our Town is narrated by a Stage Manager who, with the aid of
chairs, tables and other objects at hand, creates a small New
England town at the beginning of the last century. George Gibbs and
Emily Webb, the protagonists, talk to each other through imaginary
windows as they stand on ladders representing the second stories of
Our acceptance of the paucity of realistic props in such cases
has not meant the death of stage design. New shows still open
nightly with elaborate sets, and even they allow plenty of
room for the minds of the audience to expand the limits of the
visible. But experiments in how far you can go without sets have
loosened theatrical production in a way that is healthy, if not
always successful. Taking Shakespeare offstage to create Shakespeare in the Park
made Joe Papp famous and led to an assortment of similarly-named
companies across the country. Recently, I went to Tacoma,
Washington, to watch my son perform in one of them, called—either
as homage or sass—Shakespeare
in the Parking Lot.
Tacoma is not a city celebrated for dramatic art. On my only
previous visit, driving through on the way to Mt. Rainer, it
appeared to consist mainly of pawnshops, gun shops, payday
check-cashing services and gambling casinos. I had been warned that
the city was dominated by sulfur odors emanating from the local
paper mills, but I smelled nothing.
This time was different (although again I was warned of the
smells, and again I detected none). The Tacoma branch of the
University of Washington now occupies many of the downtown's old
industrial buildings, in a remarkably robust demonstration of
adaptive reuse. The city's current dominant municipal theme is
glass. The floors of the Hotel Murano are each
devoted to the work of a different glass artist. Dale Chihuly is a
native son, and tourist literature boasts of the “famous Bridge of Glass,” which
fortunately for crossers is not made of glass but is loaded with
Chihuly's work and serves as a walkway to the Museum of Glass,
designed by Arthur Erickson.
Shakespeare in the Parking Lot (SITPL) was conducting a marathon
of Henry IV: Part One, Henry IV: Part Two, Henry
V, Richard II and Richard III. The performances
took place chiefly in a borrowed storefront, frequently spilling
over onto the street or into a nearby parking garage. Whenever the
play moved outside, the audience moved with it, undeterred by rain,
cold or music from the bar next door.
There were no sets and none were needed, the storefront serving
as castle or prison as the plot required. This was not the only
departure from convention. SITPL holds no fidelity to either
Shakespearean tradition or to gender. Richard II is played
in modern dress and with New York accents. Falstaff and Hotspur are
played by women. For me, this made the total suspension of
disbelief impossible. I can't imagine Falstaff as a woman, and
nothing the actor playing him did was any help. Hotspur, on the
other hand, was believable, not only because the talented young
woman who played him delivered her lines so convincingly but also
because she moved with the grace of a dancer or boxer (she was in
fact the person who staged the fight scenes for all the plays.)
But if the casting was sometimes problematic, the action was
unadulterated fun. The last play in the marathon was Richard
III, ending in the battle in which Richard is killed by
Richmond's invading forces. In the Tacoma version, the battle takes
place in the street as hand-to-hand combat. The scene was so
persuasive that someone watching from a window called 911 to
report, “There are about six people fighting in the street and
about twenty others are just standing around, watching them.” (A
squad car was dispatched, but no arrests were made.) When it comes
to verisimilitude, actuals trump visuals every time.
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
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