Less Is Sometimes Enough

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!”

October 6, 1962 cover of The New Yorker illustrated by Saul Steinberg

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 honed skill.

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, with its minimal set. Photo: woonhian (Flickr)

A staging of Our Town. (photo: Flickr user woonhian under CC license)

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 their houses.

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.

About the Author:

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.