Adding Some Theater Magic to Your Novel

Lady Macbeth

The set and costume choices used in theater are akin to how authors describe settings and the clothing their characters wear. Everything’s a choice—a tangible one or the words used to describe it. People (readers) evaluate our surroundings and what people wear all the time in everyday life, which puts a burden on writing about them. Are the details we choose meaningful? This is what set and costume designers understand to a fare-thee-well.

Where Are Your Characters? The Setting

Sets and costumes were the topic of my third “How to Watch a Play” class led by Adam Immerwahr, artistic director at Theater J in Washington DC. Sets and costumes give a show its tone and style and help define where and when it takes place. Check Google images for different productions of the same play, and you’ll find “dramatically” different interpretations that serve different dramatic concepts. Authors can use their descriptions in the same way, in order to establish a vision of a person or place in the reader’s mind. Auntie Mame wearing “all her pearls” (tells you everything you need to know about her!) or the foggy treetop setting for Nick Petrie’s escaping hero in Burning Bright.

The big difference is, of course, the theater audience can take in the set and costumes in a glance, whereas a written text works best when it focuses on a few key aspects. Does it matter that the carpet is beige, or is it more important that all the tables and shelves are glass (later to be broken)? Does it matter that the protagonist’s shoes are black, or will it be consequential that those shoes are the aptly-named stilettos? As a reader, I don’t care that a woman’s suit is gray, I care that she hasn’t changed style or color in forty years.

Innumerable specific choices in the set design—the materials used, their color and texture, and whether they appear buoyant or heavy, for example—can be brought into the visual field or, in writing, into the text, to convey not just what a room looks like, but to suggest the kinds of things that have happened there and can happen again.

What Do Your Characters Wear?

To convey a sense of the status and personality of a tale’s characters, costume designers use line, color, fabric, accessories, makeup, and wigs/hair. One of my “unforgettable theater moments” was a costume moment during a Folger Theatre production of Richard III. The cast was dressed all in black, the simple set was heavy and dim. No color at all. As Act II (I think) began, Richard, wearing a black cape, trudged up a short stairway. At the top, he flung open the cape, revealing a spotlit scarlet lining. No question about his murderous intentions! Or think of a Walter Mosley character wearing a wife-beater.

Dressing a character in all black or all white also suggests something about them. White usually implies purity. A bit of counter-costuming often gives Lady Macbeth a long white gown. In one production I saw, she was on stage alone and turned her back to the audience to grip the iron bars of a gate in both hands (thereby breaking gel-packs of fake blood). She ran her hands up and down her torso and, when she turned to face us, the blood-stained white dress was a shocker and, of course, dramatically significant (the pictured costume accomplishes a similar message).

Writers can’t achieve the same visual shock on the page but can always rope in a gobsmacked observer. Next time you go to the theater or watch a well-designed tv show, notice how the choices about sets and costumes shed light on the story and characters. Those skills are there for adaptation in writing. Choices (good, bad, or indifferent) have been made.

Staging and Choreography: Theater Magic

She Loves Me dance

For our deep dive into staging and choreography (generally, on-stage movement), my “how to watch a play” class viewed Roundabout Theatre’s 2016 production of the musical She Loves Me. You’ll recognize the story from its many incarnations, most recently in the film, You’ve Got Mail. Amalia and Georg are clerks in a perfume shop who really get on each other’s nerves. Yet they have the same secret: a pen pal with whom they are falling in love. Each other, of course.

Our class learned a handy theater word during the discussion of this musical, diegetic: Diegetic elements of a production—sounds, singing, dancing, movement—grow out of the story’s narrative. If there’s dancing, the actors know how to dance and know they’re dancing, as when the King of Siam and Anna waltz away to “Shall We Dance?” Quotidian action, by contrast, encompasses the daily, undramatic tasks the actors perform—buttoning a shirt, tying a shoe. The story doesn’t depend on these actions. When the Kyra Hollis character in Skylight makes a spaghetti dinner onstage, she’s engaged in quotidian action. A third type of movement is termed abstract, and it is neither of the others—like the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story singing their anthems while dancing in the streets. A high school classmate of mine scoffed at the film (which I loved passionately) because “guys don’t do that.” Abstract.

Why does analyzing the type of movement matter? Because, explained course director Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington D.C.’s Theater J, “it forces you to think about the purpose of the choreography (movement),” and what that choice conveys about the mood, the character, the story’s time and place, or even the plot. When an actor puts a gun in a desk drawer, you know that weapon’s coming out again. Or, recall the movement created by the turntable in Hamilton. Why did the creators choose to have that? To me, all that swirling expressed the turmoil of the era, the passage of time, and the evolution of multiple characters’ relationships.

When deconstructed for our class, the patterns of movement in She Loves Me turned out to be unexpectedly intricate, creating satisfying, if subliminal, messages. Movement—even abstract movement—needs to be motivated, which means that actors can move on certain lines, but moving on other lines will create confusion. As Amalia is about to meet her pen pal, her movements in “Will He Like Me?”—alternately walking forward and backtracking—were timed perfectly to the anticipation and hesitation expressed in the lyrics.

A musical typically has a lot of staging and choreography, but even the two-person play Red we watched had a lot of movement (much of it diegenic). In fact, with only two actors, movement is critical to keeping the story going and the audience interested. Staging helps the audience know where to look, as characters emerge in prominence and others melt into the background. And some staging is created just for the beauty of the composition. Nothing wrong with that.

If you’d like to take one of these excellent courses, check out the Theater J website. New classes are starting soon!

A Christmas Carol

Greg Wood as Ebenezer Scrooge; photo: T. Charles Erickson

This is the third season for McCarter Theatre Center’s most recent and most joyous version of A Christmas Carol, its delightful return to Christmas in the Age of Dickens. Opening night was December 7, and this sparkler of a show, based on playwright David Thompson’s adaptation and directed by Adam Immerwahr, runs through December 29.

Immerwahr’s intent when he took on this holiday staple was to explore how Scrooge’s redemption “isn’t just the redemption of one man . . . when a person changes, it can transform an entire community.” His version is filled with songs from what Immerwahr calls “the treasure trove of terrific Christmas music of Dickens’s era.” Even some carols not used explicitly have “become part of the underscoring of the play,” whose music was composed by the late Obie-award winning composer Michael Friedman.

The show exemplifies McCarter’s goal of celebrating creativity, community, and diversity in the presence onstage—and before the curtain, in the lobby and theater aisles—of a cheerful community ensemble of 26 adults and a dozen children. The entire audience is involved in singing the opening carol, and probably no one in the audience avoided beaming and foot-tapping during the Fezziwigs’ Christmas party, with its exuberant, full-cast dance.

Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Greg Wood) has never said “Bah! Humbug!” with more feeling, Bob Cratchit (Jon Norman Schneider) has never been more patiently put-upon, and the rest of the cast, mostly playing multiple parts, is as lively as ever, bringing Dickens’s memorable characters wonderfully to life.

The familiar tale of a miser’s comeuppance is all there. The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds him how he gave up his youthful opportunities for happiness in order to pursue wealth; the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him how others, especially the Cratchits, live; and the Ghost of Christmas Future presents a frightening scenario that causes him to vow to change. Old Marley’s ghost (Frank X) is particularly effective and delivers my favorite line, the sententious “I wear the chain I forged in life.I made it link by link and yard by yard.” The early dark scenes change to light as Scrooge wakes Christmas morning a reformed man.

Underscoring the production’s goal of community engagement is the scheduling of a sensory-sensitive, relaxed matinee performance on December 28, to enable a wider range of people to enjoy a live performance. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Greg Wood as Ebenezer Scrooge; photo: T. Charles Erickson

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has long been a staple of family holiday celebrations in Central New Jersey. Even 18 years  after the previous version premiered, the show routinely drew huge crowds during its December run. Still, it was time for a new approach, and the revamped 2016 production has been eagerly anticipated.

Director Adam Immerwahr sought a solid Victorian England vibe for this sparkling new production, which premiered December 10 and runs through December 31. Immerwahr’s intent was to explore how Scrooge’s redemption “isn’t just the redemption of one man . . . when a person changes, it can transform an entire community.”  Then he filled it with songs from what Immerwahr calls “the treasure trove of terrific Christmas music of Dickens’s era” (carol playlist). Even some carols not used explicitly have “become part of the underscoring of the play,”  whose music was composed by Obie-award winning composer Michael Friedman.

The show manages to be both different with fresh sets and staging and familiar, retaining the adaptation by award-winning  playwright David Thompson. Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Greg Wood) has never said “Bah! Humbug!” with more feeling, Bob Cratchit (Warner Miller) never more patiently put-upon, and the rest of the cast, mostly playing multiple parts, never more lively, including: Fred/Undertaker (JD Taylor), Lily/Belle (Jamila Sabares-Klemm), Mrs. Dilber (Sue Jin Song), Fan/Miss Kate (Kelsey Carroll), Solicitor Matthew/Young Scrooge (A.J. Shively), Solicitor David/Mr. Fezziwig (Lance Roberts), Mrs. Cratchit (Jessica Bedford), and Mrs. Fezziwig/Lady Char/Laundress (Anne L. Nathan). Dickens’s work is stuffed with memorable characters and many parts amount to a cameo, but all were quite up to snuff.

The familiar tale of a miser’s comeuppance is all there, how the Ghost of Christmas Past (Ivy Cordle) reminds him how he gave up his youthful opportunities for happiness in order to pursue wealth; the Ghost of Christmas Present (Mimi Francis) shows him how others, especially the Cratchits live now; and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Elisha Lawson) lays out a frightening scenario that causes him to vow to change. Old Marley’s ghost (Frank X) is particularly effective (frightening a child sitting in front of me) and has my favorite line from the story, the sententious “I wear the chains I forged in life.” The early dark scenes change to light as Scrooge wakes Christmas morning a new man.

A Christmas Carol

photo: T. Charles Erickson

The cast is augmented by a 27-member community ensemble, which greets theatre-goers, carols and rings bells from the stage, the aisles, and the boxes, and dances exuberantly! Members of this adult group, plus a dozen-member children’s ensemble were recruited through partnerships with ten local organizations and schools. The entire audience becomes involved, with the singing of a carol at the beginning and end of the performance.

Also underscoring the community nature of this production are the theater’s plans for sold-out Fezziwig Parties, a drama workshop for children on the theme of kindness and generosity (called Cratchit Kindness) on December 28, engagement of local businesses in developing unique refreshments for patrons, as well as its usual audio-described and American Sign Language interpreted performance (December 17) and an open captioned performance (December 18).

Production credits to Daniel Ostling (set design); Charles Sundquist (musical direction); Darron L. West (sound design); Lorin Latarro (choreography); Linda Cho (costumes); Lap Chi Chu (lighting); Jeremy Chernick (special effects); Gillian Lane-Plescia (dialect coach).

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.