January 31, 2011
#3—Frankenstein & Friends

Usually, the scenic design—whether I’m doing it or working with a designer—is about the last thing that gets finalized. And yet I have enormous anxieties until I have a clear sense of the visual field of the action. In a sense, a play is a dream, and even the most bizarre dreams are generally planted—though it may shift radically—in an environment so specific its edges may cut.

So with Frankenstein, I’ve been spinning my wheels. There are lots of technical considerations: The seats will be set on a wide angle, so the downstage verticals of the set frame (we’re using our 10x8X8 aluminum frame that supports both set and lighting) can’t block the view of the rear projection screen at the back. We need side and rear masking for entrances. We need a rolling table to support the toy-theatre images, the corpses, etc., and some way to get it on and off stage. We need a low “playboard” in front to anchor the reality of the puppets. We need enough simplicity to allow for touring.


But what’s the essential visual metaphor? The swooping, stained sailcloth of The Tempest made a powerful statement both of movement and of stasis & decay. For a time I was playing with the idea of acrylic mirrors—large, sterile plastics that reflect Victor back onto himself, us back onto ourselves. The weight and fragility of the material, easily scratchable, would make it a nightmare for touring—we’d done something similar years ago for The Shadow Saver—but finally it felt too clinical, too high-test high-tech. It’s not a piece about the wonders and dangers of modern science; it’s about a young man, appalled at the idea of death, whose invention is cobbled together in the garage or basement.

We had a huge plastic tarp that we’d taken on our one trip to Burning Man. Heavy, slightly textured, grimly industrial. That was the basis of the set fabric, hung flat in not-quite-symmetrical rectangles. We tested it for fire resistance; it seems to work ok. At S.C.R.A.P., a San Francisco outfit that recycles old crap for art projects, I bought a sack full of—well, it’s black rubber sheeting that some sort of decorative shapes have been stamped out, animals or flowers, maybe. I’m exploring ways of affixing this to the tarp fabric as texture—dark gray on a lighter and shinier gray. Things created, things missing.

Another element also derived from salvage. In our little community, there’s a “FreeCycle” website whereon people offer things for free. We’ve gotten doors, computers, rugs, etc., and also dumped a few good-riddances. Someone advertised what amounted to five large garbage bags of foam rubber, a puppeteer’s godsend. But after picking it up, I was disappointed to find that it was in 18″ squares, an inch and a half thick, and all blue.


Oddly, there was something about the blueness—I don’t know why—that called to mind an performance-art installation I’d seen long ago focused on a Coleridge poem: small sculpted figures crawling along a walkway, dangling from the ceiling, etc. That image had found its way into one of our unpublished novels. Now, suddenly, I saw blue figures crawling along the pipes of our aluminum frame, frantic to get somewhere. The color gave life to the dismal hangings. I had serious doubts about my skills as a foam-rubber sculptor, but I had plenty of material to practice on, and after a while they started to look adequately human.

For a while, I had thought of using words or word fragments lettered on the set, as we did with Tempest, perhaps the magic spells that Victor tries unsuccessfully in his creation of life. But in starting to play with the blue figures, I started to see more of a focus on the human figure. This crystallized in a discussion with Hob, our toy-theatre designer, who was concerned that his figures might be too much out of style with the other puppetry. Part of the solution, I felt, was to use enlarged outline shapes based on these two-dimensional figures—spray-painted reverse silhouettes—on the flat panel hangings. That’s only roughly indicated on the model. The same motif will be used on a black scrim hung in front of the rear projection screen, disappearing when there’s a projection but at other times bringing the rear of the stage into more organic relation to the rest of it.

And the red fabric emerging from a crack between two levels of the front masking? Well, Frankenstein is about death and birth. So that’s for shock value.

So now we’re just starting the build. The aluminum frame is up, and Elizabeth has some engineering adaptation to do, some of the “sticks” being re-drilled for different locations. I’m building the rolling platform, and we’re about to start the cutting on our 18×24 ft. tarp. For me, cutting into anything is high anxiety—there’s no turning back. I feel a lot more confident with words or potter’s clay.

Next week I’ll post some of our story-board.


The rest of life gallops apace. We’re about to finish the first draft of a new screenplay with our friend Arturo Castillo, and the characters are really finding a life of their own, I think. We continue work on our memoir, scheduled for August publication. We’re pleased to be invited to perform Hands Up at the FURY Factory Festival in San Francisco in June. And I’m about to start the sculpting on Victor.

Several days ago we drove down to Marin County to see an evening of short plays presented by Tamalpais High School’s extraordinary drama program. Two of our playlets from Rash Acts were on the bill—two of the most difficult ones, in fact—and we were very pleased to see their work. There’s always something surprising. And this week we’ll be talking via Skype with a drama class in Auburn, Alabama—a lot easier than driving. They use Rash Acts as a text.

Enough. More next week.

—Conrad Bishop