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Bob Bernard's Corner--Setting the Scene

"Scoping a Scrim"

Robert Wilson, the Stage Director for Einstein on the Beach, is known to be a stickler for detail, one who controls the tiniest element of a scene, going down to how an actor’s hand is held and illuminated. And, at the other extreme, his purview also covers large-format displays, even those which are merely peripheral to the typical theater experience.

As a beginning point-of-reference, many of us attended the Met's March 2 HD transmission of Parsifal, which included many instances of stagecraft that utilized a striking combination of front and rear projections:

Photo: Ken Howard for the Met

And, for LAO's production of The Flying Dutchman, we viewed other bits of stagecraft that utilized similar technology. Pictured below is Daland's crew as their ship approached land:

Photo: Larry Merkle for San Francisco Opera

The above examples are polished, finished products. Going back a few years, the following discussion details the preliminary work which Wilson went through in the preparation for just one fleeting stage image.

At the intermission of Wilson’s Madama Butterfly, those of us who returned to our seats early enough were able to settle back and allow the carefully crafted ambiance of the stage, as it was projected out into the theater, to envelope us and prepare us for what was to come.

Long before the house lights dimmed and Maestro Dan Ettinger returned to the podium, there was much for the audience to absorb. What we saw was a scrim, the initial impression of which for almost everyone being, undoubtedly, that of a collection of black, horizontally oriented swatches of amorphous shapes, all on a white background. The color of black, of course, having the connotation of death.

The basic construction of the scrim was conventional, it being made of white honeycomb cotton. The lighting was also conventional: The stage was lit from behind, with no lighting directly striking the scrim (This would have reduced its translucency). The sparse set, with its rock and chair, was clearly visible.

Photo by Malko Nezu, then Design Assistant at LA Opera

What was not conventional was the design painted on the scrim.

The images on the scrim, random in appearance, 'set the scene' most dramatically. Using a technique reminiscent of traditional Japanese Sumi-E line brush drawings, images had been painted on the scrim with dry, ruff, uneven strokes --- strokes largely devoid of energy. They conveyed feelings of uneasiness and turmoil. One could not help but feel disturbed while looking at them. They set the scene for the tragedy that was to come.

For a close-up view of this scrim, both its genesis and its construction particulars, we had a conversation with Stephanie Engeln, Set Designer for both Parsifal and Madama Butterfly and a frequent collaborator with Robert Wilson.

The original design image for the scrim was created by Robert Wilson himself in Paris in 1992. He, with a single gesture, applied color to a lithograph stone, and it was from this abstract lithograph that the graphic design model was generated. Below is the graphic design model, as given to the painter:

Image courtesy of Stephanie Engeln

 And the following photograph shows LAO's scrim being painted in Mr. Wilson's Paris workshop:

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Engeln

From lithograph design ... to graphic design .... to workshop painting ....... to transport and installation in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion: A product of many minds and many skills, plus a journey of thousands of miles.

Quite a story for a scrim used at intermission time.

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Acknowledgments:

1) Thanks to Set Designer Stephanie Engeln for graciously providing the photo images of the Butterfly scrim, and thanks to Barbara Donner, then Manager of Artist Services for LAO, for effecting the communication link with Ms. Engeln

2) May Wang provided the in-depth analysis of the artwork on the scrim.

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Author: Judy Lieb
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