Wednesday, August 1, 2012

That Which Reviews Shall Not Name

(Wouldja look at that get-up? Are those elastic shorts rotated at an impossible ninety degrees from their proper position? Official proof of my lack of design qualifications.)

Critics are writers. When they begin an essay about a play, it's natural for them to gravitate toward what many of them understand most deeply -- the writing -- or what general audiences relate to -- the acting and the directing. Thus design often gets the shaft.

Today, my students and I discussed writing about design. I began class with a series of questions that inform my approach to my own (often wanting) design writing: Where do we see writing about design? When does design get mentioned in reviews, and when does it not? When it doesn't, is that a bad thing? If it is a bad thing, what can we do about it?

In my criticism, I am intimidated by barriers to entry in writing about design. I'm not a "visual person." I've never attempted to design something myself. Before teaching this class at SF State, I'd never even cracked open a design textbook. And then there all the other constraints: limited space in my reviews; limited documentation of design elements such as photos of an entire set or mp3s of a sound design for critics to draw from; limited reader interest (real or as perceived by editors) in an extensive design discussion.

Yet these excuses do little more than justify my complacency and make me a lesser critic. If this class finally forced me to haul a bunch of design books home (and few books are bigger and heavier than design books, which doesn't endear them to my bicycle), then being a teacher has already made me a better writer.

You don't have to be a professional designer to write an informative and provocative piece on design. Writing well about design, I tried to convey to my students, is like writing well in an essay. You have to get specific about your topic, choose the right details and examples, drive your sentences forward with surprising action verbs, and analyze the effect of the device(s) you discuss on the show as a whole. Of course it helps to be familiar with basic vocabulary and design principles, but I, a professional critic, lack much rudimentary knowledge. I try to make up for that with an open mind, a willingness to admit my ignorance and learn, and my powers of observation. I try to apply my belief about design in general to specific devices: that good design treads a delicate balance of serving a director's vision while also making in and of itself a compelling artistic statement without which a show would be incomplete. Still, I have much, much farther to go in my understanding of design.

Recently I attended a stage designer's showcase called "Spotlit" at Gensler, an architecture and interior design firm. The event featured photos, models, and in some cases finished products from set, costume, props, and lighting designers who work all over the Bay Area. Some exhibits, like the props design for Superior Donuts at TheatreWorks, made me marvel at craft:

(These two photos by Mark Tracy.)

Others, like Fumiko Bielefeldt's costume for the title character of M. Butterfly, also at TheatreWorks, made me weep:

And the models, some of the most outstanding, intricately detailed by set designer Erik Flatmo, invited me into the design process in a way that made me think, "Oh, design might not be such an alien world  after all!"

Events like this one are invaluable for me. If Gensler hosts more such showcases, I'd love to see the artists actually talk about their work. Reading about it as if I were at a museum is one thing, but actually talking with the designers is another.

In the meantime, I always have those behemoth books at the SFSU library.

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