A Note on the Scenic Design


by Andrew Meyers

I ran into a friend who had a hand in a recent production of ON THE VERGE in which time travelers journey to the "Heart of 1957." My friend said it was a hoot finding all of these great fifties things: kidney shaped tables, rocket floor lamps, useful items with decorative fins, etc. And what, he asked, was I working on?

Finding the Heart of 857, as it happens.

POPE JOAN is set in and around 857 A.D. in Rome and the Frankish Kingdom. So, quick; close your eyes and tell me what comes to mind when you think of 857 A.D.?

Not much, hunh?

It's a fascinating time period, actually, but it falls between much of what the average American knows about European History, or Art History. The Roman Empire has fallen (but most of what we visualize when we think of Imperial Rome was built hundreds of years before that,); the influence of Byzantium on the west has waned. Islam is just gaining momentum, but the Vatican has yet to be truly influenced by that; the Crusades are still 200 years away. Interesting things are happening architecturally in Persia and China, Peru and West Africa; but their influences won't be felt for half a millennium or more.

So what does the heart of 857 A.D. look like?

A lot like the heart of 357 A.D. to be honest. Many of the public buildings in Rome are left over from the height Empire. More date from the later Christian Caesers, or from the architecturally productive reign of Julian the Apostate. Shortly before Julian's reign, there was a tremendous building boom at the hands of the "new" Christians. Often they would build their new churches on the site of recently abandoned Hellenistic temples. During Julian's short reign (361 - 364 AD), these were converted back to Hellenism, and converted back to Christianity upon his death. A word about these churches: although they were among the largest buildings in Europe at the time, they were nothing like the cathedrals that we can see today. They were in fact basilicas. The Gothic style and the flying buttress were still far in the future. I shall discuss this at greater length when next I update this.

Anyway, the setting for POPE JOAN hinges not on concern for picky architectural details, but on the mechanics of the play. And, boy, are there a lot of mechanics. My friend who I mentioned above said he had enjoyed working on THE GEOGRAPHY OF YEARNING because it covered a lot of ground. He and I are a little bored with the post-Mamet model of plays where three or four characters sit around in a realistic room for two hours. Great for actors, magnificent for great actors; not much fun for designers .... Now Joan has around twenty scenes, a dozen or more songs, two wars, a Papal coronation, a stoning, a burning, a carnival, and several miracles. These things must be taken into account in designing the scenery and lighting, as well as more mundane things like entrances, exits, the orchestra, masking ... and budget.

The basic metaphor for Joan's design is contrasts. Public vs. Private. Power vs. Powerlessness. Holy vs. Wordly. Soft vs. Hard. And not to forget, Male vs. Female.

In order to accomplish this, as well as to accommodate all the traffic that an epic of this size generates onstage, I have designed an early Romanesque backwall that can serve as the exterior of a palace as easily as the interior of a basilica. (Remember, there was not that great divide between the two in 857, at least as far as public architecture was concerned.) It will be a floor- to-ceiling affair with three arches leading upstage, lit in its "holy" mode, it is the architecture of The Church, the house of God, a soaring, spiritual place. Lit in its secular mode, it is the architecture of Raw Power. In fact, it has elements of a basilica in Castlegondolfo, a fortress near the Aachen, and Charlemagne's palace at Aix-la-Chapelle. There is a hallway within the arches, and several banners that will slide around in this hallway, using an ultra-high-tech technique called "The Shower Curtain Drop." Above the central arch, there will be that Romanesque feature, the Lantern; in fact a large circular window. This will have a platform behind it for actors to appear in. At present, its only tenant will be the Holy Ghost. Downstage of the central arch, itself flanked by two huge pillars, there will be a low platform. This will serve to elevate the Papal Throne, and to mask some lights for certain effects (burnings, miracles, coups d'etats, etc.) Downstage of this, there will be several other lines for other "Shower Curtain" effects. Other than a header that sits in front of the proscenium arch, that's about it. Big and Simple. Everything else is done with lights and fog.

Let me say a few short words about colour and composition here. Unlike many musicals or large cast shows, this set does not have many levels. Often directors want several levels so that they may compose interesting stage pictures with their actors. Because of the flatness of Ninth Century art (Medieval art in general, actually) and the ritualistic aspect of so much of the action, the director and the choreographer have chosen more to block the actors more horizontally, in flatter pictures. (Remember, perspective in art is still several hundred years away.) These flat compositions, highlighted in front of the massive architecture ... this is the scenic image for POPE JOAN.

The color scheme is also rooted firmly in the Ninth Century. The Architecture will be in stone and brick colours. Stony grey, stony blue, stony brown, stony tan, and brick. The painted "Shower Curtain" drops will be a little more colorful, but mosaics that were originally quite bright, but have faded in the intervening 1100 years. It is this faded palette that we will be using.

A Word About the Lighting

Because of the shape of the stage, and the lighting inventory of the theatre (and a few other factors either too technical or too tedious to mention here), the lighting for POPE JOAN will be similar to that of a ballet. That is to say, buckets full of sidelight.

High sidelight, low sidelight, sidelight from floor level. There will also be a reoccurring leit motif of single, soft-edged shafts of light shining into a big, empty space. Once I am near a scanner, I will get a couple of pictures in to show what I mean.

Lastly, several people have said, when they have heard about POPE JOAN, "I bet you'll be using lots of stained glass, hunh?" The answer, sadly, is no. Joan, or her legend, had the bad luck to happen about 200 years before the first examples of stained glass as we commonly think of it. In fact, coloured glass had been used in churches since ancient times, but these were more in the way of milky, accidental tints used decoratively, rather than the multi-coloured representational windows of (especially) the Thirteenth Century.

I will be updating this from time to time with source pictures, sketches, and construction drawings. If you would like any more information on this aspect of POPE JOAN, please let me know.

You may leave a message for Mr. Meyers at andrew@orlok.com

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