The Real Show is Backstage

On Friday I got the opportunity to film and document backstage during Pomegranate Jam. I was really excited to see how the shadow ballet is performed to produce the amazing show of shadows and light the audience sees.

The curtain onto which the shadows are cast during Pomegranate Jam is right at the front of the stage, so all the performers have the full stage that they would’ve had if it wasn’t a shadow performance, but all of their movements are completely altered. The closer to the light source or the back of the stage, the more mammoth the actors figures’s become, the closer the actors are to the curtain, the more life-size the figures.

All of the puppetry was done with small puppets right up against the curtain and all of the dance sequences with the actors was also performed in the restricted space right at the front of the stage. The only times the actors were towards the light projector and the back of the stage was to produce specific moments of grandeur.

All of the scenery is projected onto the curtain with a classroom overhead projector. The colorful gels/sheets and dark roots that make up the different scenes are all backwards to the tech member controlling the scene. She has to reach around carefully to push up the flowers of spring towards her so that her arms and body don’t cast an unwanted shadow.

Tricks that seem difficult to fathom from the audience become simple as you see that a bowl of water spun over the projector creates the eerie scenery for one of the climatic scenes of the show. Actors can also disappear by lying down flat on the stage so that they no longer cast a shadow on the screen/curtain.

Being backstage for Pomegranate reminded me of being on stage during orchestra performances and thinking that it’s infinitely more interesting seeing the conductor’s face rather than their non-expressive backs. I think many audience members would be shocked to see the facial expressions that help produce beautiful music. Far fewer people would ask what it is a conductor “does” if they could see from the performers’s side of the stage.

Performing in Pomegranate Jam means not knowing what the show looks like from the audience. This is true of any production, but there is something about producing shadows with the actions on stage rather than just acting on stage that adds an element of mystery to the performers and for the performers. During the tech day for the show, while trying to figure out all of the technical issues and transitioning between cues, people kept running out in front of the curtain to see what they were doing actually looked like from the audience, to ensure that what they were doing translated well to the audience to tell the story.

Every person that helps produce the show of Pomegranate Jam knows exactly where they need to be at every moment to not miss any of their cues and to also not be in anyone else’s way. The show is a shadow ballet performed for the audience, but there is also a kind of dance happening backstage to produce the show.

I enjoyed watching Pomegranate Jam from the audience, but if I had a choice, I would much rather be backstage to see how the show comes together.

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Dimensional Documenting

Theater is three-dimensional.

An obvious statement, yes, but I didn’t realize how three-dimensional until I was behind the camera documenting CalArts’s productions. The camera immediately transforms the live three-dimensional performance into a two-dimentional representation of the performance.

Actors move their bodies around the entire stage and project their voices out to the audience. The performance through the display on the screen on the camera is flattened. Glancing between the screen and the stage it’s apparent how much the representations that we’re creating for the archive is just that, representations. Performing Arts like theater and music and dance don’t happen in mediums that can be stored for perpetuity. Recordings, photographs, manuscripts, etc are not the mediums of performing arts, but these are the mediums that libraries, archives, and museums are able to house.

Video recordings seem to come the closest to seeing a performance live. We had four days of documenting at Venue 13, the dress rehearsal and three performance days. The shows have not remained the same over the small time that we have captured and the shows will continue to change after we’ve left. The changes come from technical issues being worked out, to actors being more familiar with the space, to how much an audience laughs at a joke, and many other reasons that add up to each recording we collected being it’s own individual document. There are four recordings of each of the shows, but they are in no way identical and no recording is any more truly representative of the performance, of the piece. Each recording is an individual documentation of an individual performance while also being one instance of a show. They are connected and related, but not identical.

Yellow Fever, Kaspar, and Victims of Influence are all flattened, but it is easy to imagine the depth that exists when you are sitting in the audience of the live stage. Yellow Fever and Victims of Influence have the action of the shows fully on the main stage and within the world of the stage which was easy to set up a camera to document. As long as the entire stage is in the frame the show is being captured.

Kaspar mostly happens on the stage, but there are many entrances from the back of the house (audience) and then along the side up to the stage. For one performance we tired to set up a camera to capture the actors’s entrances as well as the main stage, but the video is basically just black as there are no lights on them when they enter. In a live viewing the minimal light from the stage allows you to see them, but cameras are not human eyes and do not have good night vision, even if cameras are getting better at capturing images in low light.

Things from Before has a beautiful set. There are picture frames of various sizes hung at different heights all along the edge of the stage. It looks stunning live to see the actors within the room that is the stage and then looking through the picture frames out to the audience to deliver lines or to look out into the yard of the house. As beautiful as it is though, it suffers from the flattening effect of the camera. The actors and picture frames interacting in the video don’t have the same depth that you can see live.

There is only one show that is exempt from the strange flattening out through the camera, Pomegranate Jam. Pomegranate Jam is a shadow ballet and therefore the normally three-dimensional aspect of theater is already switched to two-dimensions for the live audience. The shadows are cast by puppets and actors themselves onto the screen that lies in between the stage and the audience.

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A Magical Tour

I love reading for the same reason that I love traveling: I love seeing life through a perspective that isn’t my own. When traveling I like to see the different quirks that exist in all the new towns and cities that are different from the ones I’m used to. Seeing if people diligently wait at lights for them to turn green or if, like in Edinburgh, they press the buttons that they want to cross and then completely ignore the lights to j-walk across streets when there is a good enough gap between cars. Reading gives you a chance to uniquely see perspectives through the eyes of another person, even if they are a fictional character. My experiences in Edinburgh so far have been able to combine both my love of traveling and my love of reading.

The first event that I’ve had the privilege of attending of the Fringe Festival was The Potter Trail, a walking tour of the city to show all of the Harry Potter related sights in the city, places where J.K. Rowling wrote the books as well as various things and places that inspired aspects of the books. In my independent travels that I did before the program started I had seen a couple of the sights already. I had seen The Elephant House, a cafe that describes itself as “The Birthplace of Harry Potter” and knew that there were a couple of gravestones that Ms. Rowling got names from in Greyfriars Kirk’s graveyard – I hadn’t found the names, but I knew they were there somewhere.

The tour not only connected the fictional world of Harry Potter to inspirations from the real world of Edinburgh, but gave some history of the city of Edinburgh. For example, J.K. Rowling got Professor McGonagall’s name from the Poet, William McGonagall’s gravestone. This poet was given the unofficial title of “worst poet ever” and was generally not very well liked. At one point during his life he allowed people to pay to see him recite poetry and throw rotten fruit and such at him and his face. When one of the first health and safety laws was put into place outlawing this practice, William McGonagall wrote an angry poem stating that the law was taking away his livelihood.

I have greatly enjoyed experiencing this wonderful city through the perspective of one of my favorite fictional worlds and can’t wait to see other aspects of the city through other Fringe Festival events and by exploring more independently.

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