Leigh M. Marshall
Director: Erica Vannon
Stage Manager: Amy Wickenkamp
Scenic Design: Courtney Gaston
Lighting Design: Courtney Gaston
Media Design: Courtney Gaston
Budget for this Design Area
Comments by the Designer
In an age when everything we do is watched, where does the revolution begin? Marat’s Dead is an exploration into an abstract world seeded with questions about our responsibilities and relationships to the world around us, pitting duty against passion and history against future. Char Corday and Johnny Marat have met before, but it is unclear whether it was this life or another. Char faces the internal conflict of the repetitive dance between love and death, as she relives her truth that she both loves and must murder Johnny Marat, in every life.
What interested me most about this script was the conversation between past and present when juxtaposed against the constant surveillance of the world around. Time breaks down and the story between these two characters takes place in a loose timestream that oscillates back and forth. It seemed to be the perfect script in which to explore the convergence of media, scenic, and lighting design in order to both push and clarify the abstraction of time; for that reason I was interested in designing all three elements.
As this is such an intimate conversation between two lovers and enemies, it was a natural choice to put it in the laps of the audience. I presented the option of staging this inside of our light lab–a 24-foot by 28-foot dark-walled room– in which we could create an intimate and nearly voyeuristic experience. Integrating media into this became a large research question for me. Throughout my tenure at the University of Iowa, I have often found myself engrossed in the question of how to create a fluid world. In the world of Marat, media is everywhere. It seemed the perfect canvas to explore the manipulation of time with video speed and environment.
I chose to create a projection surface out of a white silk curtain with which I could help the audience understand when we were slipping through time. When in Marat’s bathroom, the curtain is a curtain, bright and textured, but when time breaks, the nebulas and swirling of the universe overtakes the bathroom and we are transported elsewhere, unstuck from reality. In the present, time stretches as water flows into the bathroom, unnaturally slowed on the scattered television screens. Scenically, the bathroom tile ebbs and flows in incomplete chucks, creating the illusion that the fabric of the world is dissipating beneath them. Nothing is complete in this reality. The lighting alludes both to the bright, unforgiving light of a bathroom and the unyielding television studio light that leaves nowhere to hide.
The challenges within this exploration lie in creating complex visuals that are supportive, but not distracting; trying to unify the screen with the reality in a way that transposed the images onto the action within the minds of the audience. Working closely with the director, I worked to integrate these moments into the action onstage to prevent the very real possibility of disconnect between actor and art. It was important to me to connect the video feeds to the emotional cues and tone from the characters. For instance, when Char obsessively searches the tiles for secrets, a distorted image of the same hexagon pattern appears on the screens and at another time, static overtakes the screens as she recounts the events that led to her family’s deaths.
In order to more thoroughly explore this experiment with integrating technology and story-telling, we applied for external grant funding through the Graduate and Professional Student Government. We were granted with research funding which allowed us to be more specific in our scenic materials. I was able to order fabric for our scenic treatments that reacted well with my lighting, along with the ability to execute the broken tile floor with materials purchased from our shop. Those materials were then routed with the CNC machine to create the honeycomb tile pattern. This grant also afforded us the ability to have an abstracted security camera 3-D printed by one of the graduate students in the 3-D Art Department, Huda Al-Aithan. The opportunity to create a more tangible space allowed me to explore the conversation between the design elements, such as the physical hex-tiled floor with the version that appeared on the screens. Without these details, the media would have appeared to be establishing location instead of emotion.
For my media system, I used the Watchout media server in conjunction with two Matrox screen splitters, as well as a 4k Panasonic laser projector. This gave me seven surfaces on which to use digital media. The ability to surround the playing space with screens allowed me to create a changing background that did not pull the audience’s eyes elsewhere as they were behind the action from every angle. I was also able to project pre-filmed surveillance footage from the angle of our 3-D printed “camera” in order to create the voyeuristic environment we were looking for.
In choosing to stage this production in our lighting lab, I had use of a flexible lighting space with enough resources to effectively light the space for an audience that was positioned on both sides of the playing area. Two moving lights also gave me the ability to create several interesting lighting moments for the intense moments of and leading up to the death of Marat. To simulate blood pooling in the bathroom, a red light grew from pin-spot to flood, filling the room with red light as blood swirled in the water on the screens.
With only four days to bring this production to life, it took every member of our team pitching in. It really was an exercise in choosing what could and could not be accomplished in a limited amount of time. I found myself simplifying my design and choosing to focus on visuals and events that would most support the text. This served me well as my original goal was to create a cohesive world. Not having the time to wander down rabbit holes forced me to keep things simple, which in turn gave me more time to consider the conversation that was happening between the visual elements. It became a satisfying exercise in self-restraint and expression.
Copyright 2020 Courtney Gaston