The difference between a good stage production and a great one is design. While it might not be obvious to every audience member, the sets, costumes, sound, and lighting are integral pieces of the play creating atmosphere and context that allow the story and characters to come alive. Christian Fleming, an emerging stage designer who is this year’s USITT Scene Design Award winner, shared some of his thoughts on and approach to design.
The following is an excerpt from the interview:
What is the most important thing to consider when designing a play?
It is important to remember that you are designing a story – a story that unfolds over time. It’s experiential. I work in an audience-centric design approach where the audience factors in every step of the way. Approaching the design through the audience’s experience makes it easier to determine if a design choice is adding context and is clear. It is too easy to get lost in conceptual or thematic ideas and forget that the audience is not in your head but are experiencing everything fresh in the moment. By considering the design in actionable steps (ex: “the audience walks into the theater and then x happens…”) you can distill any intellectualized concepts into the design decisions that support them. Those specific choices about the world and characters create context for the audience dramaturgically framing the production they are about to experience.
Do you think that your audience-centric philosophy stems from your work as a director?
My experience as a director arms me with an intense appreciation for the production process, an intimate understanding of how to tell a story onstage using all the elements available to a production, and a critical eye to be able to see when something might be exciting, but isn’t contributing to dramaturgical clarity. I’ve always enjoyed the world-building process and what I love about theater is that it is a collaborative art form and each production is a fun puzzle to solve together. Each team brings a unique perspective on how the production will reveal new aspects about our world and the human condition. I believe that design, like directing, is all about storytelling, and by extension, I view my job as a designer to make visual storytelling decisions that activate the audience’s imagination.
Activating the audience’s imagination through design is really interesting. Can you elaborate more on how you achieve this?
Part of what excites me about designing theater is the inherent non-literal nature provides a platform for a greater array of expressionistic modes of conveying story. I am fascinated by how a prop such as a red scarf, can be more powerful than the actual blood it signifies because in its transformation into a symbol the scarf activates the audience’s imagination. I carry this directly into my work. I often view my process as one of distillation. I cull inspiration and ideas and strip them away to find the poetic essence of the play. In that process of stripping away, I discover the elements that have the most symbolic power. In pursuit of clarity, I trust in a “less is more” approach to ensure that those main symbolic choices will have great impact.
Do you have a typical process?
There is a sort of standard process most designers go through – reading the script, meeting with the director/team, discussing the themes and high level ideas about the world of the play, culling visual research, and beginning to formulate the design. I find it exciting that each production is different and my process tends to change based on what a particular script “wants.” Part of what drew me to theater design is that it combines many artistic disciplines (drawing, painting, sculpture, architectural drafting, scale model making, 3D modeling, fashion design, graphic design/illustration, photo-manipulation, etc). Often I’ll work in rough sketches and then begin a preliminary model to check the ideas in three dimensions. I find it best to work in a scale model because the true depth and perspective closer mimic what the audience will see. I do, however, see the industry shifting toward a digital practice and have been incorporating 3D modeling, 3D printing, and game engine pre-visualization into my workflow.
Is there a particular production where you discovered something about how you approach the work?
When designing “The Light in the Piazza”, I focused on what was psychologically holding the central characters (Margaret and Clara) back and developed a design that put the incident of Clara’s trauma onstage. Wrestling with the design cemented my understanding of “content dictates form”. I realized I had designed an art installation of the play instead of a world that would allow the action to come to life. The core of the idea was solid, but the execution didn’t match the way the show was written. This lush, sweeping score needed a design that matches it’s refined sophistication and allowed the audience to be transported to the romance of Florence, Italy like the central characters. We, as an audience, are most familiar with scene changes where furniture travels horizontally, so I decided all of the furniture would float in and out because that gesture beautifully matched the feeling of Guettel’s gorgeous score and aligned with the idea of being transported to a new, but familiar romantic world. It was stunning to see scenes end and the furniture of the world slowly float away as strings and harps arpeggiated.
Christian Fleming is certainly a designer who intimately understands how to tell a story and use all the elements available to a production to his advantage and has positioned himself as one of the young designers Broadway’s eyes are keenly watching. Based in Manhattan, Christian looks forward to Broadway’s return and designing sets and costumes both in NYC and regionally. He holds an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama where he trained under noted designer Narelle Sissons. His work has recently been seen at Pittsburgh Festival Opera (Rusalka), Pittsburgh CLO (Game On), and Pittsburgh Opera (Afterwards: Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined).