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Visual Stroytelling

Something that has started to interest me more and more is the way that theatre makers create the visual landscape of the play. How do we read a script and then from that, develop the visual world of the play, drawing on scenery, lights, costumes, and more? The visual world of the play has its roots in the script, but each production augments that script with use of technical elements. A well crafted visual landscape doesn’t just tell the story of the play, but it shapes that story (or else we’d be doing everything a a little black box staged reading). In some plays the visual landscape that designers create is just as crucial to the performance as the script.

I recently saw SpeakEasy‘s New England premiere of Big Fish. According to playwright John August, this particular production was supposed to strip the show down, letting “the audience in on a more intimate version” (Program note). The idea was to take out a lot of the spectacular technical elements so that the show would service the core of the play: a love story between a young man and his father. According to Andrew Lippa (Music & Lyrics), this version “tell[s] the audience from the beginning, ‘We’re not going to show you much. We’re just going to tell you a lot of stuff and let you fill in the blanks,’ it engages their imagination.” And of course, imagination is an integral part of Big Fish. Edward (the father) is constantly telling imaginative stories to his son; it gets to the point where we cannot tell what happened and what did not happen–which is the source of his son’s frustration. In many ways, this play is just as much about imaginative storytelling as it is about a father and son coming to terms with each other.

Big Fish production photo

That is exactly what made me so interested in seeing the play. How was this production going to create a visual landscape that was simultaneously stripped down and incredibly imaginative? How were they going to create a visual landscape that served the story in terms of plot, theme, and symbol? Unfortunately, I can tell you in one word: projections. Granted, I love projections. They are an incredible tool that theaters large and small have been able to really learn about and put to good use within the last decade or so. Unfortunately, projections seemed to be their only tool. As the play went on, it became increasingly clear that the projections were a crutch rather than a storytelling tool. And more often than not, the projections did a disservice to the story. There were a couple of ways this happened. First, projections were used for every scene. So even when the story focused on Will (the character who is most grounded in fact and truth) at home, the projections would be of the home. Not only could we have figured out the location by the bedroom set on stage, but it also would have been thematically relevant to cut the projections around Will.  The point is that he doesn’t project his thoughts or feelings. He is highly logical and literal. Will wouldn’t like the projections because they wouldn’t seem real to him. The fact that the projections existed in the more mundane scenes posed problems for the more fantastical scenes.  By the time we’d gotten to Edward’s imaginative stories, the projections were old hat. Sure the projections around Edward were a little more colorful, but as a storytelling technique, they were no longer interesting. The stories that should have seemed fantastical were brought down by the now seemingly mundane projections. The projections plateaued the story. Had the creative team been more selective about what parts of the story needed projections, they would have been more effective.

The final clash I saw between storytelling and projections was in the scale of the spectacle. For example, in the song “Daffodils” Edward finds Sandra and gives her a bouquet of daffodils, her favorite flower. It is an incredibly sweet idea. But the sweetness of the initial action soon gets swallowed by an attempt at spectacle. The ensemble comes out, each holding their own bouquet and then the projections start showing these spinning daffodils. All of a sudden, I started laughing and I couldn’t contain myself. It was a mockery of a display of love. I’m guessing that this moment should have been breath-taking. If a spectacle is big enough, you hold your breath, not able to believe that someone could create something so huge and wonderful and beautiful. If a moment is small enough, the reality of the situation could likewise take your breath away. You could be touched by the display of a single daffodil flower. Yet, when you try to straddle the line, it is just funny. The cheese factor hits and it is all over. It is neither real nor wonderful; it is simply an ensemble holding flowers and a projectionist who did not dare to move away from the literal act of giving a flower. Perhaps the literalness of the entire thing was funny. In the song “This River Between Us,” where Edward and Will reflect on there fundamental differences (by using a river as a metaphor), the creative team created a river on stage with light and projection. Though this moment should have been meaningful, the river on stage made it trite. It became more about the B level metaphor than it was about the actual relationship. The lights and projections became gimmicks, not storytelling tools. The visual landscape may have projected the words of the songs, but it did not reflect the tone of the story on stage.

I think there is an important lesson to be learned here. Big Fish isn’t hopeless–far from it. The story is a great one, and I think it could translate well on stage with a different imagining. It is important that this is a young musical. It hasn’t been set in stone. Lippa added new music for this production–the play is still growing, so it is not fair to label it as a complete and mediocre musical. Parts of it certainly are flawed, but fortunately they have the next few productions to work those out of the play. The second important lesson is one about storytelling and the tools at our disposal. Just because something like projection is a cool new toy, does not mean that it is the best tool with which to tell a story. A play that its so steeped in imagination should use ever tool in its wheelhouse to keep its audiences engaged. This play does not need to be large scale, but it does need to tell its story with tools that are going to spark the audience’s own imagination. Projected images of the metaphor on stage might not serve this story, but another storytelling technique could, which is why Big Fish could still be a compelling story.

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