Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Location, Location

Timur Kocak
ASC Set Designer and Technical Director

The world of a play only begins to take form in the words.  In order for an audience to be drawn in, to suspend disbelief and accept that what is on stage is worth being part of, the creative team must construct a context for the dialogue, a place where characters can come to life.  While the actors and the director will give life to the action, the action must be situated in a physical and atmospheric location that makes sense for that play and the director's vision of it, and it is the set designer who must create the first part of that locale.

For the ASC, the set design relies on Timur Kocak's sense of magic, which, he says, come from a kind of creative flying by the seat of his pants.  "The sets I'm happiest with depend as much on improvisation as any guiding principle," he says.  "I try to create sets that are flexible and, when necessary, invisible."  He aims to have the scenery show off the costumes and keep the audience's attention on the action as it unfolds rather than on his set. 

Many a designer will spend much time discussing with a director what the concept of the play will be, but Colette Rice, the Play Master at ASC, prefers to play to the text rather than to a concept, and the process is a bit different in her collaborations with Kocak, with whom she has been collaborating since 2000. 
Kocak''s last sketch of design and floor painting for Merchant of Venice (2008)

"For example, in the case of MACBETH (2012)," Kocak says; "Colette knew she wanted a stage in traverse, i.e., with the audience on opposing sides; she wanted a bowl of blood and a bowl of water at either end.  It was up to me to come up with set pieces that could create the desired settings: interior, exterior, castle or heath."  If we were outside, the minimal set had to clarify that, and when we were indoors, the set had to bring the audience into the castle.  According to Kocak, to create that effect, he required that floor be painted in colors and patterns that could let the audience imagine a muddy road or the great hall of a medieval castle, and then he worked with Lighting Designer Paul Hudson to get the most out of the effect.  

"All the paint colors and finishes that I use of course depend on lighting for their effect."  In true theatrical tradition, despite coordinated efforts begun well before the rehearsal process began, last-minute adjustments were necessary on Kocak's part.  When lights were fixed, it was clear that he would have to darken the floor and plinths a few degrees. . . "which I achieved with the application of a glaze."

Finding the appropriate set pieces was a challenge for Macbeth because of the director's specificity, but, with perseverance, the set designer triumphed. "It took much searching up and down the Bowery to find large bowls for the blood and water, glass in appearance, but sturdy and resilient.  For the plinths on which the huge bowls rested, I tried to create a faux finish to match photos of the Stone of Scone, which rests below the coronation thrown in Westminster Abbey but comes from the historical seat of Scottish kings, as mentioned in the play's last scene."
Michael Basile as Macbeth, with the Blood Bowl

One of the things Timur Kocak appreciates about working in the West Side Theater is that his sets cannot achieve their desired effect without the engagement of his audience's imagination and their complete submission to the conceit he presents.  He explains, "Settings must be suggested rather than presented in a small space like ours." And, given the vicissitudes of the pursuit of artistic excellence in the economic climate of today, budgets are necessarily small, so the set designer is forced to be more creative.  "I believe," he asserts,"that it is very important not to violate the world of a play.  That is to say that nothing must look, sound or even smell out of place.  If an actor steps onto a platform that is shaped as and painted to look like a tree stump, for instance, it must not sound hollow like a wooden box.  Nor should the smell of cleaner or fresh latex paint intrude on the notion that we are watching say, the French nobility carouse in their camp, the night before the battle of Agincourt."  

"In telling stories," he says, "details are important."   The minutia can make or break an audience's allegiance to the imagery of the scene.  "Small things like zippers and other often misplaced technology, the wrong car (I am from Detroit after all) and even casual contemporary phrases like "you guys" or "...I'm just sayin'... " in a period script can bounce me right out of an otherwise compelling story.  I especially appreciate the show Mad Men for its attention to detail.  I find myself searching every corner of the screen for something from my grandparents' house or wardrobe."  

Mad Men notwithstanding, Kocak believes that large set and costume budgets do not necessarily protect a production from huge mistakes.  The annals of theater and film are rife with those, and Timur Kocak is keeping track.

"My wife has forbidden me from starting my own 'Stage and Screen Historic Anomaly Blog' lest I ruffle the wrong feathers - or just appear silly." 

No theater (or film) director would think him silly. . . continuity matters!

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