Thursday, September 22, 2011


For my day job, I design scenery and lights and sometimes costumes for theatrical productions at the university where I teach.  It's a good life.  I love doing it and I love being engaged in creative endeavors.  I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in Scene Design from Mankato State University (now Minnesota State University at Mankato).  I also have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre with a dual major in Psychology from Brigham Young University.  In addition to that I have an Associates of Arts and Sciences in Theatre from Ricks College.

When I was majoring in Psychology, I was amazed at how much the early philosophers and theorists in Psychology borrowed from the Greek playwrights and from Shakespeare.  I was also astonished at how much the early 20th century playwrights were influenced from early psychologists, specifically Freud but also others such as Jung.

It was a great opportunity to major in both Theatre and Psychology because I was able to reconcile both interests and relate them to each other.  I am a much better practitioner of theatre today because of my background in psychology than I would have been without it.  I believe the two are absolutely related.

One of the great plays analyzed by Freud was Sophocles, "Oedipus Rex".  I spent a great deal of time in undergraduate school studying Freud's Oedipus Complex and comparing it to not only the original play, but also Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie".  I even wrote a scholarly paper entitled, "Is Tom Wingfield Oedipus?"  My technical writing teacher thought I should flesh it out more and publish it in a professonal journal, but alas I had no confidence back then and didn't do it.  I found the paper about five years ago and reread it.  It's still a good paper.

I have always wished to design the set for Oedipus.  I have been inspired by Josef Svoboda's design for it and wanted to work on this piece.  His design was very symbolic and non-realistic.  It was essentially a coast to coast stairway with some platforms built strategically for acting areas and beam projector lights shooting up in places through a haze fog to create columns.  It was an amazing piece and it was done, I think in the 1920's.  I had always envisioned doing something similar but not copying Svoboda.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to design the set and the lights for Oedipus here at school.  The director, Hyrum Conrad thought it should be more realistic than the Svoboda piece.  When I work on a script, I have to consider it from several points of view.  I have to understand what the playwright felt when he wrote it, what the director felt when he read it, and what I felt when I read it.  If I try to impose something on the director, such as the Svoboda piece, we'll end up with a non-unified production that won't make sense.  I need to work within the concepts the director gives, otherwise the set or other design elements won't fit into the world created on the stage.

The theatre department already had two very large Greek sculptures made of foam rubber of all things.  They were each about nine feet tall.  They were colossal and  I knew I wanted to use them, and in fact I designed the whole set around them.  They were statues of Apollo and Artemus and had been used almost twenty years earlier in Antigone and hadn't been used since.  They had been stored upside down from the grid in the theatre.


The play is set in Thebes, one of the Greek citystates.  Hyrum didn't want the set to be reflective of Athens because that was too stereotypical of ancient Greece, instead he wished to go with some of the more obscure areas in Greece to find the inspiration for the set.  In my research I discovered that in most Greek citystates, the public areas, the seat of government and the temples to the gods were set on the highest hill in the city.  In Athens, that hill is referred to as The Acropolis.  The other Greek citystates also referred to the seat of power in their communities as acropolis' as well.

In most Greek tragedies, there is a chorus, usually made up of the 'elders and wisemen of the village'.  The chorus narrates, chants and interacts with the other characters.  In Greek plays the chorus resides in an area called the orchestra, inbetween the audience and the main actors. 

For my design of Oedipus I wanted to show that relationship, plus I wanted to create an acropolis for Thebes.  My design consisted of a set of stairs, flanked by a pair of winged sphinxes, from the audience to the stage, Oedipus' palace downstage left, a smaller temple to Apollo upstage right, an altar and a statue of Apollo.

The set design
In order to make the set look less Athenian, I took my inspiration from all parts of the Greek world and was inspired by a Greek library in Ephesus.  I based my design for Oedipus' palace on that.  It was a large, multi-story building with very large niches in the exterior walls that held grand sculptures.  For the temple, I found inspiration from many such temples all over Greece.

The temple complex

We hired an art teacher to carve the two large sphinxes.  They were really more eighteenth century sphinxes, based on funerary statues.  The riddle of the sphinx is integral to the story of Oedipus, so we translated the riddle into Greek and then carved it into the front of the sphinx pedestals.


Oedipus is set during the Bronze Age, so I wanted to show alot of bronze in the detail of the palace, suggesting that he who controls the bronze controls the kingdom.  I designed two very large bronze doors for the palace that only opened once, when Oedipus has blinded himself.  The doors were each four feet wide and ten feet tall.  The large doric columns across the front of the palace were each three feet in diameter and sixteen feet tall.  This was a very large set.

Set design tells you all the tangible things about the show, but lighting design tells the audience how to feel.  The great cosmic irony of the play, Oedipus Rex is that those who can see cannot see and those who cannot see can see.  Only when Oedipus has blinded himself does he really see himself for who he is.  I wanted to show this cosmic irony in the lights as well, so as Oedipus zeros in on the secrets of his origins, and becomes more illuminated as to the truth, the stage grew darker.  I did this by showing the passage of time.  The closer he got to the truth, the darker it became onstage.

First cue-full daylight

Second cue-afternoon

Third cue-late afternoon

Fourth cue-late evening

Fifth cue-nightfall

In between each cue, there was a choral ode that we used to show the passage of time.  The odes were to be lit as if they were on another plane or sphere, unworldly.  I used strong blue side light with purple fill and amber in a pattern rotator.  The lights were enhanced by a haze fog so at times they became almost architectural.

Choral ode

My two youngest sons, Rhys and Garrett wanted to be in the show, so they were cast as Polynices and Eteocles, Oedipus two sons.  Things were going great until they learned they were going to have to wear "dresses", girl sandals and have their hair curled.  We explained to them that they were tunics, not dresses and that they looked right for the part.  After they got used to it, they were good sports and did a very fine job in the show.  I was proud of them.

Rhys and Garrett with Seve Isaacs as Oedipus
I am fortunate enough to work in a theatre department that is interested in doing the classics.  This is a play I have wanted to do for my entire career.  It was a labor of love and I'm thankful to have had the opportunity to work on it.

1 comment:

Ashley said...

This was SUCH an awesome set!! :D I really enjoyed this post.