Standby: An Approach to Theatrical Design

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en Limba Engleză Paperback – 18 May 2022
A groundbreaking philosophy of design for the stage
Standby proposes a practical philosophy of contemporary theatrical design that addresses all design disciplines, all theatrical collaborators, and all forms of theatre, from the traditional to the avant-garde. In a field that is too often dismissed as purely technical, Joshua Langman celebrates design as a transformative force with the power to elevate a performance and enable it to resonate beyond the bounds of its physical production. Beginning with the proposition that design contributes essential layers of meaning to an experience, Standby argues for a unique approach centered on the creation of revelatory theatrical moments.
In a mission to illuminate the soul of the craft, Langman investigates the purposes of design, details the elements of a production concept, uncovers the mechanics of creating meaning, explores the relationship of theatrical design to fine art and art history, and offers practical guidance on designing productions. He also considers what has changed as designers have embraced digital technology and suggests fifteen concrete methods for preserving the magic of live theatre in a digital age. Blending scholarship and storytelling, personal experience and contrarian wisdom, Standby challenges theatre-makers to harness the rich dramatic potential of theatrical design.

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ISBN-13: 9780809338443
ISBN-10: 0809338440
Pagini: 378
Ilustrații: 4
Dimensiuni: 127 x 203 x 30 mm
Greutate: 0.54 kg
Ediția: First Edition, 1st Edition
Editura: Southern Illinois University Press
Colecția Southern Illinois University Press

Notă biografică

Joshua Langman has designed lighting, sound, and projections for Ensemble Studio Theatre, Summer Shorts, La MaMa ETC, the Jim Henson Foundation, singer/songwriter Cidny Bullens, Brooklyn Gypsies, the 52nd Street Project, and many others. He originated the theatrical design program at Talent Unlimited High School in Manhattan, and he has lectured and facilitated workshops on design at Carnegie Hall and other venues. Langman is a faculty member at the Kean University Theatre Conservatory, where he teaches theatrical design. Standby is his first book.



Theatrical designers make meaning. From a length of fabric, a ray of light, and a few bars of music we are able to coax elevated slices of experience that transform the people who witness them. We do so not in an alchemist’s workshop or a witch’s lair but in the most turbulent of environments, that of the theatrical production process. Designers draft schematics through the long hours of the night, load in a production over the course of several twelve-hour days, cue the piece in a frenzy of political negotiation and logistical problem-solving, and are expected, in the midst of the maelstrom, to create art. The remarkable thing is that we do it. In spite of working in the least contemplative of circumstances, contending always with the steadily approaching deadline of opening night, we can sometimes succeed in finding the heart of a play and touching the souls of our patrons. It is the rare designer, however, who can explain how this came about or how to reproduce it. Too often our methods remain mysterious even to ourselves. When we look back at our process from the vantage point of a finished work, we can no longer see our footprints: they have been effaced by our detours and reversals and by the footprints of our collaborators who wandered the same terrain. It is a profitable thing to become lost now and then, but it is also worth developing a finely tuned sense of direction, calibrated to the metaphysical realms of art and meaning, in order to deepen our awareness of the mechanics of our work.

When a designer makes a decision, it is most often based not on theory but on intuition. Actors and directors work on intuition as well, but they have backup plans. When a performer’s instincts fail her, she can rely on Stanislavski, Meyerhold, Hagen, Brecht, Laban, Viewpoints theory, Moment Work, improvisation technique, and any number of other frameworks that provide her with an array of tools for thinking about performance. Designers do not have such a wealth of theories to back us up. When we find that our intuition has failed or misled us, we have nowhere to turn. Even when our choices prove effective, we may be unable to explain why they are so, because the field has not given us the language with which to do so. If our aim is to contribute our vision, our intellect, and our sweat to the institution of theatre, we must possess an understanding of design that runs deep in our bones, that manifests itself not only in intuitive bursts of insight but in considered, thoughtful engagement with the fundamental questions that guide our work. Of course, as much as we need frameworks, we also need fire. We need the wild, irrational yearning that drives us to build worlds that never were, housing stories that could never be. We need the will to give ourselves over to the spirit of the theatre, and we need to know the magic words that will invoke the spirit on behalf of our audiences. The fire, we can assume, is an old friend to those who work in the theatre. It may need occasional fanning or stoking, but it is seldom cold for long. The frameworks, on the other hand, are often in need of more deliberate maintenance and may not be amongst our allies at all until we choose to go in search of them.

More colleges and universities than ever before now offer courses in theatrical design. Design has matured — or, perhaps, been coerced into evolving — from a trade or handicraft into an academic discipline. Yet it is a discipline without a foundational model. I propose one here: a practical philosophy of theatrical design for the makers of the modern theatre. Standby consists of a set of intellectual tools that are intended to promote a deliberate and strategic use of theatrical design. It models the logic that underpins effective designs, to explain what makes good design good and to distill a set of metrics by which to gauge the success of a design. This is a book for those who wish to deepen their engagement with the craft and especially for those who wish to become more discerning designers, collaborators, or patrons of the theatre.

The craft of theatrical design exists to serve the needs of a performance: there is no such thing as design for design’s sake. This is widely known but frequently misunderstood, resulting in a notion of design as decorative rather than structural, like the friezes adorning classical edifices or the Beaux-Arts filigree of Broadway theatres. But design no more decorates a work of theatre than acting decorates a play or singing decorates a musical. Like the craft of performance, design is structural. The integrity of the theatrical event depends on it. Unfortunately, because the design disciplines are so often conflated in the minds of theatre-makers with the technical trades that support them, the potential of design for articulating the spirit of a play and invoking the humanity of our audiences can be forgotten. Designers struggling to get the job done are more likely to find themselves haggling over the allotment of line-sets or the distribution of headset channels than asking one another such questions as “What secret is hiding in this text, and how can we reveal it?” or “How can you and I together lift the experience of this play into the wondrous?” Given that the chief aim of just about any work of theatre is to suggest emotional resonances that transcend the boundaries of its physical production, this is a problem.

I contend that a little bit of theory — a bit of practical philosophy, if you will — can release us from the limitations of our own thinking and help us renew our connection with the essential spirit of the theatre and the purpose of our craft. We need fire to spur us to dream; we need disciplined practice to ensure that our work honors the promise of our dreams; and we need theory to lead us from one to the other. Transportive design work — design that convinces us, beguiles us, troubles us, dares us, tempts us, enthralls us, terrifies us — weaves together philosophy and artistry, concept and technique, until they can no more be distinguished than the performer in Yeats’s poem can be distinguished from her craft:
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

This is the heart of Standby: an approach to design in which dreams, philosophies, and otherworldly visions live alongside costume fittings, focus calls, and preshow check routines. None of these is sufficient on its own. But in the confluence of wild fancy, meticulous artistry, and rigorous conceptual logic, we may discover an approach to design that pushes us to reconsider a too-often restricted view of what designers can accomplish in the theatre.

Many of the ideas in this book are new or newly framed. Others are ancient. I have given some old ideas new names, new contexts, and new conceptual models in an effort to express them with greater clarity and detail. My approach builds on the writings of those who have gone before, notably the turn-of-the-century pioneers Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, the early-twentieth-century Broadway designer Robert Edmond Jones, and the contemporary scenographer Pamela Howard. I also draw on the work of many talented and visionary designers who have never written about their ideas, leaving only their designs to speak on their behalf. But design on its own is not enough; design, like theatre as a whole, creates and responds to the living discourse of human society. It is for this reason that Standby invokes the words of playwrights, actors, and directors, as well as concepts from the fields of poetry, literary criticism, music, mathematics, logic, fine art, history, and science. These fields have sometimes proven articulate when the native language of design is lost for words. My work differs from that of earlier design theorists in that it is current, taking into account the unique moment in theatre history in which we are privileged to live; it is holistic, embracing all design disciplines, including those that are new to the canon, as well as the full diversity of contemporary theatrical practices; and it is rooted in my own experience of making theatre. It is an approach for our time, for our theatre, and I present it here in the hope that it proves useful to others.

My aims are simple. First, I wish to raise the possibility that theatrical design is an intellectual discipline worthy of serious inquiry. In spite of increasing attention from universities, theatrical designers continue to operate more like members of a preindustrial craft guild than like a contemporary network of practitioners. Theatrical design may be one of the last great craft traditions whose accumulated body of knowledge is basically oral. Wisdom is passed from masters to apprentices and rarely disseminated in print. The scraps of understanding that do make it into written form so often fail to get at the heart of the craft: texts on the subject are either entirely technical in nature or else so inordinately academic and theoretical as to be foreign to the experiences of actual designers. A middle ground is sorely needed.

Second, I wish to provide working designers with a practical framework for conceptualizing what they do. To this end, I have laid out an open-ended philosophy of theatrical design, informed by the history of the craft as well as my own experiences as a designer and a teacher of design. I give names to concepts that have historically been only intuited so that designers can articulate, justify, and analyze the choices they make in relation to a shared understanding of how design works. Finding the words with which to explain the emotional, intuitive process that results in a lighting shift, a paint color, or a fabric texture is far from easy. But unless we can do so, we have no credibility. Designers — new designers, especially —need a theory or two because theory is the glass through which we can best see what we have done and what we have failed to do.

Third, I wish to help designers discover a renewed sense of purpose and a deeper appreciation for the theatre and the craft of design. The theatre is a place of wonder, and design can flourish only when that wonder is kept alive. The same, of course, can be said of acting, playwriting, directing, and theatregoing. Wonder is the antidote to mundanity, and mundanity is the enemy of art. So long as we remember that the theatre is a special place, we will be all right. It is the excitement, the awe, the sense of adventure that are most important to our work — and most under threat when the deadline approaches and the backdrop is not yet painted. But in the end, we can do without the backdrop. We cannot do without the wonder.
Standby is a book about theatrical design. It is not a book about stagecraft, technical theatre, stage management, or any of the other trades and endeavors that support the work of the designer. Ironically, it is for this reason that I hope carpenters, electricians, painters, and stagehands will come along for the ride. If your job entails executing the dictates of designers, you may gain a new appreciation for the reasoning behind those dictates. If your expertise lies in working with cloth or lumber, I hope to remind you that you are also working with anticipation, surprise, discovery, belief, conflict, vindication, loss, and all the other immaterial essentials of which theatre is made.

Standby is concerned with all of the disciplines of theatrical design — scenic design, lighting design, sound design, costume design, projection design, and any others that may show up from time to time — as well as all of the applications of theatrical design, including drama, musical theatre, experimental theatre, opera, dance, puppetry, live cinema, storytelling, performance art, concerts, immersive installations, and other forms of performance. The design process for each form possesses its own rules, conventions, nomenclature, goals, and problems. Designing the set for a classical opera and designing the set for an immersive movement piece are two very different tasks, but they are both theatrical design, and I attempt to do justice to both of them in this book. Creators working in any of these forms can learn much from their counterparts in adjacent fields, and it is my hope that the frameworks and approaches described herein will be of some use regardless of what branch of the performing arts you may call home.

Much of the text is written from the perspective of a designer — in many cases, from the perspective of the production table, center section, halfway back — to help readers identify with the role of a designer working on a production. This is not to suggest that the text is meant for designers alone. On the contrary, our clubhouse door, like the doors of all the truly great theatres, is open to all. Similarly, I assume throughout a basic familiarity with theatre in general and at least a minimal knowledge of stagecraft and design, but a lack of such knowledge should not deter anyone from venturing into the following pages. Experience is less important than motivation.

If you are a veteran of the theatre, you are welcome here. This book is for you. If you are a student of design, this book is for you too. If you are a patron of the arts or a curious onlooker, come right in. If you are a carpenter, electrician, scenic painter, or costume artisan, by all means join me. And if you have never slung a wrench or wielded a paintbrush, you too will be at home here. If you are a playwright, director, producer, stage manager, or dramaturg, it is my hope that much in here will be relevant to your work. Actors, too — pull up a chair. Because we all deal with the raw materials of theatre —text, movement, space, and time — we are all, in some sense, designers. We also bring to our work considerably different training, perspectives, and priorities; and though you may be here today to learn about design, any good designer will be eager, in different circumstances, to learn from you.

Design can seem sometimes to be a rather rarefied profession, a pastime for those who have the luxury of dealing in fiction rather than reality. Art itself may be dismissed as a distraction when there are more pressing matters to contend with. In a world that is so treacherous for so many, we could easily conclude that there is no time for art at all. I have found myself searching for justification for the thousands of hours I have spent in dark theatres, tweaking light levels or audio fades, finessing a video mask or a series of fly cues. I ask myself, as I attempt to reconcile a somewhat arcane craft with the drama outside the playhouse: In a world in which human beings are hurting, does it matter whether the reverb tails out to silence before the channel is muted? Does it matter whether the downstage drop clears before the front-of-house units are added to the wash? Does it matter whether the cut of the mother’s evening gown is authentic to the period?

No. Of course it doesn’t.

And yes.

We define ourselves, our society, and our values by the stories that we choose to tell and the artistry with which we tell them. We need the theatre to challenge us, to open our eyes, to bring us together, to celebrate that within us which is worth celebrating, to reveal the parts of us that we are more comfortable forgetting. If that does not matter, what does? When the world has forgotten what counts, getting these things right is more important than ever.

The theatre is a human institution: it belongs only to us humans, and it belongs to all of us. Those who do not treasure it and nurture it are susceptible to forgetting who they are and what they believe in. When we have lost our way, when we feel that we cannot go on, we need the theatre to tell us that we are not alone. In William Saroyan’s play The Beautiful People, Jonah’s daughter Agnes finds herself newly full of love for a stranger, and her love cries out to be shared. Jonah says, “You needn’t tell me, Saint. Tell the night. Tell the little children who aren’t sure and the old people who’ve forgotten.” That is what we do. That is what theatre is for.

Our tools are simple, almost crude. Wood and fabric, music and light. Even after thousands of years of development and transformation, theatre itself retains its primeval dependence on live actors and real communal gathering. In spite of its age and the modesty of its means, the form is as potent as it ever was, and we still, as designers, have the power to create images of arresting beauty. There is meaning in a beam of light slicing through the dark. There is meaning in the musical cycle of dissonance and resolution. There is meaning in the palpable silence that envelops a riveted crowd when we have been brought closer to something real. That meaning stays with us, a little bit of fire in our bones, when we leave behind the lights of the theatre and walk into the night.

Perhaps the final word on the subject should go to the folk singer Phil Ochs, who knew more than most people about making art when the world was hurting:
you must protest you must protest
it is your diamond duty
ah but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty

Theatrical design, like theatre itself, is a calling. It calls us to make meaning in an ugly world. If we have any hope of succeeding, we must hang on to our dream of beauty. It is our guidepost and our lantern. It is the reason for everything we are. “Hold fast to dreams,” said Langston Hughes. Indeed, as theatre-makers have known since the days of ghosts and gods, there is nothing else worth holding fast to.

[end of excerpt]




1. House to half: A beginning
2. Design for theatre: Why we attend theatre; why we make theatre; why we design theatre
3. The concept: How designers make meaning
4. Acts of creation: Navigating art, craft, and trade in the theatre
5. Guiding principles and practical advice: Nine hints for theatrical designers
6. On magic and mechanics: A theatrical designer’s spell-book
7. The limits of design: Two lessons in humility
8. What it takes: A character analysis of the designer
9. Curtain call: An ending


A designer’s library


Standby is nothing short of groundbreaking, with inspiring and practical insights given at every turn. Joshua Langman has achieved something extraordinary: he shows us step by step how mastering the technical craft of theatrical design is merely the beginning—the real work lives inside an open invitation to create magic on the stage. As Langman explains: ‘Designers are poets masquerading as mechanics.’ After reading Standby, it is impossible to see this sacred calling as anything less.”—Amanda Gronich, dramaturg, The Laramie Project

“Langman’s very readable schematic approach to design is a valuable tool for young designers learning how to approach the form.”—Beowulf Boritt, Tony Award–winning Broadway scenic designer
“Langman dives into theatrical design with a surgeon’s level of precision, dissecting all of the steps of the process and laying out a virtual road map from conception to completion. Any literary arsenal of texts on design will greatly benefit from its inclusion.”—Cory Pattak, creator of in 1: the podcast