Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.

LA STAGE TALKS: Why Are Theater-Makers the Masters of Collaboration?

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Panelists Shirley Jo Finney, Cricket S. Myers, Elizabeth Harper, Keith Mitchell, Ann Closs-Farley and Bart DeLorenzo with moderator Terence McFarland at LA STAGE Talks: Why are Theater-Makers the Masters of Collaborating?

An emphatic emphasis on the concept of collaboration permeated yesterday evening’s gathering of LA theater folk at LA STAGE Alliance’s latest interactive confab. Terence McFarland, LASA’s CEO, moderated the panel, co-hosted by LA County Arts Commission and held at Inside the Ford. McFarland prefaced the proceedings by announcing that the overall goal of this series is “to raise the curtain on the process, to see how theater gets made in this town.” Aiding him on last night’s journey of discovery were stage directors Bart DeLorenzo and Shirley Jo Finney, as well as a quartet of noted local theater designers: Cricket S Myers (sound), Ann Closs-Farley (costume), Keith Mitchell (scenic) and Elizabeth Harper (lighting).

Panelists Keith Mitchell, Ann Closs-Farley and Bart DeLorenzo

To give the audience of fellow professionals a “real time” glimpse into the working relationship of a show’s director and designers, McFarland sent Finney, Myers and Harper off stage, while giving DeLorenzo, Closs-Farley and Mitchell the task of simulating an initial meeting in the creative journey to mount a production of Hamlet. DeLorenzo gave his designers copies of artwork and photos he had gathered to help stimulate the process, but he quickly informed them he has a specific idea for the play, wanting to “set it in a theater, using all the theatrical trappings of a stage.”

Examples of Bart DeLorenzo's inspiration for "Hamlet"

The three engaged in an impressive display of the preliminary probing inherent in initial meetings. Closs-Farley and Mitchell verbalized ideas about projections, trap doors, fabrics, textures and other potential accoutrements to a receptive DeLorenzo, who happily absorbed it all, layering the ideas with his own input. “I always have set ideas, and what I need from the designers are better ideas than mine,” he admitted. But when Mitchell mentioned the possibility of using fog, DeLorenzo demurred. “I want no fog. I think it is illegal, and it is such a cliché.” The three laughed and kept on contributing.

When Finney took the stage with Myers and Harper to discuss her vision for the Prince of Denmark’s play, it was obvious that she wanted a surrealistic setting. “I think Hamlet is going through a loss of his father,” said the director. “He is taking a meta-journey, going through the five stages of how to deal with the loss of a loved one. And we are going to be looking at this inner journey””the chakras, which are going to be our color palette””for the costumes, lighting and the sound.” Finney spoke of her desire to set the play in a music studio where Hamlet is a singer and his Players are contemporary singers and hip-hop dancers. She also suggested having one actor play Hamlet and his father, possibly filming the father’s role and having it presented as a projection during the play.

Through all of Finney’s discourse, Myers and Harper listened intently, not interjecting until Finney finally turned to them and said, “All right: Go, girls.”

Panelists Shirley Jo Finney, Cricket S. Myers and Elizabeth Harper

The designers jumped right in. Myers immediately suggested the progression of the music should be part of the evolution of the story, more percussive at the beginning, evolving to a more melodic concept by play’s end. Harper appeared captivated by the idea of the inherent reflective spaces inside a music studio, integrating them into the lighting design, serving to blur the lines between what is reflective and what might be a projection.

Throughout the two faux production meetings, all participants appeared totally caught up in the creative interactions, underscoring the central theme of this LA STAGE Talks session: the need for positive collaboration in the process of creating live theater. Closs-Farley reiterated the need for creative people to work closely in conjunction with one another’s efforts. “One of the things that makes it difficult to have a positive artistic conversation is the proliferation of email substituting for actual person-to-person contact,” she said. “You cannot interact properly with someone that way, even though it has become a vital communication tool in today’s world.”

McFarland asked the six to describe collaborations that did not go well for them. DeLorenzo recalled, “I occasionally have had to deal with young designers who lack flexibility. They can’t collaborate because they can’t let go of their original idea.” Closs-Farley added, “Some directors are so caught up in their artistic vision, they do not see potential problems. I believe in putting function first over art.”

Panelists Elizabeth Harper, Keith Michell and Ann Closs-Farley

Harper recalled a meeting with a team that was producing a play that had recently been on Broadway. They already knew where they wanted specific light cues to go, based on the previous production. “I walked away from that one because I just knew it wasn’t going to work for me,” she said.

Myers remembered, “I was once involved in a production where the script had problems, but there was basically a good story to be told during certain moments in the play. The director was so set on following the plot, he was ignoring the potentially great moments the other designers and I felt should be underscored. It was very frustrating. I am a designer, not an engineer.”

“I agree,” Harper concurred. “My mantra is: Design is dramaturgy.”

When McFarland asked the onstage artists to reveal what they considered their most successful collaborations, there issued forth deliciously detailed accounts of such notable stagings as Rock, Paper, Scissors (Mitchell), The 20 Century Way (Harper), Margot Veil (DeLorenzo), Toy Story, The Musical (Closs-Farley), Winnie the Opera (Finney) and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which Myers ushered from Kirk Douglas Theatre to the Taper to Broadway, where she garnered a 2011 Tony nomination for her design.

All the participants emphasized the need to nurture a community of kindred collaborators who share and appreciate one another’s humanity, as well as their artistic visions.

The next LA STAGE Talk, “Artistic Direction: What Is It, and How Can You Tell When Someone Is Doing It?”, is scheduled for Monday, June 11, 7-9 pm, at Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. It will be co-hosted by the Geffen.

***All photos by Katie Gould