2010 Season Artist Profile: Daniel Ostling

In the months leading up to our 2010 Main Stage season, we’ll be profiling the creative minds behind the season’s productions—John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Macbeth, and Much Ado About Nothing—in our e-newsletters. For the fourth and final installment, I spoke with Daniel Ostling, who is creating the dual-purpose set for 2010’s Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing. What follows is the full transcript of my email interview with Dan. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.

What’s the first piece of theater you ever saw? Alternately (or in addition), what was the first piece you saw that really made you think, “I want to be a part of this”?

Gosh, I don’t really know, maybe a high school production of Mame my older brother was in. That was NOT the thing that made me want to go into theater, though. When I was in high school, we went and saw Godspell and I distinctly remember finding that thrilling—not the theater part of it as much as how exhilarating it was to have live people running around singing, telling a story, telling THAT story in such a completely different way than I had grown up being told that story. It was alive and uncontrolled, almost dangerous rather than the dead, pre-packaged, deadly predictable way it was told over and over. I didn’t think, at that point, that I could ever be part of creating something like that.

I come from a blue-collar family; my brother and I were the first generation to go to college. I thought I needed to have a job where I made a lot of money (and probably hated). At that point, I was planning on going to school to study business, which is what my brother was studying. The idea of being an artist, coming out, or becoming politically active all seemed mythological—not things real people did.

The turning point to me was at the end of my sophomore year in college. While studying business, I took a general education course, astronomy, that I had heard had a cool professor; this was in 1983, in the middle of the Reagan years. That professor, who was from the Netherlands, sort of blew my mind open. It was more of a political science or philosophy course than a science course. He really encouraged the students to think for themselves and asked us what we wanted to do with our lives. I began going to his office and talking to him one on one. I don’t know that I remember much about astronomy but, by the end of that quarter, I knew I could not continue studying business. I had no idea what to do; everyone I knew hated their jobs so I asked myself “what brings me joy? “ Two answers came to mind: 1, watching films; my father used to take us to great films starting when we were little kids, matinees, films really way too intense for young kids but I am so grateful he did this. And 2, lighting designs at rock ‘n’ roll concerts.

So I dropped out of the business school and enrolled in some intro to film classes and, in order to take a lighting course in the theater dept, I had to take the intro to theater course. In that class, the first play we read was Cherry Orchard. I remember how shocked I was at the end of the play; I thought I was missing a page or something. It was so ambiguous, so unresolved—it felt so much like life! I am getting choked up thinking about this again. I think that event is the moment I was hooked, the moment I knew I wanted to do this.

So I guess I really have Henk Houvre from the Northern Illinois University Astronomy Department to thank for changing my life—thanks, Henk.
What inspires you right now? Any particular music, current events, people, et cetera?
I find myself more drawn to the art world and to film than to theater for inspiration. A lot of my friends are filmmakers and artists and I love swimming in those worlds.

I am very interested in and influenced by sight specific art/installation art. I love the innate dialogue that takes place between the environment, the installation and the viewer of the work; I find an immediate connection to what I find most interesting about the theater (that being the relation between the audience and the actors and how it unfolds in time and space).

I am also a fairly political person. It is hard for me not to connect the struggles and issues of our time with the work I am doing and the projects I choose to take.

Facebook has become my new electronic soapbox, although I am not sure anyone is listening.

I looked on your website and your recent C.V.—though impressive as all get-out—doesn’t seem to include any outdoor theater work. If that’s the case, can you talk a little about the specific challenges and opportunities, for you, of designing for outdoors?

I’ve designed a couple things for outdoor venues—I did a Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte (Central Park) a few years ago and a couple of operas in Stern Grove here in SF as well.

I don’t think there is any real difference in the aesthetic process of designing for exterior spaces. I think my work is in a dialogue with the space it takes place in—I don’t see set design as being about what is on the stage as much as being about finding a way to connect the space (both the stage and the auditorium) to the story being told—to find a way to manifest the ideas and tensions of the play in time and space. I think this is why I like installation art. The entire experience is the work of art, not just what is up onstage. Time and space become essential elements.

So one of the first things I need to do when working on a new project is to see the space live—to walk in it, take it in. This always affects the design. Of course, being outdoors effects how one approaches the work, but so does being in a Baroque theater, or a small, low-ceiled storefront theater.

Technically, there are a lot of issues that need to be paid attention to when working in an outdoor space

- How will materials hold up to moisture and the sun? Will certain materials warp? Will some materials be slick on the actors’ feet if they get wet (from either rain or dew), etc?

- How will the wind affect the scenery? The wind can treat a piece of fabric like a sail and blow it and whatever it is attached to down. It can also be annoying by constantly making delicate objects move. When I worked at the Delacorte in Central Park, we had a central chandelier and we had to glue each crystal onto plastic sheeting, then assemble the pieces together so it did not tinkle all night.

- Often the lighting positions are much more limited than in a traditional theater, so it is helpful to design lighting positions into the set as well.

- You also generally do not have a proscenium arch or central frame to set off the stage. So the designer must figure out how to help focus the audiences’ attention and frame the action in other ways.
The sets for Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing will be the same basic structure. Can you talk about the elements that will be the same, and, if possible, what those elements say about how these two seemingly very different stories relate to one another?

When Jon (Moscone) contacted me about doing the project he wanted to approach the shows so they were in dialog with each other. This was a conceptual idea more than a practical producorial one. He felt like the plays were different examinations of men returning from war, stepping back into the norms of a civilian society after living in a world with a very different set of norms. They are two ways of looking at this moment—one through the form of tragedy and one through the form of romantic comedy. Jon speaks much more eloquently about this than I do.

Jon and Joel (Sass) came to Chicago to meet and we looked at some early ideas. I was having trouble finding a design that related to both—the ideas felt either too intellectual or, on the flipside, too simple, looking like we were trying to save money, which was not the reason Jon wanted to do this. I felt that the difference between the shows connected them intuitively (Macbeth dense, dark, obscure, disorienting, shutting off the beauty of the landscape/ Much Ado open, light, clear, framing the landscape). But I was not finding a form that contained them.

We were looking at a rough model for Macbeth that we liked when Jon began removing scenic elements and furniture till just the inner structure remained—it was a great moment and I think we all instantly saw what the answer was. I refined the model a couple times in the next 24 hours and we pretty much saw the ideas come to light.

The set will consist of a simple, planked wooden deck for both productions. The shape and the color/value will be altered between the two. Rising out of this deck will be a pipe structure that will remain for both shows. In Macbeth, it will be raw and corroded, in Much Ado it will be gleaming gold.

For Macbeth, the scaffold will serve as a skeleton on which salvaged architectural element (doors, chandeliers, walk-in freezer rubber strips, etc), and huge slabs of rusty steel and patinaed brass will hang precariously from it. The space will be full of old, salvaged props and furniture that have archetypal, almost dreamlike emotions associated with them (a bed with a antique headboard, a old tub and shower, etc).

In Much Ado, the structure will be exposed with very little added besides a couple of wood windows. In the middle of the scaffold will be a blazing red tree, with patches of tall grass on either side of the scaffold. Only a few pieces of simple, wood furniture will live in the space. The overall feeling is of an airy, open, warm space.

One of my favorite things that you said when you spoke to the Cal Shakes staff back in March was that the Macbeth set would have a kind of “crystalline density.” Could you flesh that idea out a little more for our readers?

When Joel spoke of his early idea he spoke of almost a fever dream, a David Lynch-like world of distortions and confusion, grounded in the concrete reality of mundane objects. We began to realize that the supernatural qualities of the play should be manifest not in fog and hazy visions but in concrete, nonlinear, disorienting ways. When I started to work in the model, I felt like one way to deal with the issue of focus I brought up earlier was to create an open structure that became denser and denser as it moved into the focal point of the space. I felt like the material world almost crystallized moving from the scaffold frame on the outside into a denser and denser claustrophobic center where the characters were stuck. The only way in or out is through this mass of layers and objects—like burrowing rats.

When you were here in March, you also talked about creating, for Much Ado, a “relatively empty space that is warm, but not warmed by objects.” Could you elaborate on that a little more?

I don’t remember saying that … not sure what I meant. To riff off of what I said above, Much Ado is sort of the photographic negative of what we are trying to do with Macbeth in terms of framing and density. In Much Ado, the gleaming scaffold frames the actions with open lines rather than dense planes and objects. There is a diagonal movement across the stage, moving from the hills and trees upstage right across the center of the stage moving gently into the audience down stage left. The space is open, warm, fresh, earnest, and transparent. It is not decorated by dressing or any furniture beside the most essential strokes (two windows to create the courtyard, a table, a set of chairs, some luminaries to create the spectacle of the wedding, etc.
And finally, if you could have designed sets for any play in history, what (and/or where, and/or with who) would it be?

Wow, what a question…

Maybe working on Eugene O’Neill’s Lazarus Laughed, a play from his experimental period that I love. It is an almost impossible play to stage but I have always been drawn to it because of its crazy ambition, its wild form, and its very powerful and subversive story.

…or maybe to have been able to work with Maria Irene Fornes when she was developing her plays for the first time; I think she is an extraordinary writer who has not received the recognition she deserves.

… but if I had to pick one (I have cleverly listed three), I would choose to have worked with Federico Garcia Lorca on his plays before he was assassinated in 1936. To me, Blood Wedding and Yerma are perfect plays that integrate story, spectacle, movement, music, lore, poetry and politics in a seamless tapestry. It would have been such a privilege to work with such an amazing artist; he was a playwright, director, artist, musician, dancer, activist, and poet. It is staggering to think of what he might have created had he not been murdered by the right wing Nationalists.

Subscribe now to get the best seats at the best prices for Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, and the rest of our 2010 season. Click http://web.me.com/danielostling to see Dan Ostling’s portfolio, photography, and more.

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