Sunday, December 30, 2012


THE DRAMA IN EVERYDAY LIFE: (To play, click not on the play button on the center of the screen, but at the bicycle pedals.) Above, a funny little video making the rounds online (yes, it turns out to be an ad). It reminds me that miniature dramas are taking place all the time -- there's a story behind every incident of a stranger asking directions, every bicycle accident, every exchange of glances. Just that it's a matter of fine-tuning our attention to perceive those dramas. 

CREATING SUSPENSE ON "HOMELAND": Alex Gansa, showrunner and executive producer of the hit Showtime series "Homeland," had this to say in a New York Times Q&A about how the show builds suspense. "Our motto is, give up the secret before the audience expects it. Because you guys know it’s coming. The only way we can surprise you is to deliver it ahead of schedule. And sometimes letting a secret die with a character is the better twist." 

PROJECTING STORIES IN PUBLIC: An arresting piece of public art appeared in New York City's Union Square recently. Krzysztof Wodiczko's "Abraham Lincoln: War Veterans Projection" projected video interviews with Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam war veterans onto a statue of the late president.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012


FOLLOW THE EYE: The Poynter Institute, a Florida school for media and journalism, last month released the results of a study about tablet users' engagement with media. Using eye-tracking technology to study how people read stories on a iPad or other similar device, the research showed that "the way readers select a story influences the likelihood that they will read to completion," and emphasized "the importance of storytelling forms that keep the finger—and the brain—satisfied." Some of the more general research findings are intuitive, while others pointed to specific ways to keep readers hooked: "There was an average point at which people were likely to either commit, or to stop reading a story. Calling it the 'bail out point,' (78.3 seconds of reading), researchers suggest this might be a good benchmark for establishing a 'gold coin' to keep people reading—like a link, a question, a simple pullout quote or an informative visual element that keeps the reader engaged about halfway through a long story."  

GOLDEN BAOBOB PRIZE: As a kid, were you ever read -- or did you read yourself -- any children's stories from Africa? If you're like me, you may have read a couple picture books that had African characters in them, but rarely if ever that were fully African stories. The Golden Baobob Prize, which is awarded annually, has as its goal "to inspire the creation of African stories that children and young adults the world over will love." I like the model of a prize; it may or may not induce any talented authors to write a story they otherwise wouldn't, but it raises the profile and public esteem of prize-winning stories and authors, and legitimizes storytelling as a pursuit.  

THE EXISTENTIAL PRESENT (TENSE): A passage I like from a New York Magazine article on Kathryn Bigelow and Marc Boal's new film "Zero Dark Thirty," about the killing of Bin Laden: "Most strikingly, Boal and Bigelow chose to keep Zero Dark Thirty as in-the-moment as possible. Virtually all we know of Maya and Dan is what we see them do onscreen. Their backgrounds, their personal lives, whatever decisions led them to the Islamabad prison where we first encounter them, are left for us to fill in, or—perhaps more to the point—to dismiss as irrelevant. 'Everyone says "backstory" like if you don’t have it, you’re missing a pillar of the house,' says Boal. 'I’m not a huge Freudian. When I meet somebody, I’m not interested in what they were doing when they were 6. I like characters that are defined in the very existential present tense.'"

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Ming Cho Lee, from Yale website
Some selected snippets from a 1998 interview I did with Ming Cho Lee, a Tony Award-winning set designer for the theater, opera, and dance, and a longtime faculty member at the Yale School of Drama. 

How do you approach set design for a given play?

There’s no question that the leader of any production is the director. So usually, a designer shouldn’t begin until you have a conversation with the director... [I] read the play. Even if [I] know the play, I always re-read the play, make sure it’s a new experience. When I read the play, I try my best not to read it as a designer. I try to read it as if I’m an audience, seeing it or hearing it the first time, so that I have a very physical, emotional, total reaction rather than an analytic reaction. Often, another thing I do is that, if a place or a landscape is very clear—if the play indicates, say, Louisville, Kentucky, and I have been to Louisville—then I will refresh myself with all the streets and life and buildings in Louisville just to become part of the life of the play. If I have done the play before, then occasionally I prefer that there be some images or something that touches the sub-landscape of the play, rather than just the actuality.

What’s an example of dealing with the actuality of the play, and dealing with its sub-landscape, or its deeper thematic elements?

It is different, depending on the play. You’ve got to have a balcony for Romeo and Juliet, and you’ve got to have a bed for Othello. Without the bed, the scene just won’t happen. So there are requirements, but it doesn’t get so detailed that people are making coffee and they’re cooking scrambled eggs. If the play calls for realism, there’s nothing wrong with realism. But let’s say you’re dealing with Ibsen, that requires an extension that goes beyond realism. Nowadays, the more we read Ibsen, the more we feel that it is not just merely realistic; there [are] a lot of images, there’s a lot of subconscious landscape.

When working on a classic that is going to be set in the present day, what does that mean for you as a designer?

[When I do a play like that,] I’m not doing it because I say, “well, a contemporary audience does not have any connection to the Renaissance or Medieval times, and therefore we have to update it.” There’s a misguided arrogance in saying the audience is not as good as we are. On the other hand, it’s very important for me to be connected with the play, that the experience of the play is immediate… Designing a set has less to do with decoration than actually creating a world where human events take place.