Monday, February 23, 2009

First Readings of Waiting for Godot

The assignment for tomorrow's class is to read Waiting for Godot twice: once just to get an initial reaction, and then a second time to develop a sound knowledge of the physical requirements of the set. I'll record both of those things here.

Apparently, Samuel Beckett is really into creepily isolated and semi-fantastic or ambiguously-fantastic settings. Both Endgame and Waiting for Godot take place in vague locations, and the reader (or viewer) is never quite sure if it even really exists, or if it does, if it exists in this universe or this dimension.

When I read the play, I found it hard to really picture the set. Part of that, I think, was because I was also reading the stage directions. Sometimes I would imagine the actual scenery of the location- a huge, barren wasteland with a single tree. (It's actually almost the exact same mental image I have of the opening scene of Grapes of Wrath.) But then I would read the stage directions and be "taken out" of the scene. When I'd read something like "exit stage left" I'd just picture Little Kresge with one sad looking tree, just right of center. It's hard to imagine what "nothing" looks like when made into a set that can fit onto a predetermined size stage.

The biggest challenge I see in this play is the idea of space. The characters are supposed to run back and forth, away from each other and then back again, see people off in the distance that they can't quite identify, and so on. The set somehow has to give the impression of all of this space. It's not just nothing, it's a whole lot of nothing.

Physical Requirements
The location of the play is described in the stage directions as simply, "A country road. A tree. Evening." (Both acts take place at the same time.) Vladimir describes the location to Pozzo in Act II: "It's indescribable. It's like nothing. There's nothing. There's a tree."

Elements of the set
  • country road: Pozzo and Lucky may or may not be using the road (I don't think it's ever specifically mentioned.)
  • mound: where Estragon sits and takes off his boots
  • bog: the audience
  • ditch: mentioned as where Estragon sleeps, not necessarily onstage.
  • tree: is barren in Act I; suddenly has leaves in Act II; Estragon and Vladimir argue over whether it looks like a bush or a tree, and discuss hanging themselves from one of its branches
  • sun/moon: From the stage directions: "The light suddenly fails. In a moment it is night. The moon rises at the back, mounts in the sky, stands still, shedding a pale light on the scene."
Action of the play
Below is a list of some actions which occur during the play. Some of them might influence the design of the set.
Characters enter and exit from both sides of the stage.
Lucky dances.
The characters fight physically (when Lucky is thinking).
Vladimir and Estragon "scrutinize the sunset."
In Act II, the characters fall and can't get up, and therefore spend a considerable amount of time rolling around on the floor.

A large number of props are used.
Estragon: hat and boots
Vladimir: hat, miscellaneous "rubbish" in his pockets, lots of turnips, 1 carrot, 1 radish
Pozzo: whip, watch, glasses, pipe, matches, vaporizer, and handkerchief
Lucky: hat, rope (which becomes shorter in Act II), heavy bag (claimed by Pozzo to be filled with sand), folding stool, picnic basket (which contains pieces of chicken and a bottle of wine), Pozzo's coat

Field Trip: Endgame

On Sunday our class went to a theater in Harvard Square and saw a production of the play Endgame. We were to watch it while paying careful attention to the set, since we'll be required to write a paper about how the physical layout affected the movement of the actors and how the visual impression of the set compared and contrasted with the text.

I did not like Endgame.

The production was fine, but the play itself was just really not my style. I am perfectly okay with this, considering the depressing themes of the play.

I do, however, have to admit that the set was excellent. The colors were completely bland and gloomy, which certainly added to the effect. The absence of greens and blues was particularly noticeable, especially when the characters talked about how there was no nature left in the outside world.

The physical space of the set was also very constrictive. This was clearly intentional. I think this was mainly accomplished by the side walls. Most sets I've seen are more or less a backdrop. There might be a door off to the side for characters to move through, but usually the edges of the room in which the acting takes place is somewhat blurred. In this case, the set was actually a full room, with 3 walls. This induced quite an impressive feeling of claustrophobia.

Not only that, but it seemed to me that the set was also raised a bit from where I expected the stage to be. The room was brightly lit but the areas around it were in utter darkness. Even after my eyes had adjusted to the lighting I couldn't see a single detail outside of that confined box, no matter how hard I strained. This made the whole set seem as if it were floating in a complete abyss- clearly tying in with a main theme of the play.

I won't go into detail, because I still have to write a paper about this, let's not forget. I'll have no material left. But in general, the set really worked. Even if I hated the play.

Invisible Cities Presentations

I just found out there's a blog for this class, where you can see all of the final projects: Spring '09 Scenic Design.

For example, you can see the results of the "Invisible Cities" project, which were presented on Thursday. Ours was kind of awesome. =)

Each group was given the description of a city from the book Invisible Cities and told to create a physical representation of it. My group's city was pretty interesting- it was an abandoned city created by this culture that was constantly trying to create the perfect set of relationships. They would build their city and then run strings between the houses to symbolize the relationships of power among the citizens. When everything got too messy, they'd tear down everything except the frames and strings, and try again somewhere else, always hoping to get it perfect. Of course, none of them really seemed to have any idea what "perfect" was, so it's all just a tiny bit depressing.

For our project we drove a bunch of nails into a piece of plywood and ran yarn between them. A few interesting things came out of the design process.

As previously mentioned, I missed class the first time we talked about it because I was having a miserable experience at the dentist. So my group had already come up with the basic idea, and was explaining it to me. They explained that we'd get many different colors of yarn, and weave each color around in a different pattern. "Oh, so everyone can choose their own pattern?" I asked. Silence. That was not at all what they meant, but they all immediately liked the idea. The simple introduction of a fresh mind to the project made a big impact. The fact that each person designed their own rule became a pretty important part of the final product.

We found a piece of plywood, marked a fine grid onto it, and began hammering nails. Ho'o and Dan were great at it, and soon had a whole array of neatly aligned nails on their side of the board. Lei and I were...less skilled, and soon had a much smaller scattering of nails on our side of the board. We left at the end of class with plans to come back at some other time to finish the nailing- one nail for every single dot on the board.

This never happened. When Dan came in to finish working on it Thursday morning, he made a brilliant observation- it worked a lot better without all the nails. It was much less uniform, like a real city.

We got some paper and carefully crafted instructions in the most open-ended way possible. Then we made a list of "rules." Each member of our team wrote their rule down on the paper and then followed it. The only restriction is that each new rule had to be different from all of the previous ones. The rules ranged from "move only in diagonals" to "move in approximately curvy lines." During our presentation we had the other members of the class create their own rules and add them to the board.

And here's the final product:

(Photos courtesy of Sara Brown, our instructor.)

I think my favorite comment during the discussion about our project was, "I like how the nails aren't distributed uniformly. I can tell that it's intentional, but I can't tell what the pattern is."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What I actually look like

So, remember those contour drawings from awhile ago? Well, you might have guessed that one of them was a self-portrait.

And that's just embarrassing, so I thought I'd show you some photos of the real life inspirations behind those drawings, so you can see how closely my sketches resemble the originals.

Ooh, a stapler. How artistic and inspired.

A pretty journal, given to me as a gift for my high school graduation. A little more artistically interesting than the stapler.

Yours truly. Obviously the most gorgeous of all the models, right?

Also, taking pictures of yourself in the mirror is totally a dorktastic thing to do. Not that I would know or anything.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Finding art you like

The other day in class we looked at some different artwork online, which was sort of cool.

We looked at some stuff by Sol LeWitt, which demonstrates what I'll call "art by instruction." Basically the artist leaves instructions for others to follow while making the murals. In general I thought it was a cool idea, but just not quite open-ended enough. I loved the idea of each person bringing a different interpretation to the art before it was even made (in addition to after it's been completed), but most of the murals were very geometric. There just wasn't as much room for creativity as there could have been.

This made me think of this website some friends of mine stumbled upon a few years ago, The basic concept is that people send in sometimes ridiculous requests for custom songs- for example, an upbeat catchy tune about how to survive a zombie apocalypse. It's Web 2.0 meets music- user generated art! I love that site, because people suggest really interesting and creative things that one person alone would never think of on his or her own in one lifetime. Yet all of the songs have a similar style, since they're produced by the same person. It's sort of the inverse of the Sol LeWitt art.

And the cool thing is, it's not something you would normally think of as "art." By the way, I know I'm using the word "art" in a super general sense. But I'm an engineer, okay? In general, creative pursuits all seem wishy-washy to me at first glance.

So I started to think of forms of art that I might like, or even be good at without realizing how much creativity they might entail.

I once started making a scrapbook in high school- I didn't get very far, I only completed a few pages before I stopped having free time to work on it. But the few pages that exist are seriously kickass. Creative headings, construction paper backings, stickers, string, buttons, the whole deal.

And I also like to think I've developed something of a sense of fashion over the past few years. Mostly this just involves buying tshirts with nerdy jokes on them, and plastic jewelry at Claires. (Yeah, I accessorize right along with the 10 year olds.) But I definitely have a distinct style, and love scouring the jewelry racks at various stores looking for the next perfect piece that will complete my collection of wacky earrings. I'm not sure exactly what the relationship is between creativity and style, but I'm sure cultivating my fashion sense (as...different from popular fashion as it may be) certainly can't hurt my creativity levels.

And besides, I totally stopped writing this blog entry in the middle for 15 minutes because writing it inspired me to try to make a bracelet out of duct tape. I totally figured out how to make the clasp out of paper clips within 10 minutes.

I guess the intersection of engineering and design isn't that hard to find after all.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Weekly Journal #2: breakdancing

You know what sucks? The dentist.

I say this because in addition to their general, overall suckiness, I got stuck at the dentist's office the other morning and ended up missing class, which was very disappointing. I went in just for a simple x-ray and checkup, and it took two hours. Two hours. Then there was some mix-up where they wouldn't let me take the original x-rays even though the whole purpose of my being there was to get a set of x-rays to send off in my medical evaluation for my application to the Peace Corps.


Anyway, I missed class and it was very sad, because we did gesture drawing. I became even more sad when I discovered that the next journal assignment was to do some gesture drawings, and I had no idea how. Luckily Sara offered to meet with me a few minutes before the last class and give me a brief overview.

The assignment was simple: just go to somewhere there are people in motion and sketch for awhile.

Well, I am unnecessarily ambitious and went to my friend's breakdancing practice.

It was hard.

Seriously, those guys move fast. Also, I had never done this before. It did not start out well. Here are some of my first attempts.

But I gradually improved and learned to use longer, more abstract strokes. I discovered that adding more lines somehow makes the drawings considerably better. Now I understand why artists use charcoal, the mere fact that it leaves more material on the paper must make such a big difference. I stuck to drawing single figures for awhile, just while I got the hang of it.

Then I moved on to doing some actual gesture drawings. They aren't great, because I couldn't quite figure out how to capture the motion of the dancers without drawing more detailed sketches of each position. But there are a few that do seem to capture a tiny bit of the type of motion involved in breakdancing.

Overall, I'm happiest with some of my sketches of single and double poses. Some of them are pretty cool, I think.

This last one in particular I like a lot. It doesn't look like much, but if you've ever seen breakdancers perform, hopefully you'll agree that it captures a lot of the style. Well, better than my other attempts, anyway.

As dorky as I felt, sitting there drawing sometimes barely recognizable figures while everyone around me danced, this was a lot of fun. I kind of wish I had time to practice and get good at it, because I suspect that this could lead to some pretty cool artwork.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Weekly Journal #1: no really, why are you taking this class?

This blog will consist of two distinct (but hopefully related) types of journal entries: "process" journal entries, which will describe my progress in the class as I strive to understand my own personal creative process, and "weekly" journals, where I will do some sketching and respond to a question or two posed by my instructor. This week's questions are as follows:

Think about what you would like to learn in this class and set a few goals for yourself. What would you like to be able to do by the end of the semester? Also, since many of you have majors and concentrations outside of theater, write about how your work in the theater (or scenic design specifically) connects with your primary area of study and what skills do they share in common.

Now that I've warmed up a bit to the level of "artsy" that's going to be involved in this class, I'm actually getting a little excited for it. A few semesters ago I took a course called "Fundamentals of Music" precisely because I knew nothing at all about music (I mean really, I didn't know what a chord was), and was tired of my ignorance. But I've come to learn that sometimes it's even better to learn new things that you didn't even know you wanted to learn. I mean, I was well aware of my lack of musical ability, and wanted to change that. I am equally aware of my lack of artistic ability, and didn't feel particularly moved to do anything about it. I registered for this class not understanding exactly what it would be about, and now I find myself on the path of learning about something new that I didn't even want to learn- and those are usually the things you need to learn the most. I hope that made any sense at all, but the point is, I've changed my mind- now I'm looking forward to learning a little about art and design. In a few days we'll be working on gesture drawing, and while part of my brain is rebelling against the very idea ("seriously? gesture drawing? who cares? also, that will not end well"), part of me is excited- it would be really cool to be able to draw even relatively well. I obviously don't think that an hour of drawing instruction is going to turn me into an artist, but I am currently limited to stick figures, so it shouldn't be hard to improve.

I'm also looking forward to earning an appreciation for art. After taking my one semester of music, I suddenly realized that music sounded different. Learning what a chord was made some subtle yet enormous difference in the way I listened to music. My mind was opened to new things- I even discovered a few pieces of classical music that I really liked. I therefore suspect that there might be types of art that I also like. (I spent a lot of time traveling in Europe over the past year, and have therefore seen more Renaissance paintings of Jesus than any one person should be subjected to in a lifetime, despite the fact that I knew I didn't really care for the style after the first 3 or so.) And I'm looking forward to finding them.

Bringing the topic a little closer to the actual purpose of the class (and away from the vague discussions of "art in general"), I'm looking forward to doing some theater from a different perspective. I really enjoyed acting classes but I've unfortunately never actually worked on a theatrical production- so my view of the process is very one-dimensional. It will be interesting to force myself to analyze a play from the point of view of someone who will not be standing on the stage the entire time.

So to summarize, my goals for this class (in increasing order of grandiose vagueness):
1. To acquire some basic artistic skills, like sketching and painting.
2. To acquire another way of looking at theater (specifically from the point of view of a designer).
3. To learn to appreciate art.

As for my life outside of theater, this class will definitely have a much more direct relationship to my primary major than all of my previous theater experiences. Acting classes are a lot of fun, but are only related to the infrequent presentations I'm required to give in mechanical engineering- it's hard to connect Shakespeare and control systems without really, really awful nerd jokes that are likely to lose you some friends. A design class is much more likely to come in handy- especially considering that as of right now, I'd like to focus on product design. In fact, now that I think about it, it strikes me as kind of odd that there isn't a required design course in mechanical engineering. There are plenty of classes about the product design process, but the subject of making a product visually appealing is only briefly addressed. Design considerations like color and proportion are really not all that different between theater and product design. Obviously the goals are quite different, but I suspect the underlying principles to be almost identical.
In conjunction with these musings, I created 3 blind contour sketches. What's that, you ask? Maybe you don't care much, but I am most certainly going to explain it to you before I go ahead and post my drawings, because trust me, they require some justification. Here are the rules of blind contour sketching:
1. You must draw for 3 minutes.
2. Your pencil may never be lifted from the page.
3. You may not look at your paper. At all.

Now that we all appreciate the difficulty of the task at hand, I am proud (?) to present my first forays into the world of art:

Do you know what they are?

Friday, February 6, 2009


So as I sat down in 21M.733 the other day (that's MIT speak for the scenery design class I'm taking this semester), our professor was talking about the reflection essays that are due with each of our projects. With each final design we'll be required to submit a 2 page paper about the process we took in developing our project. In lieu of this, she told us that we can keep a semi-daily journal of our thoughts and ideas throughout the course of the semester. Someone asked how she preferred these journals- bound, stapled, woven together with llama wool, or whatever- and someone else blurted out "can we blog it?" She laughed and said she supposed so, and I thought...well seriously, how can I not?

So first let me address this question: why should you, as a random person who stumbled upon this page (like so many undoubtedly will) care? Because this will not be a normal blog about art. No, this will probably be a very sarcastic and bumbling blog about art. You see, I, my dear readers, am an engineer. A mechanical engineer at that. That's where the word engineer even comes from: engines. Thermodynamics, kinematics, control systems- these are the things I do. Not that I do them well, but I do them, at any rate. How did I end up in a scenery design class, of all places?

Well, all MIT undergraduates are required to take 8 semester of humanities, and create a concentration within one subject with 4 of those classes. I happen to be concentrating in Theater Arts (just filed the form this morning, in fact). Well, that might sound kind of artsy (notice the word "arts" in the title), but to date I have taken no less than 3 different acting classes. You might have gotten the impression from my writing style that as a rather loud and let's say "outgoing" personality, this was no great leap for me. People have been telling me about how dramatic I am for years. But now, in my last semester, having more or less exhausted the acting classes (which fit into my schedule around other, I apologize, more important requirements to be fulfilled before graduation in June, at least) I stumbled across 21M.733.

I'll be honest- at first I thought it would be interesting because we'd be building sets- I can wield a power drill as well as the next person, and the exact geometry needed to fulfill a certain movable compartment and the specifications of the hinges needed to hold the minimum weight are all things I can handle. But I soon discovered that we wouldn't actually be building sets- just designing them.

We'd make models- like out of foamcore. Well, okay, that's not so bad. Or drawings. Or watercolors. OK hang on a second...watercolors? I don't think so. Unless they're paint-by-numbers, this is so not happening for me. Next week a model is coming to class so we can work on gesture drawing. Um...what?

This has all the potential for disaster, hilarity, or both. I'm sticking with it, for better or for worse. Maybe I'll even learn something.

Stay tuned, it should be interesting.