Strange Fellowe: The Design Team

posted by Nick DePinna, composer

As a jazz musician, we rarely have the privilege of working with visual artists.  Most often, it’s when we’re on the road with more commercial acts, and usually the visual elements are more entertainment based, rather than artistic.  (We have, however made great friends with a few brilliant artistic minds who just happen, like we, to be working in a commercial entertainment situation – yes, you Justin Roy.)

So when Giao-Chau Ly, Rachel Levy, and Adeline Newmann joined the Strange Fellowe team, Hitomi and I were really excited.  But when they started sharing their ideas, and eventually began to execute, that’s when we, quite simply, freaked out.

Last night, as I sat at my workstation in the cavernous space that is Fais Do-Do, setting up my synthesizer cues and mixing the ambient music that will inhabit the space in the thirty minutes prior to “curtain,” I watched in amazement as the space slowly transformed.

With only simple cloth, Giao-Chau, our award-winning set and costume designer (who works extensively in films and theater alike), killed about ten birds with one stone.  She clearly indicated the boundaries of the performance space while simultaneously hiding the physical boundaries of the building…giving us a feeling of space-less-ness,  She set the tone of the room with curvy drapage alongside elements of elegant flagrance and randomness.  She high-lit natural elements of the space that she and the director liked, and hid those that didn’t serve the story.  And the result is a room that has the feeling of mysterious purpose…a haunted chateau, blending practicality with pure aesthetics.

“Guys, is this straight?”

As this whole thing was being schemed and rigged, animator and multimedia video designer and artist Adeline Newmann was assembling and animating her projections.  The space came to life -using traditional animation techniques on digital technology, she designed movement that disoriented our perception of space and time, gritty images and environments that set the tones of scenes. I hesitate to go into much detail here, because I don’t want to give away the coolness of what she is doing…and I probably can’t do it justice in writing.  I got the feeling that maybe she and I saw things from a similar angle…she describes herself as an “ambient minimalist.”  Some of my best friends are “ambient minimalists;” in fact, there’s a pretty good chance I am one too…I just haven’t been able to afford to make the change permanent yet

Adeline calibrates, we celebrate.

The last, and quite possibly the most difficult, tedious, and essential element of all was the lighting design by the very experienced Rachel Levy.  There is so much skill involved here, guys.  First, Rachel had to take in the practical things that had to be done.  This meant making sure of things like actors being visible and popping from all audience angles, making sure that the band can still read their music when the lights are dim, making sure that power is evenly distributed and rigged elements were safe and secure.

Next she had to figure out how to elegantly tell a story with the lights…set a mood, give a concise image, and help us all find our way to a shared experience.  The effects of the lights did not become apparent to me until the work lights were turned off, and she began playing with the different sets on different faders to help the audience direct their attention toward the appropriate actions.  Immediately I realized that the role of the lights were NOT just to highlight other elements of the set….the lights themselves were the actual lens through which we all experience this drama.

All of these lovely people are Cal-Arts alumni, by the way.  I always thought highly of that place, but now my suspicions of its coolness are confirmed by the bad-assedness of this team.

An extra thank-you goes out to the brilliant Ellie Rabinowitz, who graciously stepped up to help us execute the whole thing and lend her creative voice.  Next time we’ll bring her into the equation much earlier.  (Ellie works on the show “Robot Chicken,” which I freaking love.)

I really feel like these designers have a lot in common with us composers.  We all get a little “gear-heady” about the mediums and materials we work with, we all have a very specialized skill and knowledge set, and we all gladly forget all of that when we enter a creative zone to let our imaginations speak.  I realized this as I sat and watched these people…doing what the LOVE to do…and doing it with practiced hands.

Hitomi is sitting behind me as a write this post.  She just said, “I REALLY love these designers…I hope we get to work with them again.”  I know we will.

*Update 10/27/12 – I now understand that the most excellent Ellie Rabinowitz has been working in tandem with Giao-Chau on the set and costume design.  Although I didn’t talk too much about her here, or even credit her appropriately in the program, I know that next time we work together (soon, please!), I’ll have a chance to gush 🙂

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