Theatrical and Visual: Mutually Beneficial Arts

“There is magic in the theatre,

And the theatre is magic.

And blessed are they

who can share their gifts.”

I have no idea where that originally came from, but I picked it up in high school. My theatre teacher, a fabulous, wonderful, hilarious woman from South Africa, would have us cross our arms, right over left, hold hands while standing in a circle, and repeat each line after her. Sometimes we’d emulate her wonderful accent and cut up a little, but after “gifts”, we would spin out of the circle over our right shoulders, and it was show time. Time to focus. Sharing gifts is magic in the theatre, but performance isn’t the only gift to be showcased there. The actors, director, and crew only make up a part of the collage that brings a story to life on the stage. The other parts are courtesy of the designers.

As a child of both the art and theatre departments, I’ve always wanted to write an article for Hand/Eye weaving them together, but it never seemed to pan out the way I wanted. This year, Robin Vest, theatrical designer, magic-maker, and gift-sharer extraordinaire, joined the theatre department as a professor and I absolutely knew I had to pick her brain before I began writing. Robin uses her visual arts training and knowledge of art history to inform her designs. “[As a designer,] you take art that you get excited by and kind of emulate it, and use it to inspire your work,” she says. I completely identify with this. How many times have I talked about Vincent van Gogh’s color theory and how I try to use it in my work? A ton. Practically everyday . I even designed a set for Robin’s Intro to Theatrical Design class based almost entirely on his work. My point is, as you creative souls know, that idea isn’t only reserved for designers. This is only a small window into the many ways that the worlds of theatrical design and visual art collide.

It’s also no small secret that what the scenic, lighting, sound, and costume designers do is entirely to support the performers in telling the story all cast and crew are charged with telling. That job isn’t always about art – Robin says that “someone with no training in scenic design can’t just come in and design…we have to make the actors feel safe.” To do that, the design elements must actually be safe. In turn, the actors must have respect for the designers’ vision as well. Robin offered the example of a corset. Corsets make the actors move and interact with their environment differently.  Clothing manipulates how someone moves, informs the period the story is set in, and can completely change the character. Because of this, an actor has to get over their personal preferences sometimes for the good of the play. Just like I have to get over my hatred of the color pink when it needs to be there for the betterment of a painting.

The visual artists’ creations act (pun intended) to inform their perceptions of the world they’re creating, and understanding the performance artists’ work is essential to molding the visual artists’ rendering of that world. So, the relationship between theatre arts and visual arts is a mutually beneficial one. I could go the boring route and say “like remoras and sharks”, but I think for my own purposes and selfish indulgences, I’ll go a little less National Geographic, and a little more pop culture. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, for example. Both are extremely talented, creative, passionate, and hard-working. But Stark is Iron Man. He’s the theatre arts…Extroverted, gregarious, loves attention. Banner is The Hulk – the visual arts…introverted, keeps everything bottled up, lets his work speak for itself. Would Marvel’s Avengers (the whole production) be the same without both of them working together, respecting each other? Absolutely not.

I hope this post has got the gears grinding in a good way. Dare I say it may have even inspired you to see a play? When you leave it, talk about the performers, director, and crew, because they deserve it. Just make sure to spare some of your praise for the designers, too.

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Robin’s recent work: Heartbreak House just concluded it’s run this past weekend in Sternberger Auditorium.

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