“The artistry of it all is there to support. But at the heart of it all … it’s so that everybody feels supported.”
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When the time came to start brainstorming for research into diversifying theatre design elements, Carla Orosz and her team found it much easier to identify examples of “horror stories” than best practices.
Orosz, a theatre designer and University of Saskatchewan associate professor of drama, recalled being involved in a Greystone Theatre production where a dark, intimate scene onstage made it difficult to see a Black actor standing on an upper level.
At the time, Orosz knew there was a way to light the actor without losing them or pulling focus from the actors below, but there was no time to get it done.
“That’s what this experiment is about. Maybe if I would have had the time to play with certain colours, to illuminate the undertones that would be in his skin, I might have been able to pick him up.”
The work — two workshops conducted by Orosz and theatre designers Rachel Forbes and Sholem Dolgoy — will ultimately lead to the creation of a free and accessible web-based resource to guide designers in creating inclusive sets, costuming and makeup, scenery, projection and lighting.
Aside from a sentence or two addressing the subject of diversity in existing materials, Orosz said “it was really disheartening” to learn there are no such resources.
The lack stems from embedded biases in theatre that also reach into training and education around design, she said. The colour theory that serves as the foundation for a lot of that material is based on white performers. In some even more antiquated resources, a solution to the problem of losing faces because of skin tone was to use makeup to lighten actors’ skin.
The group’s starting point is to “create the scene and then see if we can solve it,” Orosz said.
Models with varying skin tones stood on stage and donned costumes in different colours and patterns while light and set work shifted around them. At the first workshop, photos documented the work. For the second, observers watched and shared their thoughts.
It makes sense to do it that way given the medium they’re working in, Orosz said. After all, in live theatre you can’t fix something in post-production.
Orosz says the need for skin tone to inform designers’ choices speaks to the broader importance of making the stage a more inclusive space.
“The artistry of it all is there to support. But at the heart of it all … it’s so that everybody feels supported, not just the theatre company, the director, but it’s also about that person on stage.”
The industry as a whole is making a conscious effort to diversify, and Orosz says she hopes that work continues. Eventually, she’d like the overall production structure to change so that it’s no longer isolated from actors, she said.
“If those conversations can happen sooner, and we can workshop together and work together so we’re building it as a true collaboration, I feel like this project is going to help us get to creation in that way.”
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