Designing Operabots

Alex McDowell, production designer for Death and the Powers, shared these notes with us detailing his experience working on the production design of Death and the Powers. We thought they were worth sharing. Thanks Alex!

DEATH & THE POWERS – designing operabots
Alex McDowell, March 9 2011

Alex McDowell

Death and the Powers was my first experience working with live theater. One of the differences that emerged between developing sophisticated visual ideas for film and doing the same for theater, is that in film there is a huge resource of special and visual effects – in other words the ability to create a fictional reality that is primarily animation in its most sophisticated expression. Sadly, perhaps, this has created in the audience an expectation of polish and flair in any vision of the future, however thin the underlying ideas often may be.

So when it comes to developing, say, a new robot, one cannot hope to ‘compete’ between this animated fiction and the possibilities of a practical live theater prop.

For this reason alone, it made good design sense rather to focus on supporting the text and performance with a designed group of metaphorical set pieces, whether chandelier, library wall (that transforms as a symbol from bookshelf, to computer mainframe, to DNA,  and is the primary expressive medium for Simon Powers), or robot – all as the System’s cellular extensions of Simon’s earth-bound abilities. As a result, Tod, Diane and I tended to lean towards a minimalist simplicity that could exploit what theater does best: the visceral, reactive, live-chaotic performance that would engage both human performers and audience.  This is not finally about the technology at all, but about the music, the performance and the meaning of the text.

As a designer one tries to use any constraints of a project as a driving force.  In film these constraints might be more about time than money (though it’s always about the budget). In my involvement in this opera, the joy of this collaboration was the amount of time we had to develop the piece together. The heavy constraints were budget and resources. The design and outcome of the robots ultimately developed from the way the Media Lab works, and each design decision I made came from the options and possibilities of working with Tod’s group and with Diane’s team’s theater experience.  Here we had a group of young people who have more engineering, programming and creative capability than many of the practitioners in Hollywood, joining in an unprecedented and fascinating interaction between a deeply experienced team of Diane’s theater collaborators from ART and in Broadway production.

The final outcome of our process led to the Lab team (led by Bob Hsiung and Mike Miller) creating an artisanal workshop to produce and manufacture the whole idiosyncratic group of robots, which ultimately gave more individual personality and identity to the Operabots than any translation of my initial design would have received in a Hollywood production system.

It was a wonderful learning experience for all of us, one that also injected me with more adrenaline and intellectual stimulation than many of the film projects I’ve designed!

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