Enchanted Collaboration

Collaboration in Theatre
Sydell and Rex, Sept. 3, 1992

As a director of theatre I always appreciated the art of collaboration. Besides working with actors, I was charged with  bringing together set, lighting and costume designers. When creative artists are open and feed off each other’s ideas, we do our best work.

I was nervous about directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, since it was my first Shakespeare on a college campus. Would my students be able to handle the language well enough for the audience to understand? It was a 3.5 hour play, so when I found a cutting that brought it down to a manageable 2 hours, my doubts began to subside.

I started by meeting with Rex, Cal State’s hot shot set designer. He strutted into the green room wearing his usual paint covered jeans, with a wad of keys hanging from his belt loop.

Collaboration with a set designer
Rex

He was an intense, wiry man in his mid-40s, who was passionate about his work. We’d already done a few shows together, so I wasn’t intimidated. We agreed to have an initial design meeting after he’d read through my cut version of the script.

I came to his office the following week bearing 2 cups of high octane coffee, the kind available in every theatre department. I was relieved that he liked the cutting, which he affectionately referred to as the “Readers Digest” version. “What image does the play evoke in you?” he asked. The question threw me for a loop. I was used to being asked, “Where do you want the entrance, down right or down left?” I’d never considered the idea of an image or an overriding concept, but it was the basis for our collaboration.

I told him that my favorite part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the fantasy of being in an enchanted forest with no rules or boundaries. My strongest image was of dreamlike characters flying free. He nodded and said, “Let me think about it.” He came back to me the next day, this time bringing coffee to my office. On a piece of poster board he had painted a beautiful pink, yellow, and pale blue butterfly. “Does this say it to you?” he asked.

I loved the image, but it felt too literal. The play tells the story of star crossed lovers who run away to a magical forest, where they’re surrounded by creatures of the night.

“I see mysterious beings appearing unexpectedly from hidden caves and pathways,” I told him.

“Would you like a darker, wilder atmosphere?” he asked.

“Exactly,” I answered. “The butterfly just seems too tame.” 

“Yes, I see what you mean,” Rex replied. “If we’re true to the text,             the creatures are fairies who appear when night is at its darkest. I don’t think it could be created with lighting effects alone.”

I thought not, but needed his input to be sure.

“Can you give the set a moodier, more romantic quality?” I asked. “I         want it to reflect the forbidden love story of the mortals as well.”

He smiled at me and nodded, letting me know we were on the same page. I was excited by how easily we could share our ideas, and develop a concept through collaboration.

Three days later Rex came back to me with an entire set design. The pinks and yellows had been replaced by deep purples and blues. His rendering looked like a roller coaster covered with iridescent pieces of delicate fabric.

Collaboration on Midsummer
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

There were places under rocks where the fairies could hide, appear, and then reappear somewhere else. Up left, ten feet off the ground, there was an asymmetrical stairway leading gradually down to center stage. This is where Oberon and his Queen Tatiana would make their stately entrances. I couldn’t believe that this was the result of our collaboration.

It was magical and inspired me to take chances as a director. With so many levels and hiding places, it seemed obvious to make the production more visual. The fairies pranced seamlessly from level to level, making it look like they were actually flying. The actors created stage pictures that reflected the meaning of the play. If the audience didn’t catch every word, they could easily understand by following the characters’ movements. Instead of the words being obstacles, they became doors to visual images that opened everyone’s imagination.

One night during the last week of rehearsals, Rex noticed how the actors seemed to populate every inch of his set. He leaned over to me and I felt his breath close to my ear. “Sydell,” he whispered, “you have a wonderful sense of composition.” It was the sexiest thing anyone had ever said to me. By the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was clear; I was in love with my set designer and he was smitten with me.

We both acknowledged our feelings, and decided to try going on a date. It didn’t take long for the artistic collaboration to turn deeply personal. In 1992, with our friends and family bearing witness, we got married in our beautiful backyard. In the 30 years we knew each other we did over 20 productions together. None of them compares to the richness of our 24 year marriage. I lost Rex 2 years ago, and I miss him terribly.

Alaskan collaboration
Sydell and Rex in 2013

We had plenty of challenges, yet I wouldn’t have traded those years for all the enchanted forests of Shakespeare’s boundless imagination.

Sydell Weiner, 9/1/2018

Caution: Set Designer at Work

 

Our Town backdrop
Our Town backdrop

My husband Rex was a brilliant set designer. He did his best work in the scene shop behind the theatre at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where we worked together for 25 years.

The shop was 50 x 100 feet with 30 foot ceilings, and every inch had a designated purpose. There was a long work bench along the north wall with power saws spinning, and the smell of sawdust everywhere. To me it sounded like a dentist’s office, but to Rex it was wonderland and he was in his glory. He was proud to be working with students and helping them build the sets he’d designed. When it was all put together I’d find him alone on stage, hanging from a cherry picker to touch up the paint.

Backdrop for theatre design
Here’s To Love

I loved coming into the shop to check on a set for a show I was directing. I’d call out his name and my voice would echo in the large concrete room. When he saw me, Rex’s face would light up. He’d always stop what he was doing and take a break. We’d go outside to catch up on our day, laugh about the students who were driving us nuts, and enjoy a high octane cup of coffee. Soon he’d go back to work and get lost again in the thing he loved more than anything in the world.

It was fascinating to watch Rex work, especially when he was painting a backdrop. There was a paint frame along the east wall of the shop. He hung the muslin for his drop along the top of the frame. With a push of a button, the frame would go up so he could reach the bottom with his brush. With another push of the button the frame went down, so he could paint along the top.

Backdrop for Gypsy
Gypsy: Farm Boys drop

He usually had students working the paint frame. They loved watching him transform a piece of muslin into a masterpiece. It could be the skyline of New York for Guys and Dolls, a sunny field with bales of hay for Oklahoma, or a quaint New England villiage complete with church and steeple for our favorite, Our Town.

I was one of the few who knew his secret weapon. Rex used a spray gun to create highlights and shadows. He used it with the focus of an orchestra conductor. He’d draw an outline of the scenery on the canvas, while a student mixed paint at the sink near the frame. Then he’d lay in the details, grab his gun and off he’d go. My husband was John Wayne of the paint frame, spraying in subtleties of color like he was waving a magic wand.

Backdrop for Guys and Dolls
Guys and Dolls

Rex was a genius, there’s no argument there. His need to create beautiful art was unrelenting. But like most geniuses, he had little concern for his own well-being while he was working. The hours he spent spraying paint on canvas without a mask, are too numerous to recount. And in the early days, he’d have a cigarette in his hand at the same time. Spray–breathe in fumes, spray–breathe in cigarette smoke, spray– and create phenomenal art.

guys and dolls backdrop
Guys and Dolls: Sewer drop

My husband’s work was astonishing, but he could have lived so much longer if he wasn’t so reckless with his health. Was that the madness of an artistic genius?  I knew I was talented, but I was jealous of Rex’s genius.  Maybe I was lucky to be spared. As the saying goes, “Talent does what it can and genius does what it must.” 

And now you are gone my love and I am alone. I’m angry and sad, and I miss you every single day.

Sydell Weiner, February 23, 2018