EXCERPTS FROM THE FEATURE
The following are excerpts from the September 21, 2016 What Weekly feature on Wait Until Dark, when the Magazine's staff writer, Katy Meacham, sat down with Resident Set Designer Daniel Ettinger and Costume Designer Ben Argenta Kress to discuss the labor of love behind the thriller.
As we augment our existence with all means of technology, theater becomes more important than ever as a means by which to stay connected to our humanity.
In today’s world we digest narratives in more ways than ever. Our lives are inundated by headphones, smartphones, screens of all sizes, and coming to a headset near you soon, virtual reality. Not to mention traditional media channels such as books, magazines, television and radio that still vie for an ever shrinking segment of our attention. As digital media continues to occupy an increasing amount of our time, the visceral effect of intimate, uneditable storytelling that can only be achieved by the interactions of flesh and blood contributors on the stage, are particularly remarkable when compared to superficial diversions that steadily bombard indifferent, digital feeds.
Theater is an experience, unmatched in its intimacy. The vulnerability, the risk, the subtle understanding that at any moment everything could go wrong, or perhaps it already has but the actors recovered expertly. At its best, it transports you from your seat into a world being created in real-time before you and it becomes a fully immersive experience. It is the responsibility of the theater to take us away and make us believe. It can be quite challenging.
We spoke with, Daniel Ettinger, resident set designer at Everyman Theatre and, Ben Argenta Kress, costume designer, about their current production, “Wait Until Dark” and how they worked through challenges to ensure the audience loses themselves in the suspense instead of the details.
“Wait Until Dark” tells the story of Susan, a recently blinded woman, that lives with her photographer husband Sam. While traveling, a fellow passenger smuggles a doll into Sam’s satchel. Turns out that quite a few people are after that doll and unbeknownst to the couple, they end up in the middle of a murder mystery and in danger themselves.
A play like this requires a lot on the production side. There are dead bodies, weapons, blood and fire. All things that hardly register with the audience when done well, but quite the opposite when not. The issues of safety, realism and practicality all have to be balanced.
The sound, the set and the costumes all have to work hand in hand to make sure that the prop knife looks like a knife, sounds like a knife flying through the air, and sounds like a knife being sunk into the wall across the room, when in fact, no knife was thrown and the knife in the wall actually emerged from within at the perfect moment to complete the illusion.
“The knife in the show,” Daniel explains, ” that our heroine wields, looks good, but its made of aluminum so its light enough to work with, and its totally dull. But its got a great look, and there is a bloody version of this too. Because of the noir quality of the show, things are pretty dark. So the blood on the knife has to be exaggerated, in order for it to read.”
First things first however, the set and costume must reflect the time. The entire play takes place in a basement apartment in Greenwich Village in the 1940’s. Daniel , the created an environment that not only worked for the time but also the mood and the general cohesion of the play. It starts with the research and the acquiring of the set. The appliances are standouts for this production, especially the old-fashioned oven and refrigerator. When asked how he acquires the pieces on the set, “I think the refrigerator came off craigslist. It’s actually a 1952 refrigerator but I knocked in back a few years by the color choice. Cause it wasn’t that color before.”
But there are also all of the details, the jars and photos, the frame and upholstery of the couch. While all these elements must read as historically correct, they also have to work with mood and feel of the play.
As a dark and mysterious piece, the production team and director wanted more neutrals on set; greys, navy blues and light blues. The furniture and costume all has to relate to this. The apartment is also in the basement, so needs to look dark and somewhat dingy. The grey walls help to create a concrete feel while also subduing the tone.
Costumes are no different. Again, they must register as historically correct. They must work within the general feel of the piece and not mention the functionality. In this production, there is a good amount of blood, an elaborate fight scenes and quick costume changes. All of which present problems in which Ben Argenta Kress, costume designer, must consider and solve to make the show work. Many costumes have doubles, they launder the costumes daily, apparently blood in show biz comes out quite easily.
When asked about the relationship between the set and costume, Ben explained,
We have production meetings that keep us on the same page. With this piece I kept the color a little tapped down, so that it still is dark and gives it the noir feeling. There are also some big icons in this one like what gangster villains should look like.
These are all choices being made.
It can seem small, the throwing of a knife, the lighting of a gum wrapper. But that’s only when it’s done well. If these ‘small’ details go ary the audience comes back to reality and taken out of the story. There are so many elements that take place long before the audience steps place into the theater. There are so many tricks to the trade. Many of us in the audience often don’t know how they convince us to come into their world, we just know that when it works, it works. And we can’t look away.