It often surprises me just how much you have to know in order to make something up. In the theatre, we make things up all the time, and most of the time, we start with a lot of research. Some of that research is pretty traditional – reading, taking notes, and so on. When they wrote Next to Normal, composer Tom Kitt and librettist/lyricist Brian Yorkey spent years researching bipolar disorder and electroshock therapy (ECT) to get ideas for their story and to keep it accurate and honest. Later, in preparing for our production, the cast went through a similar process, reading articles and case studies to help them understand the characters’ experiences.
But research can also look very different.
Theatre designers do visual research, both to find inspiration for their designs and to help communicate their ideas to the rest of the creative team. They pull images from a huge range of sources. Some of these images look nothing like what you’ll see on stage, but they may help explain the tone of the play, or define a color palette, so that the design team can develop a shared aesthetic and make their work on the production fit together.
When he starts to work on a production, Next to Normal scenic designer Kevin Rigdon likes to “latch on to some artist whose work inspires the look and feel of the show.” For this design, that artist was American photographer Gregory Crewdson, “who stages an entire environment for his photo shoots of otherworldly, yet chillingly ordinary, scenes of domestic life.”
Some of the designers’ research, on the other hand, is literal – it captures the look they want to put on stage. If you’ve seen Next to Normal, you can probably tell how this image inspired Kevin’s scenic design:
For costume designer Sydney Roberts, research is not just a source of inspiration, it’s part of how she presents her design. For Next to Normal, she first found images of clothing that helped narrow down her options. Then she shared those images alongside her own renderings and descriptions of each character’s costumes. That helped her talk about her ideas. “Modern dress costume design is always trickier than we think. Everyone – cast, designers, director, audience – has a take on what modern clothes mean and how modern clothing images resonate.” Using her research and her own drawings, Sydney was able to communicate with the rest of the team about what the clothes said to them. All those images are also helpful for the costume shop staff, who’s responsible for making her designs appear on stage.