In honor of our first rehearsal today of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, this is the first installment in a three-post series directly from the fingers of our 2013 Stage Door Design Project students, who worked in production teams to create three unique and cohesive sets of scenic, lighting, sound, and costume designs for the The 39 Steps last spring, under the guidance of Geva’s own professional staff and designers.
Each production team (consisting of 3-4 area high school students each focusing on a different field of design) wrote about their creative process, as individuals and as a group, while they explored design ideas that would best represent their interpretation of The 39 Steps.
Three months after their first meeting, the Stage Door Design Project students presented their designs to one another and their Geva mentors, prompting rich discussion about the collaborative nature of theatre and how there can be many interpretations of the same show – both in concept and in design.
In October the students will be returning to Geva to see their designs showcased in our lobby, watch our production of The 39 Steps, and discuss the designs created by the show’s professional design team.
Team A designed for scenes 13, 14 and 15 – the crofter’s cottage at night, the Scottish moors at dawn, and the outside of Alt Na Shellach. Below, the students of Team A describe their artistic and technical approaches to these scenes:
Scenic: “From a scenic perspective, the set needs to be very simple…and funny. There has to be noise and awkwardness, but not too much. You never want to detract from the work of the actors. In designing a set for a play such as this one, a lot of faith has to be put in the audience. It’s not a traditional set. In my mind, there are weird effects, strange props, things on wheels, and things going on and off stage all the time.
In the scenes our production team designed for, we talked about having a backdrop on wheels for the cottage, and the clowns would rush out some furniture (bed, nightstand, etc.) to put in front of it. Then the clowns would get those things offstage as soon as the silhouette sheet comes on for the moor scene. I had a very clear image of how I wanted the play to feel, even when I wasn’t really sure yet about the exact details of what I wanted the set to be.”
Lighting: “When I think about the overall play, I imagine it to have warmer reds and ambers in the first few scenes until Hannay is sent on the run, where it would then transition to cool blues. I wanted to use colors closer to the green end of the spectrum and lots of blues to set a general feeling of unease.
Scenes 13 and 14 have Hannay, literally, on the run and scene 15 has him ‘accomplishing his goal’ and being ‘saved.’ This lets me have uneasy and mysterious blues when he is running, and then use warmer red and amber tones to trick the audience into believing he is safe at Alt Na Schellach. In his scene with the crofter and Margaret, I wanted to add contrast between the light the crofter turns on when he runs in on one side of the stage (which would be a warm amber) and a cold blue or lavender coming from the view of a window behind Hannay on the other side of the stage. I know that usually “comedy = brighter” but I think with the serious content of these scenes, it is funnier if the lighting seems entirely too dramatic.
Another important aspect we focused on for lighting was in scene 15 when Hannay finally stumbles onto Alt Na Schallach. I wanted to emphasize the foreshadowing of the sign that would be right outside the door with sinister birds on it. We discussed adding in some thunder and lightning for effect here. This would inform the audience that something bad is about to go down, but still trick them (and Hannay) into a false sense of security.”
Sound: “Coming up with music and sound effects that properly fit in with this play is a challenging task. Our team leaned toward a more comedy-based interpretation. My sound ideas – cheesy, cliché sound effects and songs (like Tchaikovsky’s “Love Theme” in Romeo and Juliet) – and one of the clowns walking around the stage with an actual period microphone and headset serving as the radio announcer (rather than having the broadcast pre-recorded) fit in with that concept.”
Costumes: “Our production team worked to be as creative as possible – to see how we could play with the technical aspects of this show while staying true to the script. Since this particular play has actors comically acknowledging that they are actors onstage, we got to experiment with unusual ways to make The 39 Steps come alive. With costume design, I created era-relevant costumes that can easily be changed in the frequent quick-changes. The two clowns especially need to be able to change their costumes quickly and often, so they will be put in classic white tee shirts and navy suit pants to go underneath the costumes for these changes.”