Theatre Row and the Power of the Preset

I’m currently studying in New York City through a program called the Tepper Semester, run by Syracuse University. The program’s offices are housed in Theatre Row Studios. The directors were lucky enough to get a tour of the whole building from the wonderful house manager (who is worth talking to any time you can catch him when he’s not working on solving the daily logic puzzle of performances, companies, and audiences in six different performance spaces in the same building.) He knows so much about the building, the companies, and the history of Theatre Row. (And he’s not too shabby on general theater history either!)

Theatre Row has a very interesting past in that the physical building was actually made up of brownstone tenements when it was developed into an off-Broadway theater. (Though the building actually houses only one off-Broadway theater and five off-off houses, Theater Row itself has the off-Broadway designation.) In some of theaters you can actually see the original walls of the tenement, including filled in windows and fireplaces.

The Acorn, Theatre Row’s largest theater is the official home of the New Group, and will soon be hosting Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, directed by Ethan Hawke and starring Keith Carradine (of Dexter and Dollhouse fame for those of us not old enough to recognize him as a member of the famous Carradine family.) Mr. Hawke is also assisted on the show by my friend Sam. It promises to be awesome, so you should really want to go to there!

Speaking of Wanting to Go to There, let’s talk about the preset, shall we? The preset is a term for what the audience sees when they first enter the theater to sit down, the set as it is without actors or production lighting. As directors, we don’t have a lot of time to think about the preset. It’s hopefully something that we and the set designer have agreed upon and that doesn’t drive the stage manager crazy to set up every night. Some directors even change the preset in front of the audience right before curtain to another preset. (This can be very redundant when not done right.)

A good preset is like a good poster. It sums up the feel of your show, not the show itself. It sets a precedent that both gives the audience something to look forward to and allows you to exceed it. During our tour of Theatre Row, we were taken into the Clurman Theater, on the lower level, and we came upon the best preset I’ve seen in a long time.

Five or six neatly ordered piles of stuff lie on the stage, most prominently a stack of books stage left and a pristine white toilet at center. It is the preset for Michael Aranov’s one man show Manigma. I don’t know about you, but I’m interested. Good presets: a staging principle.

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