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Behind the Scenes at Seattle Rep's Upcoming 'Red'

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Denis Arndt and Connor Toms in 'Red'.
Seattle Repertory’s next play is a very contemporary one which won six Tony Awards in 2010! Red is by John Logan, who you might know better as the screenwriter of the movies Gladiator and The Aviator.

This two man play sounds plainer on paper than it’s likely to be on stage: a famous abstract painter, Mark Rothko, spars with his assistant, as they prepare panels of murals for a famous restaurant. Their conversation is partly a discussion about art versus commerce, and partly a mentor talking to his mentee. It wouldn’t win six Tonys if it wasn’t pretty scintillating on stage.

The production has some unique backstage challenges. They involve the actors and the set and props designers. The actors have to paint on stage, and stretch and assemble canvases. However, the real paintings from the famous painter, Mark Rothko, couldn’t be used, so the set designer, Kent Dorsey, had to design some Rothko-inspired paintings for us to see, and the props designer, Jolene Obertin, has to wrestle with the fact that they mix paint and actually paint on stage in multiple shows a week.

The play is about a real person and a real event in Rothko’s life. Kent explains that his set design is a blend of realism and representation. “One of the things we became interested in is the way Rothko works. He painted in layers, so almost everything was a glaze. These paintings look like a simple rectangle with an opening, but they’re hundreds of layers and texture. With the set, it needed several layers so it’s not just a big open room. So, there’s a balcony, and a big rolling easel he built, and a mockup of the Four Seasons restaurant walls.

“A lot of Rothko’s paintings were about painting portals to draw someone into or see the world through. From a practical side, for these paintings in particular, he was a complete control freak on ‘no natural light.’ These paintings were painted under strict low light level, and they were to be viewed in those conditions.”

From the first rehearsal, the actors had to work with paint and canvas. “Jolene and I had to teach the actors on how to mix paint and how to use brushes. How to live in their world. They had to begin with this giant rolling easel and began practicing from the beginning of rehearsal.”

Jolene describes some of the specific prop issues. “The actors (Denis Arndt and Connor Toms) mix a bunch of paint, paint a 5 x 8 canvas and paint it specifically during a music piece. The assistant has to assemble a frame. There are things that Rothko did that we can’t do onstage because of safety reasons. Some of the paints Rothko really used are so toxic, they can’t be used without a respirator. And needless to say, actors with respirators aren’t that able to speak.” Jolene laughs.

Some of the concerns with props included things like, “Powdered pigments are like dust and they would get all over everything during the run, due to the amount of pigment in the air that would settle everywhere. We still have to have powder because of the script. We’re using powdered sand, an idea I heard about from Goodman Theatre in Chicago. It’s heavy enough to not fly away and it’s still colored.”

Just like in a cooking show, where the cake is already baked, Jolene describes that, “the paint they actually use is already pre-mixed and the actors don’t have to be accurate in their mixing on stage.”

Also, Jolene had to find special lighting due to Rothko’s dislike of natural lighting. “We’re using old scoops that we had to find. Rothko liked to play music while he painted, and I found an old record player on eBay.”

She enjoys, in particular, that in Rothko photographs, “there’s an Adirondack chair, which we include onstage. It’s comfortable, but it doesn’t have upholstery on it, so you didn’t ruin it, if you got paint on it. It makes so much sense in Rothko’s space. Also, it’s an easy place to put ashtrays, since he was a heavy smoker.”

Other idiosyncrasies of Rothko include, “He had tons of Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee cans around and we had to find some of those. And he painted with big house-painting brushes instead of painters’ brushes.”

Kent adds, “The playwright didn’t want to write a play about two people standing around talking about art, he wanted to reflect people making art.”

If your interest has been piqued, you can see the play, opening on Wednesday, February 29 and running until March 18. You can buy tickets via the Seattle Repertory Theatre website.