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On Assignment: The Glass Menagerie

Since 1983, when I started stringing assignments for the Leesburg (FL) Commercial, I have always gravitated toward community journalism. I just find it intimate and rewarding to work within a tight geographic area and get to know the people who live all around you.

In the 27 years since, I have obviously gotten the chance to shoot in many interesting and exotic places in the years that followed. But I always gravitate back towards shooting locally -- especially where self-directed photographic projects are concerned.

Last year, I photographed Michael Stebbins, who is the creative and artistic director for The Rep Stage, a local theatrical company. The Rep is very highly thought of in our neck of the woods, and they produce an interesting and high-quality mix of plays every season.

After the shoot, I told him to keep me in mind should anything interesting ever come along, and that I would love to contribute. Last fall, he called me back with an opportunity that at once both piqued my interest and scared the crap out of me: To shoot the images that would be projected up on stage during a production of Tennessee Williams' American classic, The Glass Menagerie.

Where Do I Start?

I'll confess right now to never having much success reading drama. Due mostly to formatting issues I have never really been able to lose myself in reading scripts. I enjoy live theater inasmuch as I can understand it. But frequently I don't grasp the complicated stuff. And I don't know whether to write that off to my ignorance or my not being able to suffer pretense very well.

My wife, on the other hand, has a grad degree in literature and understands pretty much everything. So of course I opt for the 'not suffering pretense' response if I don't get something. Wonderfully convenient, that.

So it shouldn't surprise you that I had never read, nor was even familiar with the plot of The Glass Menagerie. But I did know it was an American Classic. (Cue the 'not suffering pretense' response...)

Michael promised he would guide me through the images -- what was happening when they went up, context, where the subject boundaries were, etc. So I was game.

In high school, I probably would have hit the Cliff's Notes version ASAP. But that was a long time ago and I would have liked to think I have progressed a little since then. So I opted for the Wikipedia page. Now I knew just enough to be dangerous.

The play is a memory wrapped inside of a memory, which is exactly the kind of thing that would normally send me running for the exits. (Give me a buddy flick with some well-choreographed gunplay and a few slow-mo explosions any day.)

Michael wisely invited me to a run-through, which was to be followed by a production meeting. I have to admit to being a little surprised at how much I enjoyed the play. It was interesting, accessible and I left feeling strangely more intelligent just for understanding a play that is considered to be a classic.

Ready to Shoot

One of the original devices used in the play is that of projections. They pop up in the set and are keyed to various memories and perception-vs-reality stuff. It happens maybe a dozen times throughout the play, and is sort of like a flashback in a movie. Tennessee Williams was under contract with a film studio when he wrote it, and it may have originally been seen as a movie.

The projections are not always included in modern performances. But to Michael's credit, he absolutely wanted to try them. So we started working through the process, designing photos to be projected at different moments in the play. The good news: They would be displayed on a 12-foot-wide screen. The bad news is that the height is less than four feet. That's a pretty stripey aspect ratio, which created some problems to be solved.

We had the variable of time to work with, which is to say we could build the photos almost like a Keynote presentation. (They use similar software in the theater.)

The photos were great fun to shoot, and I understand they will be adding some extra layers of post production to them in the presentation software. They all represent warped memories and/or outright tall tales being spun by the characters.

A Sampling

The photo at top is of Malvolio the Magician, a who exists only in a whopper being spun by actual character Tom (AKA actor Karl Kippola) to cover up one of his many nights of drinking. (I think we've all conjured our version of Malvolio on occasion…)

Malvolio was lit with three gridded lights. The flare from the rims is visible at the edges, with the actual lights being just our of frame. I gridded them to be able to give full rimlight to Malvolio while controlling the amount of flare coming back into the lens.

I wanted a little bit of a Vaudeville look, as it is appropriate to the period. So I stuck a frontal light in a gridded beauty dish on the floor in font of him. They used to use those floor lights out of necessity back in the day, so people ended up looking like monsters. Fitting for Malvolio, too.

After Malvolio (in the second photo) is Laura, walking the streets of nearby Ellicott City in our photos. It's a sequence in which she is explaining how she spent her days while playing hookie from business school, and old Main Street in Ellicott City was the stand-in for pre-WWII St. Louis. There was no flash used in this shot -- I just walked behind her at a fast pace at 1/15th of a second or so, zooming during the exposure to compound the feeling of movement.

Directly above is the imaginary Malvolio again, this time depicting his escape from a coffin. We did a cool sequence here, and props to the prop folks (heh) for whipping up the partial frame of a coffin on almost no notice.

We draped my trusty "Wal-Mart Special Queen-Sized Sheet of 1001 Uses" over it, and lit it selectively to look creepily coffin-like. For shape, we used a gridded dish from behind to define the rim of the coffin. The sheet was white, so we underexposed it about 3 stops which let nearly everything else go dark. That same painted some highlights on Malvolio, too. Then we added a tightly gridded key on his face from camera left, to bring up detail without ruining the other areas of the frame.

We kind of zoom in and play with that face light intensity a little during the multi-slide build, too. At least I did on the photos I delivered. We'll see what happens after they get done with their post work.

This frame of a totally vacant Laura, which is displayed while her mother is defending her being a little, well, off, is my favorite of the bunch.

It is a single image from a timed build, too, which was one way we were able to use all of that horizontal real estate with what is essentially vertical subject. We dissolved through a sequence of tighter and tighter crops, finishing on just the eyes filling up that whole horizontal screen.

Laura's skin (rather, that of actor Christine DeMuth) is pale and luminous, and I wanted to accentuate that with a Joyce Tenneson -type of tonal range. We went to full white on the background, with two lights on Laura's face. The key is a beauty dish from high camera left with strong fill from an ABR-800 ring light in a Moon Unit. Then we overexposed the whole thing by a stop or so just to strip it bare, tonally.

Post-wise, it is almost untouched other than the general stuff we did to all of the photos.

Creating a Unified Look

The subject matter varied quite a bit, but we wanted a visual theme for the projections. With the exception of some imagery of blue roses (which stems from the mis-heard word plurosis,) everything was monochromatic.

I shot black and white in-camera (digital) just to see the results better on the camera back. Then I I took the (RGB) b&w file and shifted everything plus red and minus blue to get a sepia toned look. This fit with both the period (1940's memories, some dating to the 1930's) and with the color scheme of the set.

We also wanted a sort of baseline squishiness to the photos. So I duped the image into a second layer, used a gaussian blur and varied the opacity when combine the sharp and blurry layers. They will add more in their post production, but I did not want anything to be totally sharp as the are memories and imaginations.

C'mon Out

Above is a 2-minuteupdated, 4-minute video of Micheal Stebbins talking about the production. (The stills included are not mine.)

I am very much looking forward to seeing the final product at 7pm on Wednesday, February 10th. Tickets are normally $16-$30 ($12 for students with ID) but Wednesdays are "pay what you can" nights, which is very cool in a Radiohead sort of way.

If you enjoy drama and are in the Baltimore/Washington area, I encourage you to join me. I'll be the one in the Google sweatshirt, which should narrow the odds considerably should you wish to say hi. Please do not come just looking for a slideshow of my images -- the projections are a modest device used sparingly throughout the play.

But if you are into drama, I think you will enjoy the play itself. I certainly did.

You can get more info on The Rep Stage's performance of The Glass Menagerie here. If you are reading this after Feb., 2010, the Company's main page is here.

Next: Trip Jennings


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