Out of Thin Air: Using Your Imagination to Create Theatre

Stage performers have many resources they can rely on to help create the reality of a show. When there's an actual budget, design team, and technical staff available, the job of the players is that much easier. But what if there are no costumes, makeup, wigs, sets, props, lights, music, or even fellow cast members? Without any scenery to chew, all the actor has left is a bare stage and his or her imagination.

The fact is, foregoing the technological artistry and design elements that usually shape and enhance a play, all that is really needed to make theatre happen is the words, some staging, willing actors, and an attentive audience. Sometimes you don't even need a script or a director—improvisation, anyone?

Back Stage consulted a collection of playmakers to examine the process of creating theatre out of thin air. The resourceful group consists of playwrights John Weidman and Kia Corthron; directors Erin Brindley, John Gregorio, and Rodney E. Reyes; artistic director-dramaturg Deborah Wright Houston; and performers Linda Marlowe, John Rengstorff, Adam Mervis, Greg LaGana, and Mike Messer. They will share their experiences of working with limited technical elements in the hope of making your next empty-stage performance a full and fulfilling endeavor.

Countless Possibilities

There is an old saying that theatre can be created out of "two planks and a passion." Throughout history, ancient dramas and comedies have been presented in open arenas and other venues where scenic backdrops were secondary, and often nonexistent. Shakespeare is, of course, the best example of this, as his works feature multiple locales yet are almost always staged on an all-purpose set with levels and entranceways and not much else. That flexibility has allowed his plays to be extremely adaptable to any conditions, and ambitious organizations have staged his works everywhere—from parks to parking lots.

Most forms of stripped-down theatre were invented out of necessity. The experimental movement—and rising rental costs—led to the use of black boxes, storefront spaces, and alternative venues such as libraries, bars, and coffeehouses. Solo shows, improv comedy, and sketch revues can often be performed with a simple "lights up, lights down" approach. Stand-up routines, cabaret acts, and spoken-word events eliminate the need for anything other than a spotlight and a microphone. Nowadays, it is not unusual to follow an address on a flyer to an art gallery, a downtown loft, a converted office, or even someone's apartment to see live theatre.

Setting the Scene

Many published plays begin with a description of the set as the author envisions it. These guidelines will influence a designer's plans as he envisions the scenery or develops a lighting scheme. When the action takes place on a bare stage, however, lighting obviously becomes more important to delineating playing areas and locations. When the show is staged outdoors, lights may not even be a factor. It is a testament to a playwright's work when his script can hold audiences' attention with the slightest of design elements.

John Weidman is the author of the book for the current Tony Award-winning revival of "Assassins" and has collaborated with composer Stephen Sondheim on two other noteworthy projects: "Pacific Overtures" and "Bounce." He acknowledges the importance of collaboration when determining a set design for a new work. "Initially, Steve and I imagined that 'Assassins' would move from one specific place to another, and we wound up with a designer who delivered what we had imagined. And I have said to people ever since, 'The designer should not write the show, and the authors of the show should not design the set.'

"When 'Assassins' was produced at Playwrights Horizons, as the piece moved from scene to scene, the set was on a turntable and featured projections. For the Broadway production, director Joe Mantello's instincts were to make the piece flow by setting it in a much more limbolike neutral space, and as soon as he said it, as soon as he talked about the way it would make the piece operate, I knew it was exactly correct. And it feels that way on stage."

Though the stage for "Assassins" is anything but bare—a huge wooden structure conveys an amusement park, boardwalk-like setting—the different scenes jump through time and space without traditional technical trappings. The show chronicles the presidential assassination attempts over the past two centuries, so recreating each period with anything other than costumes and props could prove complicated and cost-prohibitive.

"There was always the sense that a sideshow atmosphere would be the mood that would surround the action, and when Sam Mendes directed the show in London, he created this kind of a carnival environment. On Broadway, Joe really sort of took that concept and ran with it. The text is virtually unchanged—I rearranged some of the material in one of the book scenes, and there's a new song, a song that was written for the London production 10 years ago. But the show feels entirely different, and that really is because all of Joe's impulses were correct. They all had to do with the best way to deliver the text, and the set reflects that."

Weidman agrees that theatre can be done on a simple level and be just as effective as a full-blown production. "I've seen a number of productions where I wished I was seeing the last run-through in the rehearsal process, because I felt that—and this is really about commercial theatre—for some reason, people have decided that in order to give people their $100 worth, they have to see the money onstage. And I think that not only is that not true, but in fact people can be overwhelmed by that and lose the real strength of the piece. I believe that you can train an audience to expect certain things that are bad for the theatre, and that is one of those things."

Playwright Kia Corthron has also had her share of successes, most recently with the production of her play "Light Raise the Roof" at New York Theatre Workshop. Once again, the ensemble—who portrayed homeless people struggling to overcome their environment—was blessed with impressive technical support. But for the most part, the set pieces the actors worked with were mainly found objects, such as scaffolding and discarded items.

Corthron didn't go into too much detail when writing the set description for her drama, but she did have a few ideas she wanted to see incorporated. "We had discussions back and forth, and at first it was suggested that the set be a bare stage. But I really wanted to establish that the central homeless character was a struggling architect with a vision, and I wanted to see him build three makeshift shelters out of discarded items. I felt that once we showed that at the beginning, I didn't care if the rest of the show had much in the way of sets."

Creating a play that calls for a bare stage presents challenges not only to the actors, but also the writer. "A play of mine that was done in the Bronx was set on a bare stage," notes Corthron. "It's called 'Caged Rhythms' and it is about women in prison. It was like a 90-minute one-act with approximately 20 scenes, so it actually works best when the actors can flow in and out without any scene changes."

Original Practice

Along with being artistic director of the Kings County Shakespeare Company, Deborah Wright Houston is also serving as dramaturg for the company's presentation of "Romeo and Juliet," performing July 8-26 at the Chapel of the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn Heights.

Her approach to presenting shows by the Bard is straightforward and traditional. "Shakespeare's text provides the scenery, so it doesn't hinge on needing set pieces. Our version of 'Romeo and Juliet' is being done as 'original practice.' The term refers to productions of Shakespeare's time, when plays were performed during the day in natural light (as in the Globe Theatre) or by candlelight when indoors (as at Blackfriars). There are minimal sets, no stage lights—only general lighting, which illuminates both performers and audience with no changes or special effects—and, most importantly, actor-audience interaction. This style leads to a very up-close, dynamic theatrical experience."

Putting the Bard on the boards has become second nature for the 21-year-old group, which does employ an occasional chair or prop in the proceedings. "We never work on an absolutely bare stage; we always use levels. On the Globe stage, there was always seating around the columns. Beyond that, there is use of some objects. Carrying torches indicated evening—this is prescribed in the text. The text gives you the clues you need to indicate what is necessary."

Houston and "Romeo and Juliet" director Vicki Hirsch will sometimes suggest theatre games or improvisation exercises to aide actors in exploring situations presented by the poetic playwright. But Houston feels that most of the creative spark already exists in the performers themselves. "No actor gets very far without using his or her imagination. Those who have studied in scene class have the experience of minimal performance elements. When they start doing plays, unless they make it to Broadway or film and television right away, they're already quite used to doing this. Remember that the most important thing to the audience is relationship, not setting."

She feels it is up to directors to provide "the interest, the vision, the big picture. Directors can also provide physical support (furnishings and props) with very little money. The same space can serve as an interior or exterior depending on movement patterns. How the actors enter the space indicates whether they are entering an interior or exterior space."

In the end, however, it all comes back to the people onstage. Houston gives these final words of wisdom for all players, Shakespearean or otherwise: "Use your training. Trust your instinct."

Winging It

Improvisation is the definitive version of creating theatre out of thin air, and consequently has become the theatrical form of choice for many performers and producing companies who lack a lot of technical support. John Gregorio is a member of The Nuclear Family, along with Stephen Guarino and Jimmy Bennett. They will be reuniting July 12 and 26 at the Belt Theatre, presenting completely improvised, long-form musicals on a bare stage for 90 minutes with no intermission.

Gregorio explains, "The show's concept is a day in the life of a modern American family—chosen and named by the audience—as they leave the safety of their comfortable home. With the exception of about 200 wigs suspended from two walls on either side of the stage, we have no other wardrobe apart from street clothes, no props, and no script, for that matter. Still, in the course of one evening, you may see 50 different settings and who knows how many characters."

Apart from the fact that it costs very little to put on a show, working on a bare stage fits in perfectly with the group's style of acting. "If we had to build props and sets for all of the scenes we have performed, we would have seriously jeopardized the forests and single-handedly funded the paint industry. Our show works because, without sets, our characters can go anywhere and do anything. The tricky part is getting the audience to come along with you."

One of the best exercises for preparing to work on a bare stage, according to Gregorio, requires actors to perform a scene in which they can't talk unless they are manipulating something or doing an activity in the environment. "That rule eliminates any chance of an actor just standing there like a talking head. He or she must interact with the surroundings, touch it and make it real. This exercise is also a good way to teach respect for the actors' choices, because if one actor walks through a door, then other actors must take note on where it is and open it or close it just like anybody else. How easy is that? Somebody already made the door. Go through it. It's so much simpler than smashing through the 'wall' like the Kool-Aid character, and easier on the audience's suspension of disbelief."

Speaking of audiences, the performer shares some insights on keeping the audience connected. "If you are confident in the who and the where of a scene, then the audience will actually see what you see, and it will surprise you how similarly they all perceive the story you tell. This works the same for any bare-stage production, scripted or otherwise, drama or comedy. It's all about how you react seriously to what is essentially not there, whether it's the feeling of living in an immense but cold mansion, or holding a heavy gun in your hand. At the end of the show, each audience member will know where the fireplace is and how much the gun hurts to hold."

He also advises actors working on a bare stage to "not be afraid to touch everything in the scene, including each other." His suggestions to directors are equally helpful: "The actors may forget, but you must always know where everything is. If you have a complete image in your mind, then the actors always have something to play in. Just be sure to prepare that image before you start."

Sweet Dreams

Erin Brindley directs shows for Ripple Productions, including an empty-stage presentation of "Innocent When You Dream" at 100 Grand and the imaginative "The Wheat and the Moon" at Access Theater. She and her colleagues are currently developing a play that integrates a four-course meal, which will go up at the end of October.

Brindley relates, "My brain works two ways—either entirely literally or entirely representational. Once I put a prop or a piece of scenery on stage, I feel like there is no going back—everything has to be realistic. But there is a freedom in working with nothing, because the possibilities are limitless. I believe if the actors have a strong sense of where they are, the audience will go there with them. It doesn't have to be all spelled out—'Floor rug here, Degas painting here, see the Degas, see the Degas!' Rather, I think it's all about finding the physical life of the space. How does one walk into one's bedroom versus a school classroom? What does a space do to one's body? I believe the audience can gather so much more information than we give them credit for, and we've spent our whole lives reading body language. I think we can get as much information from an actor's physical life as any prop or piece of furniture."

When Brindley directs performers on a bare stage, she sees the exercise as "a journey to discover the space together. I may see something very different than they do, and it's about working with the ensemble to create consistency. Where do we exit? Which direction is the bus stop in? Working together so that everyone is in the same basic floor pattern adds specificity, and with that specificity comes the freedom to fill in the blanks."

Her advice to other directors working in this format is encouraging as well. "My advice would be to approach the project not as a lack of something, but rather as an opportunity to create exactly the world you want to, an ever-changing world. A blank stage is like a blank canvas that you can paint over again and again, and, oh, how that solves staging problems!"

Tapping into childhood instincts may be the key that unlocks an actor's inhibitions when creating a world onstage, Brindley concludes. "I think it's so important not to underestimate how clever and creative we all were when we were playing house or army as children. We created entire worlds with our play friends without thinking about rules and restrictions. Somehow recalling that sense of play and adding the craftsmanship all actors should practice can create a magnetic performance."

Creative Challenges

Rodney E. Reyes is a founding member and co-artistic director of Cuchipinoy Productions, as well as director of operations for Apricot Sky Productions. He will be directing "Curing Ron" at the American Theatre of Actors from July 14-18, and co-directing "Precipice" for the New York International Fringe Festival from Aug. 13-29.

When faced with a script for a show without scenery, Reyes views the prospect as an "exhilarating" challenge. "I have a stage that is bare and therein lies the fun. One of the most compelling things theatre has going for it is the illusion of creating a space where the audience can basically see what they want to see. My approach is one of careful precision, because even though there is no scenery, the actors and myself must create certain guidelines to convey exactly what we want the audience to see. For example, it is like feeding the audience line-by-line descriptions of the setting as a novel does, and allowing the audience to utilize the greatest tool they have: their imagination."

The writer-director feels that artists have a responsibility to control the confines of the world they create. "Each situation has its own basic rules of reality. For instance, a show without props just has one rule: consistency. You can pantomime what you want the audience to see, but you should never try to confuse them or trick them by not remaining consistent. Audiences pick up on discarded pantomimed props left by actors on the stage; sometimes the audience has a better understanding of these props than the actors do. My approach is practice and awareness—practicing the weight, the look, the texture of the prop, and the awareness of where it is at all times and how it feels in the hands of the actor."

Reyes feels that working on a bare stage allows the actors a sense of relief but can also cause fear. "There is this sense of relief that there are no boundaries on the playing field at first glance. Actors might succumb to the belief that the whole stage is a playing field for their performance, which in turn gives them the false sense of freedom. Boundaries need to be established. Just because there are two actors onstage doesn't mean the characters they play can see each other directly. Rules of the world of the play need to be established early on, so that actors can get used to the invisible walls on the stage just like they are used to the fourth wall. Fear can strike as well, because the actors are naked to the audience at all times when on stage. There is no scenery to hide behind, and actors must not just fill the moment, but fill the space they are occupying as well."

Other directors who choose to work on a bare stage can follow Reyes' example by allowing the actors to explore the space individually at first for 15 minutes. "Use exercises to create what that space is, and ask questions about the space that each performer has created with attention to detail. Then bring all the actors to the stage and explore each of those different spaces, thereby adding to each of the descriptions—because, just like real life, one person does not create a home; teams of people do. The best advice I could give is to allow the actors to imagine big and then scale it down to make it work for the play. It is easier to work big and then small than the other way around. You get to work with the best possible explorations and gradually get rid of what doesn't work."

Acting Up

Once a show is up and running, the responsibility falls to the performer to create the world and the era in which his or her character lives. Different actors tackle this challenge in different ways—here are just a few testimonials to life upon the empty stage.

The Brits Off Broadway series is being presented at the brand new 59E59 Theaters. One standout is veteran actress Linda Marlowe, making her New York debut in two solo shows, "Berkoff's Women" and "No Fear!" Josie Lawrence directs Marlowe in "Berkoff's Women," while Gavin Marshall stages "No Fear!"

Linda Marlowe's career spans over 42 years on stage, film, and television. She has also directed many theatre productions and won the 1990 Manchester Evening News Award for best director.

Having been a frequent collaborator of Steven Berkoff for the past quarter century, Marlowe has had plenty of experience embodying his female characters.

"I started doing solo shows about five years ago. For 'Berkoff's Women,' Steven asked me to do a show of his work. He didn't direct the show, but he gave me his blessing. So I adapted characters from many of his plays, and a short story he wrote. I have since done over 450 performances of the show all over the world."

Like most one-person plays, the emphasis of "Berkoff's Women" was never on elaborate settings or props. "At first I thought, 'God, I'm going to need props for this show, and this and that.' And I decided right at the beginning, after working on it for a few days, that the virtuosity of it was to do it in a black dress with no set, with just something to place a champagne bottle on and a chair to sit on. So I metamorphose myself into these different characters, taking each piece as if it was the only play I was doing, and then developing the body language and the various accents and quality of voice. And I was able to change within a second to suddenly become a completely different person without changing the costume. That took a lot of work, and I used improvisation, and developed the characters with my director. And so there is no set, no props, and I just become all these different people. I think that's the power of a solo show, to be able to do that."

Since then she has developed two other one-person productions, all with the same bare-stage format. "One of my other shows is called 'No Fear!' It's an autobiographical play about some of the adventures I had back in the 1970s. I use a couple of props in that one—I have a wig and a hat to play a detective—and I do a trapeze act. I learned to be a trapeze artist last year, so I do have a trapeze in the show and I get up on it at the end to symbolize conquering my fears."

The daunting challenge of playing multiple roles without costume and makeup changes can be easily met by simply relying on your acting skills. "Sometimes I will literally turn away as one character and turn around as another character. The important part about how you work on these transitions is to actually put as much detail into each character as you can, so that when you do the show, you can perform those changes in a split second if you need to."

Adam Mervis and John Rengstorff first performed Edward Crosby Wells' drama "Thor's Day" for Spotlight On Productions on a black-box set. Now they are recreating their roles in a fully realized staging at Wings Theatre through July 17. Director Steven E. Thornburg has enhanced the production values this time around, but the performers are maintaining their "relationship first" approach.

Mervis states, "It's definitely a lot different; before, we were just purely in a black box. I've worked in black-box settings a lot, especially in student productions. I remember one show: I was imagining using utensils. I was making eggs with these fake utensils, and at one point I put the spatula in my side. It just gives you as an actor a whole other sense of realism, because you're striving to be real up there. That's all you really can hope to do. And the more objects you have in your mind, you're going to be real subconsciously. There's nothing better than performing in a black box from a learning standpoint; it is very valuable."

Rengstorff adds, "I think an important thing in rehearsals is to begin with an empty space. If you start with nothing, then you can begin to create in your imagination. That helps your concentration. Then, when you get into a black box, which is perhaps scantily set up, you have your imagination working for you and can create whatever you want. Acting is basically believing in what you're doing, and the more complete you are about your character's biography and your surroundings, the more real it will seem to you."

Unlike their last production in a black box on 42nd Street, they are now working on a real proscenium stage at Wings. Says Rengstorff, "You don't get that opportunity very much in these Off-Off-Broadway venues. This is designed as a theatre, so it has a real theatre feel, and that pumps you up a little bit. You want to go up there and play in it, you want to live in it, you believe yourself more. The difference between performing on a bare stage as opposed to an actual set is you can shift your concentration so easily from one set piece to another. It opens up a lot of possibilities for being organic. And that's the kind of feeling you have to carry over when you're performing in a black box."

Mervis continues, "It's kind of a double-edged sword. I mean, any actor will tell you he'd rather be in full set, although in a black box you can get away with a lot more. In our last production, I was making up things on the walls. It takes a special type of actor to fully create the whole set—all four walls. At Florida State, we were trained to 'build' the fourth wall, because it's assumed that the three other walls are built around you. So to create four walls, on top of creating your character and everything else, and then keep that there subconsciously is really a tough thing to do. When you are in a black box, if you're disconnected, and then are asked to create something imaginary, you're in trouble. John told me, 'You really have to find something and focus on it.' "

Rengstorff offers a specific example to prove that point. "In 'Thor's Day,' we are imagining two windows on the fourth wall, and there's a big storm coming, so we go to the window a lot. We see the clouds and see the lightning. You just have to create a picture in your mind, and that stimulates your imagination. When I look out the window, I try to focus on a particular cloud, with a particular configuration and color and depth. I try to make it specific, so that I'm looking at something instead of just looking. I create something out there."

"Damaged Care" features another onstage duo in a musical comedy about health care in America. Greg LaGana and Barry Levy were medical school classmates at Cornell Medical College in New York in the late 1960s. Nowadays, in addition to their practices, they pursue performing careers as well. For more information on their show, visit their website at www.damagedcare.com.

Along with his wife, Noelle, LaGana also volunteers with an improvisational theatre group called the Magic Mirror Players in New Jersey. The group performs free of charge for hospitals, community service organizations, and churches, presenting informative skits on issues or problems the organizations may be facing.

LaGana says that performing a show without scenery or props is actually his favorite form of theatre. "I put myself completely in the situation presented in the script. We prepare for working on a bare stage by getting real quiet—just imagine the situation and go!" Developing the script over the last eight years was just as easy. "We discuss each situation until we start laughing. When we completely believe the situations onstage, the audience follows along.

His advice to actors who have to work on a bare stage is to "learn the script cold. And play constantly—get in contact with your 'inner child.' "

Mike Messer has toured Europe with the 30th-anniversary company of "Hair," and has appeared closer to home in "The Indian Wants the Bronx." His approach to presenting a show without scenery or props has two steps—eliciting a heightened specificity from the actors, and a simple hardcore commitment to that specificity.

"Be very clear in your mind about what the story is you are going to tell, and be very clear about what details will best tell that story. It's not about mime. (If it becomes that, stop, slap yourself in the face, regroup, and start again.) It's about the subtleties of how the characters are affected by the details that your imagination provides. You're just trying to give context to the audience so their imagination can have a smooth ride, and the best way to do that is to be clear yourself about the specifics."

Using theatre games or improvisation exercises to explore the situations depends totally upon the piece and the actors, according to Messer. "I like the idea of improv in rehearsals, because it makes it all such a fantasy game and that much more fun to explore the details. This is hardly a grand revelation, but the more fun you have creating a piece, the more exciting that piece is to anyone watching."

The bottom line for actors and directors, Messer stresses, is simply trust yourself and one another when working without sets or props. "There's nothing for you to hide behind, but you have to choose to see that as freeing rather than intimidating. Staying open to what happens in the moment keeps you, well, in the moment. And should anything go wrong, that's the great opportunity to create. Don't fear anything. It's just a play."