There’s something about breaking out of your normal surroundings that refreshes and rejuvenates your creative soul.
I had the opportunity to visit New York recently and it was remarkable how it shifted my perspective. I was there to attend a series of courses presented by Live Design magazine called the “Broadway Master Classes”. These multi-day courses consist of panel discussions, workshops, lectures, and meet-n-greets with notable, award-winning Broadway designers in the area of lighting, projection, sound, and scenic. The highlights for me included a discussion and demo of LED fixtures against conventional fixtures by lighting designer Don Holder, a workshop/demo on color presented by lighting designer Beverly Emmons, and a lecture on what projections needs from lighting presented by the incredible projection designer Wendall K. Harrington. These are three designers who I hold in very high regard. To hear them speak about their craft and demonstrate ideas was a wonderful experience.
I also had the opportunity to attend seven shows; “Lucky Guy”, “Peter and the Starcatcher”, “Fuerzabruta”, “Newsies”, “The Nance”, “Matilda” and “Kinky Boots”. All of them were quite good, with “Peter” and “Kinky” being the standouts for me personally. It was overwhelming to see so many shows in a short period of time, and to see how all of the different designers supported their respective scripts.
The set design for “The Nance” was seemingly simple but ingenious. It was a large periaktoi set upon a turntable, with numerous staircases and doors, and additional set pieces that would fly in or track on to change locations.It really captured the feel of a specific era in New York’s history.
For “Matilda”, the set nearly stole the show, with oversized children’s blocks at it’s heart. Each set piece in some way reflected this structural geometry. It was the opposite of “The Nance” in that it was intricate, massive, and complex – but served the storytelling beautifully. I was confounded a bit by the lighting. First off, it’s the easiest thing in the world to “armchair” other designers work; so instead of not liking others work, I tend to just have a lot of questions. It’s a beautiful design with some absolutely stunning looks but I had lots of questions after “Matilda”. The costumes in this show are simply incredible.
“Lucky Guy” is an intricately crafted play and all of the elements work seamlessly together. The scenic, projection, and lighting felt of one mind; though designed by three different designers. More than any other show I saw, the design felt woven into the fabric of the play. Getting to meet and speak with the lighting and projection designers afterwards was wonderful as well.
I wanted to like “Newsies” more than I did. This is likely more about me having lost my taste for conventional, big, splashy musicals than a reflection of the show itself. Again with this show, the scenic, lighting, and projection design worked incredibly well together; functioning as multiple locations in a specific period of New York’s history.
“Kinky Boots” was the unknown for me. I hadn’t seen the 2005 movie, but with a book by Harvey Fierstein and a score by Cyndi Lauper, I couldn’t resist. A fun story, warmly told, with some lively songs; this show surprised me. The costume design on this show is pretty spectacular as well. The set and lighting design both serve the show well.
I’m going to skip “Fuerzabruta” because it’s more of an experience than a show. It’s really hard to describe; but if you find yourself in New York – GO.
Which brings us to “Peter and the Starcatcher”; a “grown up prequel to Peter Pan”. The set (by Donyale Werle) is pure genius. Assembled from found objects it supports the style of story wonderfully; in which actors use every one of the props and set pieces (in a seemingly makeshift manner) to represent a variety of locations. The lighting (by Jeff Croiter) is simply magnificent; beautiful, layered, textured with little unexpected surprises peppered throughout the show.
Perhaps, though, the best thing I observed in any theater while I was there that three of the shows (“Matilda”, Newsies”, and “Peter”) all had a significant amount of young theater-goers in their respective houses. From around 8 years old (“Matilda”) to late teens (“Peter”), the crowds were rapt and responsive. It was so heartening to see hundreds of future theater-goers enjoying their experience.
I didn’t have much time but one of the benefits of traveling alone is being able to do A LOT very quickly. I managed to spend a decent amount of time in SoHo, the Village, and Little Italy all on the same day, with even a quick jaunt to Ladurree (for macarons to take home) on the upper east side and Grand Central Station. One of the many things I love about New York is how all the neighborhoods feel different. Each has it’s own vibe, it’s own voice.
I had the opportunity to visit The Cloisters, a museum near the northern tip of Manhattan built in the 30’s and housing medieval art and tapestries. The museum is a beautiful space, with an intricate design and a great use of light and texture.
Access to the museum is through Fort Tryon Park, where the flower fields were really beginning to show off their summer colors; such an interesting juxtaposition to the skyscrapers of the city and the medieval architecture of the museum.
One of the first things I did was take a walk on the High Line; an abandoned elevated railway track that has been re-purposed to include gardens, jogging paths, gathering spots, and cafe’s. It’s a stellar example of taking blight and re-imagining it into something completely different. It’s now the centerpiece of the neighborhood, used by the whole community and is a point of pride. As I sat in the sun, enjoying my bagel, I marveled at how the will of a community can change their surroundings and bring something like this into existence.
A little farther south, a much larger re-imagining is being undertaken on the site of the World Trade Center. Near the 9/11 memorial, new buildings are rising. It is an intricate, expansive story of tragedy and re-birth; and is somewhat awe-inspiring to witness. I spent some time there, thinking of that day and how much it has changed our world. The memorial, built on the footprint of the former twin towers, features two square waterfalls, each 30 feet high, which collect in a reflecting pool, then plunge into an unseen void in the center. It is a powerful piece of architecture and its amazing at how the sound of the falling water masks much of the city noise, making the space almost eerily muted.
A brief walk through Central Park led me to the Bethesda Fountain. Adjacent to the fountain is an arcade of stone and tile arches, where a small group of musicians was performing. Their voices, in this acoustically-friendly space, were magnificent.
I also stopped for a moment in Strawberry Fields, where there is a fitting tribute from Yoko Ono to John Lennon – black and white tiles, inset into the path that say, simply, “IMAGINE”.
With that, I started thinking about how every input we receive changes us. How one new thing can alter your perception. How a trip to a busy, chaotic city can seem peaceful and relaxing. And how, in this magnificent city (and many, many others), there are artists and creative people doing that they do, pushing forward, creating new work, giving us new things to see, to hear, to do, and to experience. This is the wonderful thing about travel. It forces you to re-engage all of your senses. It demands that you pay attention to the new surroundings and stimulus. And by re-opening yourself, you allow in new material, or content, or inspiration, or whatever you want to call it. All of that new inspiration is then sitting there, in your reserves, ready to come out in support of your next creative endeavor.