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Stage Designers in Early Twentieth-Century America.

Stage Designers in Early Twentieth-Century America

Artists, Activists, Cultural Critics

By Christin Essin; New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2012. 264

pp. Cloth, $85.

Christin Essin, a theatre historian at Vanderbilt University, has been a storyteller, lighting designer, and theatre technician, so it comes as no surprise that her Stage Designers in Early Twentieth-Century America: Artists, Activists, Cultural Critics contains a balance of scholarly formality, practical understanding, and a softer, more wandering storyteller's cadence. She looks at prominent practitioners and theorists of the New Stagecraft movement under the rubrics of what she calls the designer as Author, Cultural Critic, Activist, Entrepreneur, and Global Cartographer. This is a lofty goal, as design is often seen as naturally encompassing many (or all) of these. After all, can a design exist without being considered a form of authorship? Does any scenographic design exist that does not make a comment on culture in some capacity? And how many designers today also work as entrepreneurs? In her introduction, Essin writes, "This project starts from an assumption that designers are legitimate artists whose visual and interpretative contributions complete a theatrical production, and from there it examines their increasingly expansive cultural influence." She emphasizes "a historical understanding of designers as respected theatre professionals and influential citizen-artists during years between 1912 and 1964."

In her first chapter, The Designer as Author, Essin analyzes the writings of the New Stagecraft designers of the early twentieth century "as an ancillary production activity, not only connected to but also separate from stage artistry." She argues that it was through their publications that the designers "gained legitimacy as modern theatre artists." At first glance, this may appear to mean that designers are not considered legitimate theatre artists until they theorize about their work in books and magazines for the general public. But Essin has a more expansive understanding of the many ways in which design can be published: from text to renderings to production photos, from realized designs to unrealized proposals, and even paper dolls.

In The Designer as Cultural Critic, she argues that "to recognize designers as respected artistic collaborators with a wide range of representational strategies is also to recognize their capacity for embedding cultural commentary within a production." She illustrates her point with comparisons among David Belasco's famous setting for Act 3 of The Governor's Lady (1912), a detailed reproduction of a Childs restaurant; Robert Edmund Jones's groundbreaking New Stagecraft setting for The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife (1915); Norman Bel Geddes's Dead End (1935); Howard Bay's One-Third of a Nation (1938); Mordecai Gorelik's All My Sons (1947); and Jo Mielziner's indelible Death of a Salesman (1949).

In The Designer as Activist, Essin observes that "modern design, as enacted by many theatre artists during the early twentieth century, not only visually interpreted dramatic texts and critiqued cultural landscapes but also promoted concrete social agendas." Her case studies examine the ways in which designers engaged with politically driven organizations--theatre companies, trade unions, and government agencies: Robert Edmund Jones with the Paterson Strike Pageant; Aline Bernstein, the first female designer in the USAA, at the Neighborhood Playhouse and with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union; and Howard Bay's work on Power (1937), a Federal Theatre Project for the Living Newspaper unit.

Entrepreneur and Global Cartographer

Essin defines scenographic entrepreneurship as "a process of dramaturgical interpretation, visual representation, and material practices employed by designers; but rather than supporting the actions and objectives of social movements and organizations, its practices benefit the interests of corporations and commercial industries." Joseph Urban and Norman Bel Geddes are the two designers who are analyzed under this rubric. She focuses on Urban's work with Florenz Ziegfeld's annual Follies productions and his expansion into department stores and hotels. For Bel Geddes, she observes how his design for Max Reinhardt's The Miracle (1924) caught the attention of industry leaders and paved the way for Bel Geddes to take industrial design by storm, culminating in his Futurama exhibition for General Motors at the 1939 World's Fair.

Essin makes her greatest leap when she takes the terms "cartographer" and "cartography" to define design "as a type of orienting activity, one that simultaneously conjures notions of territory and the territorialized, touring and the tourist, belonging and the desire to belong." Maps, she notes, are "as discriminating in their interpretations as other art objects." The map artist chooses color and observation points; omits some elements in favor of others; adapts, modifies, or exaggerates other components to further his agenda. "Scenographic cartography," she says, "assumes the stage as a canvas for orienting and territorializing; the scenographic cartographer, by extension, affects an imperial influence by means of the arrangement of space and representation of place." In support of this notion, Essin presents us with Norman Bel Geddes's models of war maneuvers, commissioned by the United States Navy and also published in Life magazine; Jo Mielziner's designs for South Pacific (1949) and The King and I (1951); and Boris Aronson's design for Fiddler on the Roof (1964).

Stage Designers in Early Twentieth-Century America is dense with information, and throughout my reading, I kept wondering, Who is the audience for this book? Some ideas are presented without background explanation, so some knowledge of theatre and theatre history are required. The discoveries and opinions presented in the text lit up my designer's brain with numerous questions, and I could see this book in an upper level undergraduate or graduate level classroom prompting some animated discussions. Because it argues a larger legitimacy for theatrical design than the world of entertainment, it would make a good reference for anyone who finds him or herself needing to justify the work of designers as something of value.

Limited images

For a book about design, the physical product is a bit of a struggle. Just shy of 6" x 9" x 1" in size, its 264 pages are set in what appears to be 10 pt. type. There are only twenty images for all of the over fifty years it covers. The first image doesn't appear until page 32 and is a small image of a model of a design that is first discussed on page 19, where there is no directive to go look at it. While I enjoyed reading the analyses of the author, as a designer I prefer to formulate my own point of view by comparing what is presented as opinion to what is observed with my own eye, for at that point more questions arise. Besides problems with the layout, the images are small, in black and white, and not always the highest quality. Most have horizontal scan lines, or a degauss effect, which is unexpected in a book selling for this price.

That said, this deceivingly diminutive book presents an abundance of interesting points on works by some of the key stage designers of early twentieth century America. It provides historical data as a reference for future study. Most of all, it illustrates that stage design is more than just what you see on the stage.

Andrea Bilkey is an associate professor, lighting and sound designer, and head of design in the Department of Theatre & Dance at Texas Tech University. Her teaching focus, creative endeavors, and research interests include lighting design, sound design, history of lighting in the theatre, computer drafting and design, technology in the classroom, and technology in the design communication process.
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Author:Bilkey, Andrea
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2013
Words:1226
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