Day 13: Turns out it doesn’t take millions of dollars to show (and tell) a good story
It’s fun to be wrong. When The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won the Tony Award for Broadway’s Best Play of 2015, I may have written something to the effect of … “My only regret is that smaller theatre companies around the country are now going to want to stage this play without the financial or technical capacity to adequately replicate the production’s central character: The inside of the boy’s mind.”
Yada, yada, yada.
The play, written by Simon Stephens and adapted from Mark Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel, follows an exceptionally intelligent 15-year-old named Christopher who falls somewhere on the autism spectrum and his brain is ill-equipped to process everyday life. The play is a fully immersive deep dive inside that fragile, firing and misfiring head of his.
The Broadway production integrated human and technical elements that made Christopher fly and walk sideways along the walls and appear to stand in the middle of a bustling London train station. The lights made it seem like every synapse in his head was a lit fuse. It was a magical technical achievement that only cost $4.75 million to pull off.
When the rights to perform the play finally became widely available in 2019 and two very different Colorado theatres took on the challenge, I was sure my fears would be realized. The scenic budget for the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s April production was just $2,500. The scenic budget for the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs’ September production was about $10,500. Combined, that represents, oh, about 0.27 percent of the Broadway budget.
Which is just one reason Scenic Designers Tina Anderson (Boulder) and Christopher L. Sheley (Colorado Springs) are today’s True West Award honorees. Because while their efforts were very different in scope and execution, both provided the essential visual language necessary for audiences to fully and empathetically experience the story of this wounded, brilliant bird who sets out on a perilous journey to identify the killer of his neighbor’s dog.
‘Tina Anderson has created a space that, while highly functional, also mirrors Christopher’s ordered mind in its shape while enabling the projections of the many things that intrude upon that order. It’s really something special.’ – Alex Miller, OnStage Colorado
Anderson, a native of Boulder, is a veteran and often underappreciated area scenic designer who typically works on stages the size of a postage stamp while often accommodating dozens of bodies. And that’s how she likes it. “I love the challenge,” she said. “The smaller venues send my brain into overdrive.” Sort of like Christopher’s fried cerebellum.
For Anderson, the challenge was to create the world of the play in the intimate, 116-seat Grace Gamm Theatre at the Dairy Arts Center while making space for 10 actors (and with no wing space). Sheley and Colorado Springs Director Scott RC Levy had the luxury of playing on the Fine Arts Center’s far more expansive, 400-seat mainstage theatre.
In both cases, the creative disciplines all had to operate like one finely coordinated synapse: The scenery, lighting, sound and essential visual projections had to be of one creative mind. That and the ensemble would always have to move in seamless synaptical coordination.
Anderson’s approach was to create a geodesic dome (think Epcot) made up of a triangular structure to reflect Christopher’s mathematical genius. “We actually used a geodesic dome kit as the foundation for building our set,” said Boulder Ensemble director Stephen Weitz.
The end result looked for all the world like the shell of a human skull, and that’s exactly what Anderson intended. “I wanted people to feel like they were all inside his cranium,” she said.
Sheley seized on references in the script to the boy’s love of space, creating a world in which Christopher’s mind is a nebula – a patchy cloud of gas and dust in outer space that is visible in the night sky.
Both scenic designs relied heavily on visual projections. The Boulder Ensemble production brought LIDA Project founder and multimedia-effects wizard Brian Freeland home; Sheley’s adventures with Colin Riebel took him further into the world of projections than he had ever gone before in his 14 years at the Fine Arts Center. A central concern, he said, was simply disciplining himself. “Truly communicating how an autistic brain processes stimulation would come at the expense of the audience’s tolerance,” Sheley said. “There is a fine line between supporting the script and overwhelming the audience, and the important thing is knowing how much to put out there and when to restrain yourself so as not to upstage the storytelling.
“We wanted to tell the story through Christopher’s lens, but I felt like it needed to be accessible and familiar to the audience. The goal was to be both abstract and literal; familiar and strange; everywhere and nowhere – all at the same time.”
In the end, both plays enjoyed remarkable runs. In fact, Curious Incident was the most-attended play in Boulder Ensemble’s 14-year history (a record since broken by Tiny Beautiful Things.) What’s perhaps most telling is that among Anderson, Sheley, Weitz and Levy – none had seen a prior production of Curious Incident, ensuring that not only were they not intimidated by the impact of the original, they all went into the challenge with fresh and original eyes. Which was not always true of their audiences. Turns out, many of them had seen the play in London, Broadway or on its national tour.
“The best compliment I got about our production was from many of our patrons who told us essentially, ‘I connected so much more closely with the characters and their journey in this production than I have previously,’” Weitz said.
Not so curious, when you think about it.
“It all comes down to storytelling,” Weitz said. “All of this newfangled technical wizardry for the live theatre is fabulous – as long as it is in support of that foundational goal of telling the story.”
Tina Anderson/2019 Scenic Designs:
- A Little Night Music, Cherry Creek Theatre
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
- Bull in a China Shop, Benchmark Theatre
- Tiny Beautiful Things, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
- A Christmas Carol, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
Christopher L. Sheley/2019 Scenic Designs:
- Ben and the Magic Paintbrush, Fine Arts Center Theatre Company at Colorado College
- Barnum, Fine Arts Center Theatre Company at Colorado College
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Fine Arts Center Theatre Company at Colorado College
- Tiny Beautiful Things, Fine Arts Center Theatre Company at Colorado College
Curious Incident: Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
- Director: Stephen Weitz
- Stage Manager: Stacy Renee Norwood
- Set Designer: Tina Anderson
- Costume Designer: Brenda King
- Lighting Designer: Colin D. Young
- Sound Designer: Jonathan Holt Howard
- Projections Designer: Brian Freeland
- Properties Designer: Jordon Brockman
- Movement and Dialect Coach: Gabriella Cavallero
- Dramaturg: Heather Beasley
- Christopher Boone: Alex Rosenthal
- Siobhan: Anastasia Davidson
- Ed: Michael Morgan
- Judy, ensemble: Karen LaMoureaux
- Mrs. Alexander, ensemble: Billie McBride
- Mrs. Shears, ensemble: MacKenzie Beyer
- Roger Shears, ensemble: Sam Gilstrap
- Policeman, ensemble: Sean Michael Cummings
- Punk Girl, ensemble: Lois Shih
- Reverend Peters, ensemble: Warren Sherrill
Curious Incident: Fine Arts Center Theatre Company
- Director: Scott RC Levy
- Stage Manager: Kate L. Ferdinandi
- Set Designer: Christopher L. Sheley
- Costume Designer: Kevin Koski
- Lighting Designer: Holly Rawls
- Sound Designer: Jacob Keough-Mishler
- Projections Designer: Colin Riebel
- Movement Coach: Mary Ripper Baker
- Composer: Stephen Light
- Christopher Boone: Logan Riley Bruner
- Siobhan: Candace Joice
- Ed: Brian Landis Folkins
- Judy, ensemble: Meghan Andrews
- Mrs. Alexander, ensemble: Elise Santora
- Mrs. Shears, ensemble: Rebecca Myers
- Roger Shears, ensemble: Colton Pratt
- Policeman, ensemble: Nicholas Robert Ortiz
- Punk Girl, ensemble: Julia Greene
- Reverend Peters, ensemble: Stephen Turner
About The True West Awards: ’30 Days, 30 Bouquets’
The True West Awards, now in their 19th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2019 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre magazine in 2011. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org