Friday, September 11, 2009

Five Questions with Melania Lancy

"Five Questions" is a new SignalEnsemBlog project that will post brief interviews of our ensemble members and artistic associates. General or artist-specific questions are submitted by members or friends of the company, and will be posted every couple of weeks. In addition, if you the reader have anything you'd like to know about a member of Signal Ensemble, or about the company in general, please leave your query in the comments section and we'll make sure it gets answered in this space.

We kick off the series with ensemble member and resident scenic designer Melania Lancy. Since 2004's "Catch-22," Mel has designed the majority of Signal's sets: everything from a desolate beach in "Seascape," to a cozy pub in "The Weir" (for which she earned a Non-Equity Jeff Nomination) to the titular "character" in our current "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," and many more. Mel recently received her second Jeff nomination (in the Equity category) for her work on Shattered Globes "The Little Foxes." Check out her website at
You graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, focusing on architecture. How did you end up going into set design?
Originally I attended RISD as Architecture major, yet after the first two years it became clear to me that architecture was not versatile enough to satisfy all of my artistic inclinations. Wanting to be free of the conventions and limitations of the field, I switched my major to Illustration, where I hoped to express myself though paintings and drawings. However, I was quickly reminded that I am a three-dimensional thinker and that illustration would not allow me to work with the sculptural qualities I craved. Rather than switching majors or schools, I convinced my teachers to allow me to build my paintings. I began to create what I called immersive environments. The first project being a giant, tented egg that the viewer could pull open to step inside of and/or lay beneath to view the painted mandala representing the human psyche. Working on installations helped me to discover a unique blend between my illustrative and architectural passions.
Upon graduation, I explored the commercial scenic industry creating sculptures and scenery for zoos, theme parks, museums, etc. In 2004, I stumbled upon an ad for a scenic designer needed at a local college and decided that I'd like to try designing for theater. Again a transformation happened; I immediately recognized the value of the captive audience and how the design can affect them. As the lead scenic designer, I had control of the total environment in which I immersed the action, story and the audience. In addition, I really enjoyed collaborating with other artists to tell a story through a combination of visual expression and performance. Designing for theatre demands what I have grown to love: creating immersive environments, interesting storytelling, and has offered another stimulating way for me to express my talents.
Is there a designer or artist who has most influenced you the most?
Making art is a very personal journey that any artist must learn to allow to happen. As most experienced artists will tell you, a young artist must work towards stepping out of the way of their artistic insecurities and inhibitions to finally give the artistic self permission to create, to finally call oneself a true artist. The discipline needed comes in not only mastering the technique of the craft, but the desire and open commitment to it. Therefore, whether or not inspiration comes through words or in a dream, whether it be triggered by viewing fine art or just waiting for the bus, or whether or not the stimulus creates a positive or negative response, as artists we are constantly in a state of being creatively influenced in just carrying out our daily lives.
Having a visual art background rather than theater has altered my perspective of artisans who have influenced my work and makes it hard for me to pinpoint just one. There are so many fellow artists that have spoken about their work and why they do what it is that they do, whose intentions have inspired me along the way and pushed me to keep making art. Of course, I am always attracted to beautiful imagery; yet I am more moved by artistic courage, impeccable craftsmanship and strong conceptual development as a whole, more so than any one artist or designer. But if I had to list a few visual artists I greatly admire for the magic they have added to this world, I'd say... Antoni Gaudi for his play upon flowing shapes, geometry and scale; Lucian Freud for his expressive use of texture, color and evocative portraiture; Maxfield Parrish for his remarkable rending, brilliant colors, attention to detail and composition; Kelly Freas for his humor and versatility; and Walt Disney for his persistent drive, ambitious imagination and extensive influence; to name just a few.
Do you think you have a personal stamp or trademark to your designs, or do you let the content of each play reflect in your designs, giving each its own unique look?
There is no specific brand to the look of my designs; yet glancing back at my work over the years I do see that there is a certain character to the finished product that produces a unique imprint that seems to be mine alone.
As for my approach towards developing the design, I do have a method to my madness. First, I will read the script once through highlighting any notes specifically related to the setting and any oddities that may prove to be inspirational, but not focusing too much upon them. During the next read through, I begin to form more keen opinions about the set references in correlation to the story while jotting down notes of any essential scenic elements. Maybe even pausing as I read to sketch out very rudimentary ideas such as: rough drafts of floor plans, to giant chandeliers, to colors, as they come to mind. I try envisioning the space as I read while generally tracking the movement of the actors through the set. The set becomes a large puzzle made up of conceptual, theoretical and logistical elements. From here, I begin weighing the elements against each other and developing any strong ideas with research, brainstorming and sketching. It is process that can take weeks to hit its mark or mere days.
Theatre is not a solo enterprise, so phase two consists of sharing my drafts with my collaborators and developing a unified vision for the overall production. It can be an exciting time in which the various designers' and the director feed off of one another's ideas. The set may or may not go through some major changes during this process while I keep watch so that the integrity of the set's main design objectives remain intact.
One of your greatest gifts is, after the set is up and painted, you always spend a day or two on "finishing touches." For you this means a sort of free-flow improv that really makes your sets what they are -- no more drawings, no more planning -- just you and your set. Is this something you always mean to set aside time for, or does it just come to you project by project?
It is true that I always reserve time for final touches on each of my sets. It is an essential component for achieving the desired look and intention of each set I design. As an artist, there is a personal investment in my artwork and relationship with my designs that requires my attentive eye for the project as a whole. There is no amount of pre-planning that one can do in advance that can fully anticipate the effect of the actual built structure in the space and how the other design elements will interrelate with it. I use that time to interact with varying elements of the design and to make adjustments to what is working and what isn't. It is my last opportunity to directly connect with the work, get my hands dirty and refine the overall design.
What play, or style of play/project do you think would challenge you the most? And what type of show would you like to see Signal take on, that we haven't touched yet?
Seeing as I am a fan of symbolism and the surrealism, I would welcome the opportunity to respond more fantastically to a script. Although Signal has chosen shows that allow for some stylized representation of a set, overall many of the plays Signal tends to mount are inclined to be set realistically. I am itching to create a more dream-like, irrational world, although not necessarily complimented by an Absurdist or Dadaist script.
Also Signal Ensemble has the ability to be very funny onstage (and off, I might add). I am very interested producing a few more full-on comedies that allow the set to play a role in the story. It's time to step away from some of the heavier dramas for the moment and just make the people laugh.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Lobby Display Material

Hello, dear readers. I've had quite a few requests for the material in the lobby display for "Ballad." So, I figured I'd just post it here and make it easier for everyone (re: me). For those that haven't dropped by to see our little show, perhaps this will inspire you to the box office. Buy your tickets now, folks, before it's too late!

Your humble dramaturg,



I have stayed out of contact with [McCullers] once the Ballad deal was set…for simple reasons that I cannot work when someone looks at every page, every day. It was enough to convince her that the piece should not be a musical…with chorus line and all.

[McCullers’ is] a curious magician. Examine this: she is both child and sage; pain and joy. She has mastered the card tricks of both art and life, and she has seen equally and clearly the sleight of hand of reality and the truth which resides in legerdemain. She is kind enough to call me her friend.

I wouldn’t like to have had [Carson] as an enemy. She could be vicious and terribly selfish, but she was very bright and a good friend. I enjoyed her company.

You’re good actors. Alan’s a good director. Ben’s built a nice set. So if the play’s lousy, it’s my fault. And that’s why the first day of rehearsal is depressing to me.

--to his actors on the first day of rehearsal

It will be a great shame when the play goes away, for I am as fond of it as you are, as fond as anyone can be of a lovely child who has leukemia, or something. Silly audiences, they should want to go to it. Their loss.

--to William Flanagan, composer of the score for Ballad

For the film to succeed to McCuller’s intentions it must bring a mythic quality to the relationship. It is not the story of a shy, sexually repressed woman set on by a brutish punk. It is the story of two people who however unclearly to themselves they may comprehend it, are engaged in a bizarre ‘grand passion’—the real one chance in their lives for something very special—the one opportunity for them both to fully realize themselves. It is this quality, this awareness which reaches towards the mythic, and makes what happens when Marvin Macy comes back so poignant, so inevitable, and the stuff of true tragedy.

--to Simon Callow, the director of the film version

...two reasons really…one of them is that I am interested in finding out what happens when people do adaptations of novels for the stage. Usually there is a tendency to cheapen—to lessen the work that’s adapted, but then again, I can’t think of very many good playwrights that have ever done adaptations. They’re usually second rate people who do adaptations. I’m not suggesting here that I’m a first-rate person, but I am interested in finding out if it’s possible to do an adaptation of somebody else’s work—to move it from the pages of the novel to the life of the stage—without cheapening or lessening the work. And then again, ten years ago—is it ten? Yes, probably eleven years now…when I first read ‘Ballad of the Sad Café,’ I said to myself, ‘If I ever start writing plays I’d have to make this into a play.’

My responsibility, of course, in putting Carson McCullers’ novel on the stage is to make it seem as if Carson McCullers had written it for the stage. So I must indeed become Carson McCullers. I must think like Carson McCullers. The novella ‘Ballad of the Sad Café’ had two lines of dialogue. That’s all in the entire one hundred and ten page book. A play must be mostly dialogue. It’s my intention (and I hope I succeed in doing it) to turn all of that narration into dialogue, which should sound as though it were written by Carson McCullers. That’s my particular function in that particular item. It’s involving to do that, but involving in a different way…but in doing an adaptation, I must think that things are moving, involving, funny or whatever on Carson McCullers’ terms. It is a rather eerie experience. I think that ‘eerie’ is the word that Carson would use.

I am using whatever craft I have to make the piece completely Carson McCullers. No one should realize where she stops and I begin.

I seem to lose my mind about every fifth play and do an adaptation.

I’m relieved it’s over. The show went well, the actors remembered their lines, and the scenery did not fall down. Carson was not amused when the play closed after some one hundred performances, but then, neither was I.


It seems to me that a playwright has a responsibility in his society not to aid it, or comfort it, but to comment and criticize it. A playwright has the responsibility of artistic integrity.


I write for me. For the audience of me. If other people come along for the ride it’s great….but you have two alternatives; you either affect people or you leave them indifferent and I would loathe to leave an audience indifferent. I don’t care whether they love it or hate it, so long as they’re not indifferent.


…anybody that says that he can teach playwriting is either a charlatan, a liar or a fool…there is only one rule, which is: you can do anything in the world that you like as long as you make it work. There is only one length for a play and that is the play’s proper length. There are no rules except for the rule of a successful work of art.


I am suggesting that people write only through social maladjustment. They are not adjusted to society as it is. That is the only reason that people write—the predominate reason that people write.


When I was six year old I decided not that I was going to be a writer, but with my usual modesty, that I was a writer. So I started writing poetry when I was six and stopped when I was twenty-six because it was getting a little better, but not terribly much. When I was fifteen, I wrote seven hundred pages of an incredibly bad novel—it’s a very funny book that I still like a lot. Then, when I was nineteen I wrote a couple hundred pages of another novel, which wasn’t very good either. I was still determined to be a writer and since I was a writer, and here I was twenty-nine years old and I wasn’t a very good poet and I wasn’t a very good novelist, I thought I should try writing a play, which seems to have worked out a little better.


The responsibility of the writer is to be a sort of demonic critic—to present the world and people in it as he sees it and say ‘Do you like it? If you don’t like it, change it.’ Too many people go to the theatre wanting to be taken out of themselves, to be given an unreal experience. The theatre must always be entertaining, but I think that ‘Oedipus’ is entertaining.


If a play can be described in one sentence, that should be its length.


Usually the way I write is to sit down at the typewriter after a year or so of what passes for thinking, and I write a first draft quite rapidly. Read it over. Make a few pencil corrections, where I think I’ve got the rhythms wrong in the speeches, for example. And I retype the whole thing, and in the retyping, discover that maybe one or two more speeches will come in. One or two more things will happen, but not much. Usually, what I put down first is what we go into rehearsal with.


It’s like a dog before it craps, wanders around in circles—a piece of earth, an area of grass, circles it a long time before it squats. It’s like that—figuratively circling the typewriter, getting ready to write, and then finally one sits down.


Writing has got to be an act of discovery. To a certain extent, I imagine a play is completely finished in my mind without my knowing it, before I sit down to write. So in that sense, I suppose, writing a play is finding out what the play is.


A curious thing happens. Within a year after I write a play I forget the experience of having written it. And I couldn’t revise it or rewrite it if I wanted to.



The women in my plays are stronger and more able to deal with life than the men are…the only people who have perpetuated this fiction about women in my plays being unpleasant are people who themselves can’t accept women as being strong and vital and vocal people.


I dismiss all labels. Theatre of the Absurd. Angry young man. Playwright of Protest. Labels are so facile, and they’re a substitute for conscientious analysis so much of the time. I’d like to think that my plays are out to change people, out to make them more aware of themselves and to point out misuse of consciousness, I suppose as much as anything.


I hope I put them in contact with areas of their feelings they may have gotten out of contact with. Or maybe make them see things from a different point of view. To think about things they haven’t thought about, think about them differently. Affect them in some way that they’ll have to react differently in the future to things.



There are between five hundred and one thousand good plays and I’d have to go back to the Greeks and work my way right up. It’s been an assimilative process. Of my contemporaries, after Brecht, I admire Beckett, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams and Harold Pinter.


I made a list about a year and a half ago, of the number of playwrights, according to the critics that I had been influenced by and it got to be a drag after I had listed twenty-six. And this list of twenty-six included three playwrights whom I had not read nor seen. So I made a point of reading these playwrights and found that I had indeed been influenced by them.


The one living playwright I admire without reservation whatsoever is Samuel Beckett. I have funny feelings about almost all the others.



Plays are constructed rather the way music is, and also, there is usually, in a well written play, there is a kind of internal music that also relates to music as it goes along—rather the total form of a piece of music.


I wanted to be a composer when I was around twelve and have absolutely no aptitude for it—but I’ve been rather closely involved with music for many years.


Musical composition should be studied by playwrights, I think, because I find play construction and musical composition enormously similar


Along with Beckett and Pinter, we are three playwrights who write, I think, with closest understanding of the relationship between the two structures. And some interesting experiments could be done here. Once should go so far as to listen to the works, examine the sound in relation to the silences, the specific rhythms, the speed of speeches, the fast and slow and the cyclic returning of themes. And you’ll find, I know in my own work, you’ll find a very profound relationship between dramatic structure and musical form.


...musical notation and play notation can and should be quite similar. a composer can notate, can take a note and equate that to a word...he has tempo markings he can put down--for a violinist he has bowing markings--a musician can be terribly precise just by little marks that he puts on a page of music and a playwright can be exactly that precise since it's an imperfect craft at best, since one must deal with actors and directors, who also pretend to be human beings...the playwright should be able to write a line and notate it in such a way that it's impossible for an actor to say the line incorrectly. It can be just as precise as musical notation. Look at Samuel Beckett for example.



There’s something very nice about the magic and immediacy of theatre. It’s not passive the way a novel is; it’s not synthetic the way film is. There’s something very real and dangerous about the theatre that I like.


Reality isn’t as simple as it used to be and I suspect that the theatre, the adventurous, the new, if you will, the new theatre in the United States, is going to concern itself with the re-evaluation of the nature of reality and therefore, it’s going to move away from the naturalistic tradition.


We are the only animal who consciously creates art. We are the only animal who attempts metaphor. It is our distinguishing mark. If we turn out to be the kind of society that is unwilling to use the metaphor, unwilling to use art to instruct ourselves, then we are this curious kind of society which is on its way downhill without ever having reached the top. And indeed, if we are unwise enough not to be instructed by the arts, then perhaps we do lack the will and the wisdom—the courage—to support a free society.



Writing, for me, is a search for God.

The writer by nature of his profession is a dreamer and a conscious dreamer. He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love and great courage. How can you create a character without love and the struggle that goes with love?

I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen.

What are the sources of an illumination? To me, they come after hours of searching and keeping my soul ready. Yet they come in a flash, as a religious phenomenon.

This fear is one of the horrors of an author's life. Where does work come from? What chance, what small episode will start the chain of creation? I once wrote a story about a writer who could not write anymore, and my friend Tennessee Williams said, "How could you dare write that story, it's the most frightening work I have ever read.' I was pretty well sunk while I was writing it.

I want to be able to write whether in sickness or in health, for indeed, my health depends almost completely on my writing.

MCCULLERS ON INFLUENCES of the strongest influences on my reading life is [Dostoevsky]--Tolstoy, of course, if at the top...Tolstoy is considered by almost everyone as the greatest novelist that ever lived, and I can only say, me too. From his first beautiful book on [war] and [Sebastopol,] all through his long and marvelously productive life he stands alone as a writer.

[Edwin Peacock and John Zeigler] insisted that I read a book called [Out of Africa] and since I thought it was about big game hunting, I insisted just as firmly I didn’t want to read it. In the end, they got their way, for when Reeves and I were in the car on our way to Fayetteville, they slipped two books in my lap; they were [Out of Africa] and [Seven Gothic Tales.] I started [Out of Africa] in the car and read until sundown. Never had I felt such enchantment. After years of reading this book , and I have read it many times, I still have a sense of both solace and freedom whenever I start it again.

Whenever I think of artists having a hard time I think of James Joyce. He had one hell of a time to earn a living for himself and his family.


I believe this adaptation will be interesting and compelling and add a new and beautiful dimension to an already beautiful work.

It was at a bar in [Sand] Street, in the company of W.H. Auden and George Davis that I saw and was fascinated by a remarkable couple. Among the customers there was a woman who was tall and strong as a giantess, and at her heels she had a little hunchback. I just observed them once, and it was not until some weeks later that the illumination of ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café’ struck me.

I was still working on ‘Member of the Wedding’ when with a sudden voltage I remembered the hunchback and the giantess. There was a strong impulse to write that story, suspending ‘Member of the Wedding,’ so I went back to Georgia to write ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café.’ It was a torrid summer and I remember the sweat pouring off my face as I typed, worried that I’d broken faith with ‘Member of the Wedding,’ to write this short novel. When I finished the story I jerked it out of the typewriter and handed it to my parents. I walked for several miles while they read, and when I’d come back I could see from their faces that they’d liked it. It was always my father’s favorite work.

Darling, ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café’ is for you.

--to David Diamond, the third person in her and her husband’s love triangle

This play, as luminous as its stars, is about the destruction of a dream. It has the passion of a Greek drama although the setting is in an eastern town. It shows malicious humiliation and love and tenderness and bitterness. It has in it compassion, the wildest humor and the dark brilliance that to me, is peculiar to the genius of Edward Albee.

Thank you for the sun, the hay, the suntan, not to mention the Virginia Woffe (sic) and all the fun, Happy Days, and our Ballad.

--in a letter to Albee after spending part of the summer together, which included evening readings of Beckett and ‘Ballad’

Edward Albee was very young when he came to me to ask permission to adapt my ‘Ballad of the Sad Cafe.’ He rented a small cabin with no electricity on Water Island and I sat up all night on the beach while he read it to me. However, when I saw it on Broadway I was disappointed. Edward has his own genius and I thought he was just cooling his heels working on something of mine. He should’ve been working on his own plays. There was no dialogue and no action in my novella and I told him it could not be done. I don’t know how he feels but I still think I was right.