Author Archive

“Antony and Cleopatra” and the snake onstage

November 3rd, 2010 No comments

Although the phrase “snake on stage” may initially evoke thoughts of Britney Spears with her infamous, serpentine co-star of 2001, the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s “Antony and Cleopatra” at the Loeb Ex has an equally captivating prop. While many of the costumes and music for the show were adjusted to fit a contemporary time period, the scenes stayed true to script, and the final scene even truer to reality, with the help of the director’s seventh-grade teacher’s snake.

The warning sign on the door to the theater.

Military camouflage, gold-rimmed aviators, and a sultry soundtrack created a uniquely reworked “Antony and Cleopatra,” but the audience’s oohs and aahs dubbed the snake’s appearance the highlight of the play. A sign at the entrance warned the audience of the appearance of a live snake, heightening the anticipation of seeing the animal in action.

The snake, frankly, doesn’t do much in its fifteen minutes of Shakespearean fame. It is by no means an enormous yellow Burmese python that can double as a slithering shawl. In Cleopatra’s suicide scene, the rather tiny brown python is cradled and coaxed into biting—more like kissing, reluctantly—its holders to death. Its dark dappled skin makes it difficult to make out in the dim lighting of the tragic scene, and its miniature size makes its ability to viciously attack and kill someone highly doubtful.

The intrigue, however, lies in the fact that it’s a real live creature on stage, in front of your eyes, separated by neither silver screen nor cage. With no zoos in Cambridge, how often do Harvard students get to see a live, exotic creature, aside from House Masters’ dogs and cats?

Read more about Sadie the Snake.

Cleopatra (Sara Lytle) uses the snake to commit suicide.

Día de Los Muertos: To life!

November 3rd, 2010 No comments

The Day of the Dead, a traditional Latin American celebration on November 2, brought lively bursts of color and mariachi music to the usually quiet Peabody Museum. Hundreds of people, many in costumes, filled the entire third floor chatting, eating, and dancing. Nearly every corner of the gallery exploded with brilliant rainbows of streamers and painted skulls. An Oaxacan father-son duo sat in one corner, whittling wood and selling exquisite sculptures. The central altar, decorated and set up by Harvard Divinity School ThD candidate Maria Cristina Vlassidis, gave double homage to César Chávez and the thirty-three Chilean miners who were rescued. Vlassidis, who is also a Teaching Fellow for the Moctezuma’s Mexico: Then and Now course (which decides the festivities’ theme each year), told me that although the Day of the Dead usually commemorates the deceased, this fall’s class decided to celebrate life and make ‘esperanza’ (hope) a central focus, while also shedding light on the miners’ working conditions. Food, drinks (even Aztec chocolate!), music, and cheery skeletons galore, the photos below follow the preparation process from the day before up to the fiesta day.

Derek McLane ’80: “Think boldly”

November 2nd, 2010 No comments

Derek McLane ’80 returns for his second and final workshop in set design with a group of about eight students. In the previous session, McLane asked the students to imagine him as the director with whom they were collaborating on a show. The assignment was to come up with set-design concepts and present them in an exercise intended to simulate the actual process of working with a director. In McLane’s own words: “What I hoped to accomplish was to engage with the students with how to conceive of a design and to teach them a little bit about what it takes to come up with an idea of a world of a play.”  See interview below.  

McLane's design for"Rafta, Rafta" was "an impeccably assembled mélange of East and West," said the NYT.

How can a student with a liberal arts education prepare for a career in set design?

It prepares you to think boldly about a play or story or musical. What designers do is a visual interpretation of a play. There are certainly skills that you need to do that, and they are presumably learned in grad school. BUT: Thinking boldly and getting into other subjects that have nothing to do with theater or literature is helpful. You need to have a certain amount of arrogance towards the material or maybe more a lack of reverence–that’s probably a better phrase. A broadly based education helps you think boldly and irreverently about the piece. General life experiences certainly help with that too—going to art museums, shows, exhibits—to see how other visual artists have interpreted something.

What is most important to keep in mind when doing set design?

That you’re helping to tell a story—that’s the first thing to keep in mind. That might sound weird after what I said earlier about being irreverent to the literature, but to tell a story, and not thinking too literally.

Are there times you just want to throw in the towel and give up? What keeps you going and how do you keep ideas fresh?

Nearly once in every project. Usually that happens when I feel like I don’t have any inspiration or good ideas. Working on multiple projects helps with that. So if I’m working on Project A and Project B, and I’m on Project A and I’m stuck, I’ll go and work on Project B. I’ll usually realize while I’m working on Project B what I need to do for Project A. Or if that doesn’t work, then I’ll go see something completely unrelated like an art show, and while that’s happening, something will hit you while you’re thinking about something else. The problem will solve itself.

Is there a set that is a favorite of yours?

A couple sets are my favorite: 33 Variations, the set for Ragtime, I Am My Own Wife, The Voysey Inheritance, Rafta, Rafta…which was a totally realistic one, but I loved doing the details. It changes from time to time. Sometimes what I’m working on becomes my favorite.

What do you enjoy most about set design?

The storytelling, yes, but also, I love brainstorming with the directors.

And if there’s a complete disagreement with the director?

We hash it out. When it works out in the end, it’s pretty gratifying.

McLane's design for "The Voysey Inheritance" set the tone for the story of a family business gone bad.

Categories: Harvard, Theater, Visual Arts Tags:

Spotted: Harvard Art History grad student Katie Pfohl

October 31st, 2010 No comments
Katie Pfohl, a Ph.D. Candidate in History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, recently talked about abstract art Saturday, Oct. 30 at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Harvard Arts Beat reporter Minji Kim, who also works at the MFA, caught the exciting moment — which included more attendees than she has ever seen at an arts talk in the museum. Pfohl’s next MFA gallery talk Art and Ecology is Nov. 13. Harvard students receive FREE admission with I.D.

Katie Pfohl offered an hour-long talk on abstract art including Joan Miró's "Cloud and Bird."

I've never seen a gallery talk attract so many people in my time working at the MFA.

Categories: Harvard Tags: , , ,

“Six Characters”: Delights of the details

October 24th, 2010 No comments

"Six Characters in Search of an Author"

The smallest ways of addressing the plot and themes of a play can offer the most striking elements of a production. This weekend’s Loeb Ex performance of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, based on a translation by Brandon Ortiz ’12, not only showed a contemporary interpretation of the modern Italian classic, but also highlighted the subtle arts of makeup and costume design.

Six Characters is intense drama, but for me the most visually vivid moment occurs when the family of Characters barges into the Actors’ rehearsal at the beginning of the play. The physical intrusion itself interrupts the scene, but the clash between the Characters and Actors, cleverly clad in hot pinks and greens to sharply contrast their somber counterparts, introduces an aesthetic showdown. As if they had indeed emerged from the ink of a potential script, the Characters sport pale and ghostly complexions, emphasized by their severe black outfits, which likens them to a less jovial version of the Addams family.

Note the contrast in costume colors between the Characters and Actors

Thanks to the intimate size of the Loeb Ex, the Characters’ makeup, an even subtler costume detail is clearly visible. In contrast to the more natural makeup of the Actors, the caked foundation and powder on the Characters’ faces clearly differentiated the two parties. The masks of heavy makeup not only emphasizes the infinity of the Characters’ depression and suffering, but also makes reference to the continuing theme of the play: that we, as human beings, cannot ever understand one another underneath the layers of personas that we think we create for ourselves.
I am continuously amazed by the thoroughness of theater crews in attending to the tiniest elements of presenting a story on stage. In observing the costume and makeup used in Six Characters in Search of an Author, I am reminded of how the small details in theater, or any other work of art for that matter, often contribute greatly to the whole production and illumine larger themes. One just needs to look closely.

BYO: Is your voice in the conversation?

October 20th, 2010 No comments

If you’re a decent art enthusiast, you’re probably aware of the art scene in places like New York, London, and Berlin. But how much do you know what’s going on right at our doorsteps in Boston? On October 19, local art-practitioners, art activists, and students packed themselves into the Sert Gallery at the Carpenter Center for Harvard’s first ever Bring Your Own: Voices to the Contemporary event to discuss issues of the contemporary art culture in both Harvard and Boston communities. As a panel discussion over plenty of pad thai, egg rolls, beer, and wine, representatives from Big RED & ShinyiKatun, and Platform 2 presented their past and current projects in attempts to bridge the gap between universities and local artists.

The panelists included former editor-in-chief and publisher of Big RED & Shiny, Matthew Gamber and Matthew Nash; artist Andi Sutton; Kanarinka and Savić Rašović from iKatun and Institute of Infinitely Small Things; Jane Marsching from Platform 2. This year’s BYO forum focused on issues of being a contemporary artist in Boston and the limitations of the city that harness ambitious artistic endeavors. It seemed like, for the alternative art scene in Boston, that the passion was there; the money and artistic spaces were not for the most part.

While much of the conversation revolved around these logistical problems of finding space, funding, and enough enthusiasm from the public to support the arts, the panel also touched on issues of social activism and responsibility as an artist. The artists described projects in which they were involved with raising awareness for a certain aspect of society: whether it be an alternative art online magazine, “researching” commercial commands by acting out the ads (rolling over in front of a “Rollover minutes” poster), or changing the menus of South End restaurants to include a bitter melon dish.

The consensus underlying these various projects was that more people need to follow up on their passion and that becoming more involved and more knowledgeable is as easy as going to an open city council meeting or simply taking the initiative to begin a project. In this respect, most panelists agreed that Harvard seemed especially isolated from Boston’s contemporary art scene than most schools, like MIT or Tufts.

So why is it that we, as Harvard students, are absent from this kind of rich art scene? Our neighbor, MIT, as Rašović pointed out, is much more open to doing public projects and shows, whether or not they are under-attended or underfunded. Clearly, our isolation is not merely due to the fact that we are in Cambridge and the art happens “over there” in the South End and Jamaica Plain. How can we get more involved in this dialogue? I say we contribute to the Boston art scene by crafting a distinctive, unified Harvard arts identity first. There’s really no excuse.

The crowd

Derek McLane: All the stage is a world

October 18th, 2010 No comments
For Derek McLane ’80, all the stage is a world, and he creates those worlds.

Derek McLane '80 lectures about his work.

Nominated for a Tony Award for Best Scenic Design for a Musical for “Ragtime” in 2010 and winner for “32 Variations” in 2009, McLane has a lot to say about stage design. Three decades after his first successful set for “Guys and Dolls” in the Leverett dining hall, McLane returned to Harvard for the OFA Learning from Performers program and talked about his work and creative process Oct. 14 at the New College Theatre.

Born in London, McLane moved to the U.S. when he was 3, later studied English at Harvard, and went on to study set design at the Yale School of Drama, where he went because he “didn’t know how to do anything.” From there, McLane traveled the world and quickly went from being an unpaid designer to designing huge international shows in Glasgow, Chicago, and Russia. After two years, he returned to New York, where he now has his own studio.

"Design by Derek McLane"

“I wasn’t happy that there was no theater program here,” McLane explained. “But in retrospect I think it’s a good thing—to have students study what they want, do their own thing, learn lots of different things.”

The diversity that McLane advocates for is apparent in his set designs. Much of his inspiration is pulled from photography books, literature, and, whenever possible, even traveling to the site. The multiplicity of his inspirational source is reflected in his working style, as he enjoys and prefers working on several projects simultaneously, which enables him to keep each and every one of his ideas fresh and entirely distinct from each other.

Whether it be a giant pajama factory with huge flying buttons, a vertigo-inducing skyscraper arrangement or a surrealistic living room walled in with floating bureaus and chairs, McLane distills the emotion and life of the play into scenic design. Even from the slides, one could feel not only McLane’s vast creativity but also the spirit of the play pulsating from the set, an effect that McLane consistently strives to achieve.

“A lot of people ask me if I have a theme, and I don’t know if I do,” McLane explained. “But I would say that I always try to create the universe of the play itself in the set.”

Derek McLane returns Nov. 2 for a second student workshop. For more information, please contact OFA program director Tom Lee at

Lab at Harvard: A place for pushing ideas

October 9th, 2010 No comments

Students often grumble about how far the Northwest Labs are from the main campus, but when inhalable food and soccer replace class sections, the usually echoingly spacious building becomes filled to capacity. On Thursday evening, the Lab at Harvard held its 2nd opening celebrations and, in one night, revolutionized the way people think about science, art and food.

The Lab at Harvard is the brainchild of David Edwards, founder of the Lab’s French counterpart Le Laboratoire in Paris. Although Harvard is considered one of the world’s most forward-moving institutions, the Lab has created a truly novel space on campus for open-ended experimentation with raw ideas.

“[The Lab is] a place where anyone at Harvard—scientists, faculty, artists—can play, and try things out, and present works, even if they’re not done. David Edwards has really been emphasizing showing works in progress,” said director Suelin Chen. “It’s helpful even for the creator to go through the process of presenting when not ready because you’re always prototyping, pushing your ideas out.”

These “seeds” of ideas put into action transformed the entire building into, indeed, a scientific playground. Downstairs, with music from DJ Flavorheard pumping and an abundance of wine and beer, awed visitors kicked around the sOccket in a fenced-in mini field at the center of the lower level. The sOccket compiles enough energy from the kicking to light a reading lamp for a few hours, an innovation by Jessica Lin. The first model was taken to Africa, in hopes of motivating children to read and inspiring them to learn about energy. It is now being developed into a more advanced model.

Probably the strangest, most fascinating part of the evening, however, was the “Three States of Hors d’Oeuvres.” Each morsel of food–pork belly, candied ginger, potatoes–was served in a white, gridded carton with four test tubes of liquids, such as almond shake or corn soup, that complemented the solid foods. Visitors were told to refrain from eating until entering the “food modules,” transparent tents where they would be inside of a food cloud, literally breathing a third complementary food whose essence had been distilled and was being diffused in the module.

The “food modules” are a spatial experiment co-designed by the Project on Spatial Sciences, which was founded by students at the Graduate School of Design, and Savenor’s Market. I myself had never seen or experienced such an innovative way to experience food before. Inhaling the scents while drinking and nibbling the succulent food (my favorite was the pork belly), it was as if we had found ourselves in a futuristic permutation of a hookah bar.

We were definitely living the future that night.

Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter!

October 7th, 2010 No comments

Potter, on her rabbit: “I think he would be more comfortable if he had a little coat which he would take off.”

If you ever decide that it’s finally time to take advantage of all that Harvard has to offer, start with Houghton Library. This library, tucked between Lamont and Widener, is a sanctuary for all things precious on paper, from illuminated books of hours to Emily Dickinson’s personal writings.  The library also presents modest but fascinating exhibits that slip by most of us. Most recently, if you go downstairs in search of the bathroom between now and October 30, you’ll encounter the latest exhibit: an ornate wooden display case guarded by a portrait of Chaucer, boasting illustrated letters from Beatrix Potter herself.

These nine letters, addressed to children of the Morris family, contain doodles and musings that provided the starting point for her famous “Little Books.” On the yellowed and aged paper, folded and written on like a card, Potter’s rough cursive accompanies black ink sketches of squirrels, mice and other wilderness creatures, including her own rabbit (who, by the way, reaches his own moment of fame by the ninth letter, dated October 6, 1902, when Potter announces that she will finally be publishing the color edition of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”).

October 6, 1902 letter announcing the publication of Peter Rabbit

Writers often brainstorm in private notebooks in their private homes; Beatrix Potter shared her imagination regularly with children, in letters written especially for them. The reader hears Potter thinking aloud on paper, testing her ideas on her prospective audience. A particularly amusing excerpt concerns a puffin invasion off the coast of Wales that drove rabbits out of their burrows:

“I don’t believe either rabbits or puffins are able to hurt much, but the puffins always win and take possession of the best holes. I don’t know what becomes of the rabbits; perhaps they go and live with the jackdaws, who are much more polite.”

So go to the basement of Houghton and pause a little before you shoot for the restrooms. I guarantee you’ll feel Beatrix Potter’s signature tenderness and wit radiating from the old pieces of paper as in the books you read as a child. The letters are, after all, little narratives in and of themselves. And if you want to revisit the story, check out this lively reading of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” It will take you back to childhood — and may lead you to Houghton!

The "Chaucer case," where Beatrix Potter's letters are displayed

When Rugrats go awry

September 30th, 2010 No comments

Before navigating the darkly humorous psychology of 4-year-old Lucy, “Mr. Marmalade” primes the audience with a montage of silent video clips from early ’90s children’s pop culture. Rugrats, Lamb Chop with Shari Lewis, and Tom Hanks in the movie “Big” mime key scenes and induce the audience’s own trips down memory lane while they wait for the play to begin. Such subtleties of set design are key elements of any play, but they become imperative to “Mr. Marmalade,” which runs through Oct. 2 in the Loeb Ex, in constructing the skewed architecture of Lucy’s troubled imagination.

A chandelier made out of hula hoops, Christmas lights, play pen balls, and alphabet blocks hang crookedly above the scene, adding a sense of decrepitude. The worn purple couch, pink and purple lighting, and tilted lavender window frames continue the feeling of inexplicable eeriness, despite the recognizable figments of a normal childhood, like the Little Tikes toybox and pink and yellow plastic tea set.

When the play begins, the disconcerting precocity of our young protagonist, Lucy becomes quickly apparent as she goes from playing with her Barbie and tea set to questioning her imaginary friend’s fidelity. While playing House, she asks Mr. Marmalade, “Why don’t you touch me anymore? Do you promise you aren’t cheating on me? Pinky swear?”

Between scenes, the staged is dimmed and bathed in pink and purple light, with prismatic dots of white and rainbow that move to the melody of a tinkering music box. Suburban living room becomes suburban Wonderland in these interims, emphasizing the disparity between Lucy’s innocence and her adult play, between her reality and her dramatic imagination. Imaginary friends enter through one door of her house, while members of reality use another—a segregation that organizes the antics on stage.

Each of the outrageous scenes is punctuated by the wry and deep-voiced narration, which is a clear poke at that of children’s audio books and TV narratives. At the end, when the audience is about to find out about how Lucy out grows Mr. Marmalade, the voice announces, “The final scene ends in death, which is where all stories end if you follow them long enough.” Again, such a blithe pronouncement is only made complete with the pink prism lighting, which provides an irony as translated through set design.

“Mr. Marmalade” probes deeply and confidently into the heart of adult issues through the dysfunctional early childhood of little girl who just “[didn’t] want to be lonely.” The set and lighting design, far from merely providing pretty colors and a place for the characters to live, acts as a formative supporting actor itself. The pinks, purples, and internal structure and design of the house made askew establish a mood of slight discomfort appropriate for an exploration into the psychological recesses of a hopefully uncommon childhood.

Set of Mr. Marmalade, courtesy of The Harvard Crimson