The Glass Menagerie
The Necessary Beautiful
By Jared Mezzocchi, Multimedia Designer
All that is beautiful is not always what is necessary. For me, this is the primary challenge of multimedia design for the theatrical stage. I’m not a designer geared toward spectacle but instead on the narrative and how media can further the arc of the story. Sometimes that ends up becoming spectacle and sometimes that means turning an epic montage into a still image slowly creeping across the set. This happened to be a decision made in a final tech rehearsal of The Glass Menagerie, when we first mounted it during the Tenn Cent Fest on Georgetown campus.
My departure point was this: The most important element onstage is Tom – it’s his memory play. He’s our narrator, so therefore all projection must be conjured from within his objectives in a scene. The stage becomes his crystal ball, these images are echoes from within his head. This means if the five projectors begin to upstage Tom’s logic, they become too much in the foreground and, therefore, their memory play. But who cares about what a projector is remembering about 1938? What’s risky about that?
For those who aren’t familiar with Menagerie, Tom is our narrator and main character. He’s looking back on the memory of his mother and sister (Amanda and Laura) in their apartment and the suffocation of the pressures placed on them by Mother. As an escape, Tom would find himself at the movies each night. But now, as narrator, he is no longer there. So, as audience, our perspective is shaped by our narrator’s perspective. Because of that, it became clear to me that my visual vocabulary had to be entirely shaped by the movies.
In Tom’s private dialogue with Jim, the gentleman caller, he talks explicitly about the movies, “Yes, movies! Look at them — all of those glamorous people — having adventures — hogging it all, gobbling the whole thing up! You know what happens? People go to the movies instead of moving! […] I’m tired of the movies and I am about to move!”
So Tom’s memory of the interior of his apartment becomes static, unmoving, restrictive, and therefore still images would best persuade that. His idea of leaving, however, was romantic and dramatic, so everything projected outside the apartment should be moving image. As rehearsals went on, we discovered a confused state, a conflict of projection, as Tom attempts to conjure moving image into his apartment made up of still imagery. He walks on with a newspaper that transforms into a projection surface of a 1938 newsreel, or shuts the curtain to the kitchen to reveal old homemaker companion-style infomercials, circa 1937.
In doing so, we see him wrestle with his decision to leave. Tom would visually ask, “Can my needs of movement be satisfied here in the apartment?” The moving image appears briefly but only to dissolve in time. If he wants constant moving picture, he must look outside. Otherwise the dreams of movement can only surface momentarily, to whet the imagination and tease the human instinct from within.
And there we were, at final dress, with the most important moment at hand: Tom’s departure. As a filmmaker, the grandiose montage of all the moving pictures used throughout the play, all the still images of blue roses and of father … they would sweep in my head and spew catharsis all over the stage.
“Um … hmm,” says Derek Goldman, director of the production, “It just doesn’t land yet.” Doesn’t land! My ego screamed. This is epic! But then I sat back, took a breath as a collaborator to the narrative and realized that was in fact true. You see, for lights, this would be the equivalent of strobes going crazy as Tom says goodbye. For costumes, Amanda coming out in a purple sequin dress (that’s GORGEOUS!) as Tom exits, or John Williams stepping out and delivering the final composition from Jurassic Park while the actor playing Tom breaks into tap dance and says goodbye.
Just because we can, just because we are excited by the virtuosity of our tools, doesn’t mean they must be used. In this moment, the stage needed to stop; Tom needed to make a decision. He has to move. Nothing else can make this decision for him anymore. With the montage, the projections suddenly became the main character as Tom said goodbye, overriding the entire meaning of the production. So, back to square one.
Without generating a new convention for the final moment, I look at my established vocabulary, what I had already used throughout the play. The answer was in the motif of fire escapes. In all the scenes, I projected different patterns of metal grating, giving a sense of oppression. So, in the final moment, I attempted to revisit this motif – but from a different perspective. The exterior and interior slowly became consumed by fire escapes, suggesting a jail cell for Amanda and Laura. As Tom wrestles with his consciousness, he simultaneously traps his family in the final moment. And he departs. Tom talks about walking through the streets and seeing Laura through glass and suddenly a new image of refracted glass flows freely around the stage. Juxtaposed with the jail cell, this becomes a different kind of encasement; a similar tragic nostalgia. The Glass Menagerie.
It can be so difficult in multimedia performance to distinguish between storytelling and exploitive spectacle. For me, the story must inspire technology, just as it must inspire its actors. From there, if it is in balance and logically sound, the technology has an amazing ability to illuminate the storytelling in magical fashion. Sometimes, that means we, as video designers, must simplify to magnify the live moment on stage. All because that which makes theater splendorous must always remain in the spotlight: the human being telling a story. The projections went from deterrence of that to an extension of that. It is a constant realization for me as a video artist: All that is beautiful only remains beautiful if, and only if, it is necessary to the narrative.