Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Sunday Read: First Person - Michael Gianfrancesco on You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown

From left: Ken James Stewart, Erica Peck, Andrew Broderick, Amy Wallis, Kevin Yee (Andrew Eccles photo)

Working For Peanuts!
by Michael Gianfrancesco, set designer for You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, Stratford Shakespeare Festival

When director Donna Feore phoned and asked me to work with her on You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, it took me all of a split second to say yes. I have always enjoyed collaborating with Donna, and I have always loved Peanuts. Working on musicals is something I am particularly fond of, so this was an exciting production to embark on. I grew up playing piano, and often played in the pit orchestra for musicals in high school and university, so maybe that is why I feel very connected to working on musicals and operas. I think that I have watched A Charlie Brown Christmas every year that I can remember and I never tire of it. Schultz’s characters have always appealed to me and the humor in his writing is timeless. As Donna and I discussed the piece and what the visual world would be, we decided that it should both embrace its history, while capturing a contemporary feeling that our younger audience would be able to relate to. We pored over books of Peanuts cartoons. It was interesting to see how Schultz’s style of illustration changed from his early work to the iconic look that he eventually defined in colour, line and expression. We decided that we would create our own visual world, inspired by Schultz but unique to this production. 

Preparing the curtain for You're a Good Man Charlie Brown

Pop art from the 1950s and 60s heavily influenced us, as well as many contemporary artists that produce work very much influenced by that era. Our set pieces started taking on the look of giant toys, with smooth rounded edges and big graphic shapes. All of the set pieces will travel horizontally across the stage in an automated track, to suggest the way one reads a cartoon in a horizontal strip. Scale was also a big factor in designing the individual pieces that are required in certain scenes. We have made many pieces in an over sized scale, to replicate the scale often seen in the cartoon strip. Consideration was taken in relation to the size of our actors, and also to the size of the theatre and how the audience would perceive the scale of the set pieces from far away. When the audience enters the theatre they will see the painted show drop that allows us to reveal the set during the overture. It is painted to look like a giant version of Charlie Brown’s t-shirt. I think for a show such as this, it is important to have an element of surprise and anticipation when the show starts and the audience is drawn in. 
The quality of work that is produced in the shops at Stratford is incredible...

Rehearsals have begun, and we are in the middle of putting the show on its feet. During this time the focus tends to be on props and how they are getting used. Some props are prepared and finished ahead of time, and sometimes we make mock-ups of things to try when we don’t know exactly how something is going to get used. I enjoy the process of responding to what is being created in rehearsal, and tailoring things to suit. Choreography often determines how something is going to be used or how we should build something. Often things in musicals need to be light and mobile, but also strong to withstand the multiple performances. Working with the amazing artisans in the prop shop always results in great solutions to often challenging requests. For this production we are building many props from scratch, but also purchasing things that fit into the visual style of the show. This past week the prop shop just finished the upholstery on a 9 foot long hot pink sofa and they did an amazing job. 
One of the joys of working at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is getting to collaborate with all of the different departments. As a set designer, I communicate with the builders in the prop shop, the carpenters in the scene shop and the scenic artists in the paint shop. The quality of work that is produced in the shops at Stratford is incredible and the way that ideas are brought to reality is done with such clever techniques and fascinating materials. Often pieces require input from all three departments, as well as from the lighting designer and lighting technicians. Some of our set pieces have lighting built into them and we did tests to determine what kind of fixtures would work best for the effect we were after.
I was amazed by the quality and vibrancy of the colours...

The scenic painting for this show was approached with two different methods. All of the set pieces that track on and off, the floor and the show curtain were painted by the scenic artists by hand, and the portals for the show, which have an intricate radiating striped pattern on them, were printed onto canvas on a 16 foot wide printer. I always like to experiment with new techniques when given the chance, so it will be interesting to see how the printed scenery looks as we begin to install it. I was amazed by the quality and vibrancy of the colours, and it really suits the style of this production in particular.
We are still weeks away from the start of technical rehearsals, and as the set gets closer to completion, I look forward to our time in the theatre when all of the elements come together. 

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is part of the Stratford Season

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