Pre-Production on Sophisticated Ladies

About the Project:

Building off previous exploration and knowledge of digital performance from my work in Performance as Research and as the Education Director for Young Artists of America, this practicum will focus on my collaboration with a team of professional theatre artists and educators as well as high school age students on a digital production of Sophisticated Ladies.  My primary role within the production will center on Digital Production Design, the purpose of which is to craft the visual storytelling language as well as the audience engagement and experience through digital platforms.  

This production comes in the midst of a national debate on race and equity as the Black Lives Matter movement takes center stage.  Young Artists of America has chosen Sophisticated Ladies to open our season for a variety of reasons, but most importantly, as an educational opportunity to showcase Black excellence in the arts.  From the composer (Duke Ellington) to our core team —  director/choreographer (Baakari Wilder) music directors (Mark G. Meadows & Victor Simonson), and dramaturg (lLeayne Dempsey) — to our partnering performance groups (ArtsCentric, Capitol Tap, Divine Dance, and Edge School of the Arts) YAA has worked to ensure that our production is helmed by an exceptional team of Black artists known for their work in jazz music and tap performance specifically.

The final product will consist of a live pre-show over Zoom that evokes the essence of a Cotton Club Performance in the comfort of the viewer’s own home, followed by the main event – a filmed musical version of Sophisticated Ladies.

My Role and Duties:

As the Digital Production Designer, my job centers on how to stage and capture (through film) each number for the production.  Working closely with Baakari Wilder (Director/Choreographer) to understand the overall look and vision he wants to achieve, I will storyboard, location scout, and work with our costume and props designers to select the production elements we will use in filming.  I will collaborate with the student performers and coach them shot by shot on how to film their numbers.  I will be responsible for selecting the footage that will be edited into the final film. In addition to these duties, I will be the primary artistic contact for our partnering organizations to ensure that their numbers within the performance are consistent with the rest of the film’s visual style.

Pre-Production

Heading into the start of the season, Rolando Sans (Artistic Director), Baakari Wilder (Director/Choreographer) and I met four times prior to auditions to begin breaking down Sophisticated Ladies to discuss our vision for production. Knowing that the final product will be a filmed version of the musical collaborated on by five different youth performing arts groups, the three of us had to come to a consensus on the overall vision for the production.

In light of the current pressure on American Theatre to respond to inequity and racial bias inherent in the theatrical culture of the past 200 years, I began my approach to Sophisticated Ladies by analyzing connections between the roots of the Harlem Renaissance and the current Black Lives Matter movement. Using the traditional backdrop of The Cotton Club for this show, I wondered if there was a way to communicate the disparity of experience that black artists of the 1920s and 1930s experienced inside and outside of the club. I pitched to Baakari and Rolando a format for production that would utilize documentary elements to help inform the audience of the history of the period. In addition to this, I wanted to see if we could trace current popular entertainment back to Duke Ellington, The Cotton Club, and the Harlem Renaissance. For instance, Janelle Monae references the antecedents of her performance artistry often in her music videos and personal style. Perhaps one angle we could take on the production would be to help trace these throughlines from the 1920s to today’s entertainment.

However, as Baakari and I dove deeper into the conversation, he emphasized a desire to focus more on Duke Ellington’s world of the Harlem Rennaissance. Future production meetings would further cement this artistic impulse, as we came to discuss how we might go about staging shots, dressing actors, and choosing locations in the midst of a pandemic and home cell-phone camera operation. It became clear within a few meetings that Baarkari and Rolando and I weren’t in sync on the format and look of filming. Baakari had assumed that the performers would be filming full static takes. Rolando realized we hadn’t shared with him the versions of Company and A Chorus Line we had produced in the summer. After seeing a short clip of these, it became clearer to Baakari how my role fit into the performance. Something shifted in his imagination too on how we might convey the story more cinematically with multiple angle shots , making use of various locations or moderate special effects to convey discrete vignettes of the Harlem Rennaissance rather than a theatrical production set in an interpretation of The Cotton Club.

Production possibilities and aesthetic opened up further after our first meeting with dramaturg Leayne Dempsey. As part of the educational side of the project, Leayne would be putting together a series of presentations for the performers as well as resources for them to access on their own. We discussed the history, culture, and trends of the period that Leayne might present on and ideas began to percolate. Since most YAA students are 20-60 minutes outside DC, it would be relatively easy to film on U Street (formerly known as Black Broadway) if a number warranted that backdrop. Highlighting the wider context of artistic contribution to the Harlem Renaissance through parts of the documentary segments of the piece or in the production design intrigued both Baakari and I. In a follow-up storyboard meeting with Leayne further seeds were planted for the aesthetic vision as she listened to Baakari share his ideas for the solo and duet numbers.

As an example, Baakari mentioned the idea of using “graphics” in the background or through green screen in “Bli-Blip”. I was at a loss as to what he might mean by graphics. He then described abstract colors and shapes that could invoke a mood or energy. Leayne chimed in by inviting me to look at Norman Lewis’, a visual artist of the period, work.

Norman Lewis, Untitled, ca. 1957.
“Untitled” by Norman Lewis

Lewis’ early work is distinctly abstract expressionist, but he progressed into an abstract style in the 1940s and 50s. Introducing his work in the documentary segments would establish the myriad of artistic genres and media that were influenced by jazz and evolved in the Black community from the 1920 into the latter part of the 20th Century.

Partner Organization Meetings

As auditions crept up, we begin one-on-one meetings with our partner organizations: ArtsCentric, Capitol Tap, Divine Dance Institute (DDI), and Edge School of the Arts (ESOTA). These meetings mostly centered around questions of logistics and vision. YAA’s intention was to provide groups a large berth on how they might interpret their solo pieces, while offering support to help unify the piece. Artistically, we want each group to have their moment to shine and share their aesthetic within the larger frame of the show, but if they would like more guidance we could help provide that.

Kevin McAllister, artistic director of ArtsCentric, noted that all his performers have been given green screens as part of their digital adaptation to the COVID world. Perhaps this will factor into their work and set it apart from the other organizations who are not using that option. I thought green screens might provide an opportunity to set the scene of The Cotton Club more distinctly, but didn’t want to push that vision onto the group. If they come back to us for more guidance, I may suggest it.

In addition to their solo numbers, there are a few points in the show when groups will be sharing the screen with YAA. One such number, “Cotton Tail” is a large group dance number and will showcase each group separately as well as all groups together. Baakari requested a jazz choreographer for this number as well as a few others in the piece. While we have an in-house choreographer who will be working on some of our jazz dance numbers, both Baakari, Rolando and I felt strongly that this number needed to be choreographed by a BIPOC artist. Luckily because of our partnership with ArtCentric, we were able to bring Ashleigh King onto the production to choreograph this number.

Ashleigh King’s recent Helen Hayes Award win for Outstanding Choreography in a Musical.

Adapting this number to socially-distant (at home alone) presents a challenge, particularly given the swing nature of the piece which calls out for partner dancing. Baakari noted his desire to evoke swing style house party dancing in “Cotton Tail”. Ashleigh fully agreed and cited a desire to draw aesthetically from a pandemic series termed #quarantimesteps. This series was developed by Robert Higgins, a local DC performer/choreographer who has coincidentally worked with YAA in the past. He has been creating one off films of duet and trio dances in which each dancer performs solo at a similiar distance and angle from the camera. The editing of the film gives the impression of partner dancing and helps unify the dancers in the piece.

“Dancing Cheek to Cheek” Quarantine Edition

For “Cotton Tail” to succeed, we plan to have Ashleigh film herself teaching the choreography and push this out to the performers asynchronously first. She will then meet with each group individually in synchronous Zoom rehearsals after they’ve initially learned the choreography on their own. This rehearsal will be to adapt and polish the work. A second synchronous rehearsal will be held for all groups simultaneously to clean the section with all groups dancing together before heading off on their own to film.

Storyboarding & Design Images

in next installment….