Color, Light & Space – Brian Quirk

It’s been awhile since our last post on Color, Light and Space, but I’m determined to continue to ask other artists questions about the subject, especially, how they go about confronting these issues in their work. I am fascinated by the thought processes that artists use when they consider color, light and space. In this post I’ve asked the playwright, actor and artist, Brian Quirk, a few questions about how he uses these tools when he is developing his scripts.

MS: As a playwright I suspect the ideas and processes of color, light and space are integral to the way you develop the scenes, the characters and the atmosphere of your play. In painting we have to develop this all at once, and these things unfold as one looks – I’m thinking here of Caravaggio especially, who set his scenes for a dynamic visual overload that then unfolds.

BQ: Yes, I love how that works in Caravaggio. He is such a theatrical painter and visual overload is right! There is such realistic detail in his work and gorgeous light too.

MS: How does color, light and space unfold in your writing?

BQ: It really depends on which play I’m writing. In MAPPLETHORPE/The Opening, it was all about visualizing space in black and white. With PLUSH LUST, interior decorators are moving in together and then moving apart so color was vital. Palladin, the lead character, develops a substance abuse problem and his best friend, Marion, stages an intervention. She, literally, draws back the blinds and lets the healing light in. In my play CRASH which deals with obsession and imagined scenarios, the lighting changes depend on the mood; more threatening scenes imagined in reds, whereas lighter scenes have a softer palette. There is a character, Lucille, in a train station and blue is prevalent. At the end of the play, we realize it has all been imagined and the light of reality shines harshly. How these elements will unfold depends on the play.

MS: Are you concerned about these issues as you develop not just the scene, but the characters in the scene?

BQ: Yes. In the Mapplethorpe play the “portraits,” characters based on his images, were imagined in black and white. Whereas, the people in the world of the gallery were imagined in color. In my most recent play NERINE about a young girl’s awakening and breaking away from a dysfunctional family, space is almost another character in the play. They are living in cramped quarters and that confined space informs the scenes. Nerine, the young girl, discovers gardening. The open space offers to her the possibilities of a different life, of being an artist.

MS: Do you consider spaces between characters or character and audience as part of the tension or release of a scene?

BQ: Absolutely. When John Stix directed the Mapplethorpe play, he had the “portraits” off center and staged at a bit of a distance from the audience. Giving the audience space to take in these very extreme characters. However, the artist’s grandmother, another character, is played almost in the audiences lap. She welcomes the audience into the gallery space and makes them feel safe. In PLUSH LUST, the characters cohabit and there are silent scenes which document their life. This is all done visually with their pulling together and breaking apart and tentatively coming together again. These silent tableaus help tell the story of their love affair.

MS: Do you specify direction toward the audience, the way they are seated, how the play is seen, how they might participate, etc?

BQ: I don’t specify direction toward the audience. However, my writing has a lot of direct address in it (where characters speak to the audience.)

MS: Does the design of the theater itself play into the idea of the text?

BQ: Not really, though I do visualize the space when I write I do not at this point write with a particular space in mind. Of course this could change if I was continually writing for a specific theater!

MS: Can you alter that (the limitations of the theater itself) with the lighting, the color or the space that you describe in your writing?

BQ: Yes. With my Mapplethorpe play, we had to alter each of the spaces that I performed in so that it would be that neutral space called for by the text. At Dixon Place, we had to deal with an all white space, so the designers had to create shadow. In Provincetown it was such a large space, so a platform was built to define the playing space, and in San Francisco, the theater was painted to look almost like a Polaroid.

MS: How do you use color as you develop a character or a scene?

BQ: Again, it all depends on the project. In my play SUMMERLAND based on the Fox sisters, I drew. I was on two fellowships at The MacDowell Colony and was inspired by all the great visual artists. Frustrated in my writing process, I ended up drawing (badly) colorful circular forms. I was trying to imagine the supernatural. I made dozens of drawings and cut out collages, trying to wrap my mind around the “ghosts,” both real and imagined in the play. While working on PLUSH LUST (I was at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts on a fellowship) and I made collages and drawings to both imagine and define the spaces that the designers lived in and the spaces their imaginary firm designed.

MS: Brian, as a visual artist, I like the fact that you move to a visual practice to help you define your characters. I find this true of other playwrights and directors, I’m specifically thinking of Robert Wilson, whose drawings relate directly to the light and spaces of his productions. Orson Welles would draw his productions out before he began – translating the text into a visual experience. In your drawings you used circular images to refer to the supernatural – you were searching for a way to represent the un-seen or unknown. How do you translate your visual images back into the text in this regard?

BQ: The images that I drew became clues to me as far as the text and also the character. In a way, the drawings made me realize that the girls were just regular normal children (this was the solid element that appeared in the drawings.) Their “gift” (the ability to speak to the dead) was the lines that were spiraling out all over the page.

MS: Has this become part of your process when you’re writing (using visual practices) to define the text?

BQ: I am very inspired and influenced by visual arts. I have used this visual practice to develop two scripts and I’m sure I will again but for the last play I wrote NERINE, I did not define the text visually.

MS: As the play forms on the page lighting must become a great concern. How do you indicate the light or the spaces of light in your writing?

BQ: Yes. Extremely important and it varies piece to piece. As a production approaches, I rely on a designer to help realize the various scenes I have imagined. Sometimes with stage directions such as “the light of reality shines in this scene.” Sometimes guiding the designer with a specific color suggested for a scene. I sometimes specify it in text and sometimes I just know what I’d like to see and this comes out in collaboration with the production team.

MS: Are you thinking in tableaus or is there a more natural unfolding of light and space?

BQ: It all depends on the world of the play. PLUSH LUST has a series of silent tableaus which are very stylized and staccato. In NERINE, the light is all natural (cramped and dirty inside, and beautiful California bright outside.)

MS: Can it become a character in your play as well?

BQ: Yes. In SUMMERLAND the ghost is only light.

MS: There are always the inevitable changes from the page once something goes live. What processes of color light and space are you looking for when the piece becomes physical? What tensions or releases?

BQ: It is going to be a challenge when PLUSH LUST is staged. There is the silent tableau world of fabulous interiors and an upwardly mobile career. There is then the interior private world of Palladin and I think the light becomes more severe and the space more confined as his addiction spirals out of control. In the final scene after Palladin’s best friend Marion intervenes, I think there is a big release. The light will become more natural, warm and kind. Whereas earlier, the world will become harsher, crazier, unnaturally bright and smaller – mirroring addiction. At the end, there is hope and more room for the audience and the characters to breath.

MS: How are those elements heightened by color, light and/or space?

BQ: As the character spins out of control I think the color and light become “crystal methed” out, as does the space. Then with recovery there is warmth and natural light.

MS:In your work “Mapplethorpe: The Opening” you created a black and white space to open one’s imagination to the stories behind the images. How did the idea of the photographic space and light play into the writing of the piece?

BQ: When I first started writing the play, I went to the Strand to look at the S&M portraits that Mapplethorpe had photographed in the late 1970’s. I could not afford to buy the book at the time so I would return again and again to live with these black and white images. When I imagined them, they were always in a black and white world. Even the presence of Mapplethorpe himself seemed to be in black and white. That world was always the world of the studio, of defined, specific and bright light.

MS: Mapplethorpe’s images, though at times disturbing, have a classic all-over light and space. Did this imagery affect how you wrote the staging, lighting etc for the play?

BQ:I actually did not specify any lighting directions. Lance Horne’s brilliant sound design really helped define the difference in the worlds between the “portraits” (one reality) in black and white and the world of the gallery (another reality) in color. The lighting design then gave the gallery an overall natural wash with color. The world of the portraits was studio-like lit and confined white light.

MS: How did you animate that light and space to re-present that imagery and that camera process – that moment when the image was captured?

BQ: It was a square of light in which I would suddenly appear. There would be a music cue then a transition and we would be in this hot confined space and the photography session would be in process. The “portrait” monologues were all about a dialogue between artist and model. Private moments that were helped by the “gallery” colored lights coming out and just the hot “studio” light coming on. The transitions were rehearsed endlessly so it really happened so smoothly and quickly, like a camera click. Then zap, we would be back at the gallery and Mapplethorpe’s first opening in 1977.

MS: It seems to me that there are a lot of visual cues that you have to take into consideration as you write. This also is part of the process for painters – we have to lead the eye so to speak. I’m interested in how you build an interaction between the audience and the play itself. Is this something you write into the text or does this fall more to the director’s interpretation?

BQ: I think that I give a lot of suggestions for visuals in the text but in the end it really falls more to the director’s interpretation. Ultimately theater is a collaborative.

Brian Quirk will have a reading of his new play, Nerine, sponsored by the id Theater this July 19th.

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