News Column

The Fresno Bee, Donald Munro column

July 6, 2013

YellowBrix

July 06--Mitchell Hau sits in the front row of the Shaghoian Hall. He's impressed.

How could he not be? Sprawled across a 42-feet by 24-feet movie screen, a drawing of a 19th century sailing vessel tied up at port transforms the stage into a bustling Parisian dock. When Hau drew that image, it was on a small piece of paper 8 inches wide.

Now it's almost as big as, well, a ship.

Such is the technology at work in StageWorks Fresno's new production of "Les Miserables," which will be performed Friday and July 14.

When the company's artistic director, Joel Abels, decided to mount the popular show, he knew he was only looking at a two-performance run. It would have been very expensive for such a short run to build the expensive sets that "Les Miz" -- which requires a director to recreate scenes ranging from a factory interior to a raging battle in the streets of Paris -- demands.

And Abels wanted to experiment with a new frontier of theater design: using computing power to take audiences around the world without raising a hammer. (Besides, Abels would rather blow the bank on the costume budget, which is lavish for this production.)

Twenty-eight digital backdrops will be used throughout the fully staged show, which features a cast of 48 and 14 musicians.

Abels turned to Hau, a Fresno State theater major and company member (he plays one of the student rebels), to kick off the brave new process. Largely a self-taught artist, Hau has been sketching since childhood. He studied old 19th century wood-block prints published with the original "Les Miserables" novel by Victor Hugo. He spent long hours on each image for the show.

Then the second person involved in the creative process took over. Dominic Grijalva is well-known to Good Company Players and StageWorks audiences as an actor, but he's also making a name for himself in terms of digital projections. (He designed the video animation in the recent GCP production of "Spamalot.")

Spending hours as well, Grijalva massaged each of Hau's hand-drawn images by digitizing them, then using Adobe software to add texture and a sense of age to each one. He added touches of animation to many -- boats sailing in a river, sewage tumbling out of Paris' famed sewer.

Are digital backdrops cutting-edge in the world of theater today? Not in New York, really, where just about every Broadway musical uses some form of them in scenic designs, Abels notes. The musical version of 2006's "Mary Poppins" broke new ground by featuring extensive animation in the "Feed the Birds" scene, for example.

And 2012's "Ghost: The Musical" smothered the stage in massive video screens -- including the back and side walls -- with many on moveable panels that slid, swooped and folded out. The audience was bombarded with graphics, rapidly changing colors, big blocks of text and even video of the dancers complementing the live ones on stage.

But in Fresno theater, such uses of technology are rare. I don't see it always being that way in the future. There might come a time when local theater companies will be able to rent digital backdrops, much as they often do with "real" sets and costumes. Once you invest in the hardware, building a set could become as easy as a download.

I can also see where such innovations could become a crutch. It will take sharp and creative scenic designers to know when to use technology, when to combine it with traditional scenery and when not to overuse -- and abuse -- it.

In the case of this "Les Miz," the 48-foot-wide experiment signals an exciting upgrade for local theater.

Still, when you rely on technology, you can't be too cocky. Abels plans to have an extra bulb on hand for the projector in case the original blows out.

IF YOU GO

"Les Miserables," 8 p.m. Friday, July 12, 2 p.m. July 14. Shaghoian Hall, 2770 E. International Ave. stageworksfresno.com, (559) 289-6622. $35-$45.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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(c)2013 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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