House of Escher | Media Design

In December of 2012 I was approached at an ASU School of Theatre and Film party and asked if I would be interested in working on a project that would begin the following semester, and premiere a new work in the Fall of 2013. As this is exactly the kind of opportunity that I came to ASU to peruse, I eagerly agreed to be a part of the project. 

Some Background

ASU’s School of Theatre and Film (soon to also include Dance) has a very interesting graduate school program for performers and designers. Operating on a cohort based system, the school admits a group of performers, directors, and designers (Scenic, Costume, and Lighting) every three years. One of the other graduate programs at the school, the one in which I’m enrolled, can enroll students each year. My program, Interdisciplinary Digital Media and Performance (IDM), straddles both the school of Arts, Media, and Engineering as well as the School of Theatre and Film. Students in my program have pursued a variety of paths, and one skill that’s often included in those various paths is media and projection design for stage productions. Just today as I was watching the live web-cast of the XboxOne announcement, I was thinking to myself, “some designer planned, created, and programmed the media for this event… huh, I could be doing something like that someday.”

The latest cohort of actors, designers, and directors started in the Fall of 2011, which means that the group is due to graduate in the Spring of 2013. In both the second and third year of the cohort’s program they work to create a newly devised piece that’s performed in one of the theatre’s on campus as ASU. Occasionally, this group also needs a media designer, and it’s their new show for 2014 that I was asked to be a part of. 

The Fall of the House of Escher

Our devising process started with some source material that we used as the preliminary research to start our discussion about what show we wanted to make. Our source materials were Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, M.C Escher, and Quantum Mechanics. With these three pillars as our starting point we dove into questions of how to tackle these issues, tell an interesting story, and work to meet creative needs of the group. 

One of our first decisions focused on the structure of show that we wanted to create. After a significant amount of discussion we finally settled on tackling a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) kind of structure. This partially arose as a means of exploring how to more fully integrate the audience experience with the live performance. While it also brought significant design limitations and challenges, it ultimately was the methodology the group decided to tackle. 

Shortly after this we also settled on a story as a framework for our production. Much of our exploratory conversation revolved around the original Poe work, and it was soon clear that the arc of the Fall of the House of Usher would be central to the story we set out to tell. The wrinkle in this simple idea came as our conversations time and again came back to how Poe and Quantum Mechanics connect with one another. As we talked about parallel universes, and the problems of uncertainty, we decided to take those very conversations as a cue for what direction to head with the production. While one version of the CYOA model takes patrons on the traditional track of Poe’s gothic story, audience members are also free to send our narrator down different dark paths to explore what else might be lurking in the Usher’s uncanny home. Looking at the photo below you can see where the audience has an opportunity to choose a new direction, and how that impacts the rest of the show. 

While this was a fine starting point, we also realized that it only giving the audience an opportunity to explore one avenue of possibility in the house felt a little flat. To address that point we discussed a repeated journey through the house in a Ground Hog Day-esque repeated style. Each run of the show will send the audience through the CYOA section three times, allowing them the opportunity to see the other dark corners of the house, and learn more about the strange inhabitants of the home. I did a little bit of map-making and mapped out all of the possible paths for our production; that is, what are all of the possible permutations of the three legged journey through the house. The resulting map means that there are twelve different possible variations for the production. A challenge, to be sure. 

Media and the House

So what’s media’s role in this production? The house is characterized by it’s Escher patterned qualities. Impossible architecture and tricks of lighting and perspective create a place that is uncanny, patterned, but also somehow strangely captivating. Just when it seems like the house has shared all of it’s secrets there are little quantum blips and pulses that help us remember that things are somehow not right until ultimately the house collapses. 

Our host (who spends his/her time slipping between the slices of the various paths the audience tumbles through) is caught as a destabilized field of particles only sometimes coalesced. The culminating scene is set in a place beyond the normal, a world of quantum weirdness – small as the inside of an atom, and vast as the universe itself. it’s a world of particles and waves, a tumbling peak inside of the macro and micro realities of our world that are either too big or too small for us to understand on a daily basis. 

Media’s role is to help make these worlds, and to help tell a story grounded in Poe’s original, but transformed by a madcap group of graduate students fighting their way out of a their own quantum entanglement. 

One thought on “House of Escher | Media Design

  1. Pingback: Cue Building for Non-Linear Productions | Matthew Ragan

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