Soot and Spit looks at the life and art of James Castle. James’ word of art was enveloping and transformative, art that continues to be celebrated today. ASU’s world premiere of the Charles Mee play took place in the Spring of 2013. Staged as something between a musical, a dance show, and a theatrical piece, Soot and Spit took on a life of its own. In exploring the life and artwork of James Castle the walls of the stage were transformed as the audience was transported into a place that was alive with art.
Arizona State University Presents Soot and Spit
In the Spring of 2013 I had the opportunity to assist Boyd Branch in the media design for a world premier production of Charles Mee’s Soot and Spit, directed by Kim Weild. The production was difficult to capture in words, and even after reading Mee’s script I was still at a bit of loss in trying to understand what the production really was. The play tells the story of James Castle, an artist who (with today’s language) we might categorize as autistic. Born in 1899 in Garden Valley Idaho his life was a story that was both often tragic and beautiful. Mee’s script tries to capture the essence of both of those elements and calls for the heavy use of the James’ artwork as inspirational material. In beginning this process Boyd and I discussed what role media needed to take in the production, and how it might facilitate the needs of the play and of the world that Kim wanted to create on stage. The set for the production was an enormous series of panels that looked to recreate the feeling of an old barn. Two panels – one stage right, and one stage left – rotated into various positions, and a smaller stage for a live band was to be set up right.
Boyd was especially interested in the use of live cameras for this production, and one of the interested challenges that we faced was how to incorporate live camera feeds in show with such a unique aesthetic. Part history play, and part exploration of James’ psyche, the production sometimes drifted between what might be considered the real world and the world of James’ imagination. This created a tremendous opportunity for creativity and visual expiration in the media.
For this particular project Boyd was able to assemble a large team of assistants to help him with the process of creating the content for the production, installing the system, and programming playback for the production. For this project Boyd asked me to focus on helping him program playback for the show – in terms of equipment we found ourselves looking to manage one Mac Pro, one Blackmagic ATEM, three live HD cameras, two HD 8000 lumen projectors, and another system (one mac mini, and two Sanyo Projectors) dedicated to subtitling this was no simple task. During our initial meetings we talked at length about the right system configuration for this particular production. In the end, the two big contenders for playback were Dataton’s Watchout and Troikatronix’s Isadora. With extensive needs for live camera work – and live camera work that required real time effects – the decision was ultimately made to use Isadora.
With plans to envelope all possible surfaces with projection, it was soon clear that during our technical process we needed someone other than Boyd to be a dedicated system programmer. This allowed Boyd the ability to watch the stage, talk with other designers, talk with the director, and direct the rest of his media team who were frequently working on crafting alternative content for the production. In this way, I was able to focus my full attention to programming the look that Boyd had designed. I don’t know that I’ve ever programed so fast and precisely as I did for this production. In addition to giving Boyd the opportunity to truly craft his aesthetic, it gave me the opportunity to truly learn playback inside and out with Isadora.
This is a difficult show to describe. In the final dress rehearsals before opening I found myself seeing the play differently. It was beautiful, it was tragic. It was funny, and sometimes it was mean. I don’t know that an audience who hadn’t gone on the roller coaster of production and tech week would have the same experience, but for me it became something that at moments felt nearly transcendent. Like all productions it had its share of flaws, but when it was beautiful it was so in a way that words can’t express.