A Note on Scene Transitions

I spend a disproportionate amount of time on scene transitions.

Generally, when I direct a piece, I try to pick something that keeps the amount of actual physical locations to a minimum. But, if I fail at that (ahem, “Closer”), scene transitions become pivotal make-it-or-break-it elements in the piece.

The trick, obviously, is to change the scene as quickly as possible and as smoothly as possible without loosing the audience’s engagement, assuming they are already engaged. Blackouts and set changes are the classic and first choice of amateurs and purists alike, but I like to keep the thing running straight through. In my doctrine, blackouts are for house/preshow out, top of show, end of acts (leading to intermission), and final curtain. That is all.

Some directors use blackouts all the way through the guts of the piece, usually in a particularly heavy or pivotal scene. To each his own. Des McAnuff is a blackout aficionado. He’s kept me in pitch black for at least forty-five seconds on more than one occasion without my blind eyes ever leaving the stage.

Kelsie Carroll and Scott McDougall in “Closer” (Encore Theatre Company, July 2012)

If you’re going to use blackouts, make em count. Don’t waste them on scene-to-scene transitions. Save them for your one mindfuck moment: that one set/scene change that uses every (good) stagecraft trick in the book and solidifies itself as THE LOBBY CONVERSATION at intermission.

McAnuff did it in Macbeth at Stratford in 2009, heading into the Banquet Scene (III, 4 for the scholars). He put us in near black for a perceived eternity, but filled the stage with actors doing audible crowd banter, imploring us to maintain our fixation. We do. We can see the stage, but only in an abstract way. It had been completely bare before the light cue and, as far as we know, still is. We can’t see concrete forms, shapes, movement, or people. Eventually, the crowd builds to a crescendo culminating in a flash lights-up where a blank stage has been transformed into an opulent banquet with a 20′ (or probably more) table dressed with the most sinful dinner spread ever conceived by man. The rowdy crowd, on stage only seconds ago, is actually the nobility at the table (a bit of trickery that still leaves us questioning where the other 40 people went).

The magic of the transition lies in the illusion of emptyness: we never see a single thing being flown in. In a few tens of seconds, in legally-blinding darkness, an empty stage becomes an ornately-dressed set without a single strip of glow-tape or movement of any perceptible kind. It’s magic.

I know how they did it. Took a few sleepless nights of pondering, but I cracked the code of the “Banquet Change”. The Festival Theatre in Stratford has trap doors within trap doors on top of trap doors. The versatility of that space, as ridiculous as it is for a house that seats over 1,800 and was built in 1957, is only further upstaged by the trickery embedded in its design.

McAnuff understands what any good, sensible stagecrafter understands: your audience’s attention is always essential. So you do what you have to do to keep it, even when you have to change a lush forrest to a modern high-rise condominium tower in less than 30 seconds.

The point is this: on stage, everything is important. The scenes tell the story, reveal the characters, are the meat or guts of the piece. But you only have one space and most playwrights aren’t savvy (or merciful) enough to write a two-hour single-location script. Your transitions become part of the story and how you execute them ultimately determines whether your audience is with you for the long-haul, or needs to be ushered back in every ten minutes because you need to go to black to put a couch on stage.

When Des McAnuff spends $10K or whatever on a single scene change in an already blockbuster-budgeted Shakespeare play, you know he’s not messing around. His audience’s attention, complete and undivided, is what drives his staging. And rightly so, because as long as they are attentive, they are engaged. And when they’re engaged, you can get away with anything. Absolutely anything.

Transitions are some of my favorite work. I get off on a beautifully choreographed, precisely timed, and oddly engaging scene change. They are a pain in the ass to direct, but when they work, they steal the show.


One thought on “A Note on Scene Transitions

  1. I use biomechanics for my scene changes. Which certainly is rehearsal-time-consuming, but I usually treat it as a training session or work it into the warm ups. Usually the biomechanics experience influences the rhythm of the overall staging as well.

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