Hell in Belgium - Black and Blacker Theatre

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by Jerrard Smith, stage designer.

The beginning stages of a project are always the best - tossing around ideas and making preliminary design outlines. The only restrictions at this point might be the physical limitations of a proposed site (if one has been selected) a script/score and maybe an approximate idea of the budget. So why does it always go downhill from there to the point where the last month is utter hell and the results are always less than satisfying?

[A] There are factors that are our fault.

[B] There are problems that are someone else's fault.

[C] There are those things which are unpredictable and unavoidable.

I believe that all of the above can be avoided to some extent and the downhill tendency reversed.


The initial contact was from the Festival of Liège who indicated interest in mounting a Schafer work - preferably a world premiere. This in itself is unusual-normally a producer asks for a modest work and is subsequently convinced to undertake a larger piece only to discover it lacks the resources. The fact that they wanted a major work implied that they had some idea of what they were getting themselves into.

SEPTEMBER 1987 Thom Sokoloski (Patria stage director) and myself spent a week in Yugoslavia to investigate the possibilities of doing another work (RA) there. We decided that given the situation there a production would have been impossible. (An important lesson that should be applied more often)

On our return, we stopped in Belgium to discover the Festival of Liège to be so organised and helpful by comparison that we were convinced of the viability of producing the BLACK THEATRE there. The site we were shown was so exciting that we immediately started planning how the show might be done. I took photographs and measured the site and we prepared a preliminary budget and a list of production requirements which we left with them. Production was planned for the following September giving us one year of lead time.

The first problem was lack of communication. [A] Patria (Thom Sokoloski, Diana Smith - costume designer, Murray Schafer and myself) met several times but we should have developed more concrete plans, pre-production schedules etc.[B]

Liège did not respond to our letters and calls and we began to feel that misunderstandings were arising. At that point we should have set clear deadlines and established a definite communication path such as fax. [A] We relied on an intermediary - someone who knew both parties but perhaps did not understand all the concerns and requirements.

The next problem was funding. [B] Initially the BLACK THEATRE was to be a Belgian production. It began to become evident that Liège was unable to raise the necessary funds.

The next problem was the site. As with all sites that are not set up for performance, there arose [C] unexpected renovations to comply with safety standards. (This is one example of many regarding this and other non-theatre sites and [A] more research is necessary at the outset) This problem of course affects the entire design, production scheduling path and of course the budget.

The outcome for us was that the production would be postponed from Sept. 88 until March 89 and that Patria would have to raise almost half the proposed budget. We might have reconsidered the implications more objectively but [A] we were seduced by the idea of doing a show in Europe, [B] there was still confusion about how the budget was to be divided and [A] Diana and myself did not involve ourselves in the budget decisions to the extent we should have. The new budget meant cutting a lot of corners in the set design and doing the work in Canada (to be shipped to Belgium) and having the costumes made in Belgium. [A] Diana did not have enough information on European production costs to know if the designated costume budget was adequate.

On our end we were able to raise all but $10,000. of the Canadian share which meant further cuts to the set budget and salary cuts for us. So it goes. Next we must schedule preliminary trips to arrange music and orchestra details (Murray), casting and rehearsal schedule (Thom), wardrobe crew and production schedule (Diana) and set up crew and schedule and site preparation (myself). It was unfortunately too late to co-ordinate the times for the four of us to go together and still meet with the key people there. In the end Murray went first and reported back that there may be problems with the person they had assigned as production manager. [A] It would have been wise to meet at this point and re-evaluate our position. As Diana could not go because of scheduling problems, Thom and I went in December 88 and I had to cover the wardrobe concerns.

December 1988 We arrive to meet the Festival director and S who is to be production manager, stage manager, lighting and technical director and publicist. He also controls the Belgian budget. We feel he may be spread a bit thin. [B]

Problems now begin to appear. Auditions are held in the office! The chorus is not available! As I go over the wardrobe needs, it turns out that S is relying totally on one 'advisor' a designer with the local Opera. I am informed that the budget requires that we use some students and a minimum of professionals. (I meet the students and determine that their usefulness is limited to costume distressing and some organisation)

As S had no contact with or information about the local theatre scene,[A] perhaps I should have taken it upon myself to do some research. S insists that all the wardrobe requirements will be in place when we arrive Jan 24. We try to argue for a real stage manager and spend considerable time trying to convince S that the job of production manager alone on a work of this magnitude is a full time job. [A] I think we put him on the defensive and made him feel that we were trying to undermine his abilities which set a bad tone for our working relationship.

I next discuss lighting requirements and show S a basic lighting plot that I brought using a minimum of basic instruments and well within the budget. S indicates he has lighting experience and some ideas of his own. He works with a theatre in France and says we can get instruments and a board from there. (We are afraid that he may have tried to use our lighting budget to purchase a new board for his theatre but [B] we had no access to the Belgian budget details.) Some details of power cable and colour are vague and [A] should have been nailed down.

We next discuss the set and site requirements and some of the aspects that are specific to a non-theatre space: cleaning and preparation of the space, washrooms, dressing rooms and other backstage facilities, heat, cleanup and strike, risers for musicians, seating for the audience etc. I was introduced to Lucky who with one or two inexperienced helpers was expected to take care of all of the above as well as lighting and electrics, all the music and musician details and all transportation. [A]

It was my fault for not quitting at that point. We cross our fingers and leave. Patria meets and the feeling is that nothing will be in place when we arrive in January. I'm feeling a desperate optimism and with the two month lead time I think that things can't be all that bad. (It turns out that they can!)

Hell...part 2