The National Women's Theatre Festival

It’s Lit! A Stream Designer’s Approach to OTHELLO

When JaMeeka Holloway described her vision for this reimagining of OTHELLO, my first thought was, “a modern descent into madness: we can play with that!” There were PLENTY of different ideas we, the design team and myself, had in how to take the audience on this journey. And while we couldn’t do everything on our dream list, many experimental techniques were used to create the performance our audience sees. If you haven’t checked out the OTHELLO program just yet, please do! In this post we’ll discuss the integration of social media into the production, how we built the “sets,” and how we accomplished the different looks for actors. I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you that there are spoilers in here. Now, let\’s dive into it, friends! 


In recent times social media has become such an involved part of our day to day operations. That may be doubly so during a pandemic. If we are to tell any story, we have to at least acknowledge the hackneyed selfie. (Which you can see incorporated into the performance). 

Our journey into social media as a production began with each actor creating an Instagram account for their character. It worked as an interesting exercise for character building, but also created subsequent content to include for our audience to get to know these women before or after the show. More invested audience members make for an even more devastating ending when half of them end up dead. 


The most obvious integration of social media into the stream design was the Herald’s proclamation that Othello has, in fact, married Desdemona. Danyelle Monson [pictured above] did a fabulous job creating that IG Influencer atmosphere for the Herald. The other fun Easter egg in this video is that those character accounts (and some production team members) are live in the comments engaging in the chat. 

The last head nod to the current social media culture is in the constant interjections of the newsletters covers. These were created to reflect the trend of newspaper articles or opinion pieces that we see shared on different social media platforms, but never read past the headline. (Or is that just me?) These headlines are catchy (clickbait-y, one could say) and we never see anything else on these covers and as the show progresses, so does the harshness of the headlines to the point where no attempt is made to feel like an accredited news source any more. Shout out to Aaliyah Ward for designing them and capturing the tabloid vibe we were looking for! 


We all know that there are not “sets” in the traditional sense in virtual theatre. Instead, we have to create individual sets for each actor’s space and then the potentially unlimited digital sets. Today we are going to be focusing on the digital sets, which we called “backdrops” internally. 

Because JaMeeka had such a specific vision for where she wanted these events to take place, it was quite easy to pull a whole slew of royalty free images for her to choose from. The evergreen campus grounds of Venice College starkly juxtaposed the bustling, shiny port city of Cyprus. City scapes and neon lit hotel lobbies all contribute to the blinding atmosphere Othello enters in Cyprus.


And as we continued our work with the actors and other designers, even the locations evolved with new discoveries. Sets were “destroyed” in a matter of seconds, “repainted” in mere minutes. As the plot continues to escalate to the series of different murders, the backdrops continue to darken in color, ending in the bedroom of Othello and Desdemona as an empty bed lit solely by a single candle. 


Well friends, I want to start off this next section with saying that I am not a Lighting Designer. (Don’t tell my old professor I said that!) But if there was anything that I learned when I studied theatre at North Carolina Central University it\’s that you CANNOT light every person with the same color! This poses an interesting challenge because we knew that we wanted to establish different times of day through applying filters on top of the actors\’ feeds. But if there is no “one size fits all” for lighting then we would have to build each filter from scratch to the individual performer. 

So I called up my old professor, Arthur Reese, and asked him, “What are some of the tricks you use to make all the black and brown complexions pop like the sun was directly kissing them?” And out of that conversation, a new idea was born: instead of trying to manipulate the color balance of the video feeds, I can pull the same gel color we use for in-person theatre and lay them on top of each actor like you would when multiple lights shine on stage. 


And that’s exactly what I did. Using a combination of different gel colors from both Rosco and Lee lighting, I was able to build three different looks for each actor. These combinations would consist of adjusting opacity and layering of the gels to create the looks that best complimented the actor. The trap that I continued to fall into was adjusting the filters to match everyone\’s backgrounds instead of the faces. So I would then have to go back and readjust everything, ignoring the actors’ backgrounds and instead comparing what the people look like in relation to each other. A cool result that came out of this is that the backgrounds never match, creating a visual patch work when the whole cast is on screen together. 

Another lesson learned regarding the filters was when to use which filter. The original idea was to have the actors’ looks to help inform the audience which time of day the action was taking place. As tech week continued to bring all the design elements together, the different looks were not reading in comparison to the backdrops we were placing behind the actors. So instead of the more abstract approach for letting the lighting design provide more information, we took the literal approach and had the lighting presented in the backdrop inform us which filter to be used on the actors. 

A week before opening night another discovery was made: What if the entire cast entered with a dimly lit, almost grainy look for the final screen in Othello’s bedroom? But the lighting in the actors’ spaces was way too bright to try to accomplish this look with filters in the amount of time we had left. There was only way for the team to accomplish this look: we’re turning off some lamps! In one on one sessions, I walked each actor through which lights to dim, turn off, or move to create a “Spooky Look” as we now affectionately call it. While Emilia is passionately lecturing Desdemona on the injustices between men and women, the rest of the cast is running around in their spaces, flipping off light switches and dialing down their ring lights. Three cheers to the cast for being flexible enough to incorporate some self-lighting adjustments the same week of opening. 


Now we come to a point where we talk about the people that helped me make this possible. Aurealia Belfield’s sound design and wonderfully trained ear created the cacophony of noise that progressed every scene further into the darkness. Taylor Murrell’s work with props like hand painting each handkerchief and designing the Cyprus lanyards made the characters that much more real for the actors and thus the audience. Terra Hodge’s video editing skills brought to life the transitions in between the scenes and provided the abstract representation for the violent moments presented in the show. Didi Fields’s tireless work as Stage Manager allowed for all of the creative team members, cast and crew to feel informed, in control and supported. From call to curtain, Didi spends every minute of every performance speaking – either guiding the cast, calling cues to the stream technician and captions runner, or relaxing the stream designers nerves! 

And lastly, Pimpila Violette and Mikki Marvel were an INTEGRAL part of making all of this happen. While I designed the stream, they were the ones that implemented all of these ideas in an OBS (Open Broadcasting Software) build and then continued to tweak their builds as adjustments and new media was added to the show. Their intimate knowledge of the software and streaming in general was an immeasurable resource. (And all of that on top of building the caption script of over 3,000 lines…) 


[left to right: Zandi Carlson, Jazmyn Boone, Sarah Shin]

As I mentioned before, there will always be ideas that have to be cut because time, labour, and finances are not unlimited, but fresh ideas, open collaboration and good old fashioned trial and error brought the team to the right combination to tell the story of OTHELLO  effectively. I learned a lot along the way because so much of what we brought into fruition has not been done before, at least to my knowledge. I know I can’t wait to apply all of these new techniques and processes to my next project! 

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