“Onderweg” in Pictures
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We made it. More than two months of work and preparation have lead to these few days, in which our efforts are criticized and judged by the dumb masses.
“Onderweg” is what we deliver, or “Underway” as some might call it. It is the result of the creative outbursts of a one-of-a-kind director and the unique (to say the least) chemistry between around fifteen actors, simultaneously on stage for the whole performance.
The piece is built in several layers. The actors start out as themselves (although obviously acting), and explain the structure of the play. It’s the story of a group of refugees, squatters of an abandoned railroad station. Inside this story, like a dream within a dream, another story is told, played by the same people in different roles. They switch back and forth, playing narrators, concepts, objects and goddesses, and play themselves, from an actor’s perspective. Still with us?
The creative process was at least equally layered and infinitely more complicated. As part of the set crew and responsible for the sound effects, I was included from the start and got to watch from the sidelines as progress was made on many levels. And because I had my camera with me at all times, for the first time, I get to share this experience.
Photographs alone are snapshots, literally and figuratively. They never tell the whole story, so I’ll try and do that for them.
As mentioned, the story of our group takes place on different levels, poetically appropriate considering the parts we play in the eventual result. Let’s start with the obvious, at the beginning.
By the time I joined the company, the actors were well on their way of learning their lines. The script was written by the director, based on improvisation sessions of the main actors. Dancers came and went, people trying out to see if it was something they wanted to join in on. I lost count on the faces we saw in passing, and only a select few who were there at the beginning ended up staying. Their friends were called upon and quickly enough we had a big enough group- give or take a few.
Soon, we moved to a much bigger place to practice at, and from there on, it was pretty much “business as usual.” The choreographer and director make a good team, and it was interesting to watch as things took shape. As usual, I had many doubts about their working method and focus on things I found trivial, but kept my hole shut; They’re the pro’s, not me. Scripts onstage disappeared one by one as the actors learned their lines by heart, while the crew had theirs close by for the numerous times we had a cue to fill in. It got repetitive at this point for me, but I didn’t mind much. I was enjoying being a part of it and I had plenty to keep busy with.
As progress was made, small problems became evident and grew in size. Chemistry between actors is as important as anything and just didn’t want to work out. While closing in on the “general week,” the last week before live performance, things heated to a breaking point.
Additionally, several actors soon went missing in action: on holiday. It was something we all knew well in advance but still came at a very inopportune time. It was up to the director to come up with a solution, which he did: Ignore the problem and continue as planned, albeit with a little more care about everyone’s feelings. Again, not what I would have done, but I trusted his judgment and simply crossed my fingers. It’s a decision that could still be argued about today, but since nobody has any experience with directing but the man himself, we’re hardly in a position telling him what to do. If there was any point in the production where I lost sleep, this would be it.
Either I missed a revolutionary change during one of the very few days I was absent, or the cast put some real effort into their acting during this hiatus. Either way, when I returned, their performance had changed considerably. It still wasn’t quite perfect (like it ever is), but as another crew member said after a full rehearsal: “I’ve seen this play dozens of times by now, and today, for the first time, I was actually moved.” And I had to agree. We had a great thing brewing.
We had moved to the actual room where the performance would take place by then, and it was time for us set builders, to get down to business.
The original plan when all of us first sat down together was a remarkably vague one. The only thing that kept being mentioned was “white”. White walls, white floor, white props. Also, there were to be some kind of compressed packs of garbage of some kind. Several ideas were brought up, from using synthetic foam to jam trash in, to wooden cubes wrapped up in prints. But really, we didn’t really have a clue what it had to look like, let alone how to do it.
Another problem was that we were on our own. A fashion designer and a stage builder were suddenly held responsible for the construction of a whole set, something neither of us had ever done. Since I had been involved with the theater group in the past, I naturally assumed that I carried the end responsibility, and would have to arrange the meetings and take all the big decisions. In short, I wasn’t looking forward to it.
Luckily, I was proven wrong. I had gravely underestimated the potential of my colleague, and the expertise of a carpenter who would ”help where he could” before leaving for Spain for I don’t know how long- could be decades. He was so kind to provide us with wooden panels that we could paint and put up, rather than paint the black walls of the theater and screw ourselves with days work after the shows were over to get it all black again.
Initiative is not my forte, and I don’t underestimate the ways in which my colleague helped me in that respect. Luckily, her creativity and assertiveness easily exceeds mine, and to put it bluntly, she took charge far more effectively than I would have. I was glad to just nod when she suggested the next time to meet and work, and simply agreed to the ideas she came up with. I may be more clever with a hammer, but as a designer she’s the one with the brains, as much as I hate to admit it.
We reconsidered those “elements” repeatedly, and eventually it became clear that the intention was to portray the squatters’ packrat tendencies. Furniture, still usable, was to be “compressed” together to a as small a size as possible, for later use. This was a huge relief for me, as it meant less than half the amount of work as originally thought. We came up with a few ideas, painted them white, and voila. The set was ready.
Transportation proved to be a hassle, not that I would know because I wasn’t even there. Conveniently, I had to work for real, and only came back to find everything on-site. After a complication or two with organization, we got our act together and went to work. The panels were up in a day, and later moved slightly apart according to the director’s “If you can’t hide it, Show it” philosophy. The surface was written with the actors’ lines from the play in black marker, to create a sort of diary effect with the leafs spread out along the walls.
The white floor proved another challenge. We had to enlist a few actors to assist getting a huge roll of linoleum floor covering up a flight of stairs, which we then unrolled and flipped upside down, with the white side up. And thus, a white room was created, and as soon as the actors walked in, it became the “white room with dirty footprints”. Between figuring things out, painting, assembling, and making it work, we worked for a good month, pretty much every few hours we had to spare.
Photography and observations
There is no such thing as skill.
Skill is merely a snapshot of progress.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. So in that respect, every photograph is a snapshot, literally and figuratively, of the photographer’s skill at that time; and of course the equipment, light conditions, and even previous shots that linger in your camera’s settings.
When I first started out, I had my camera for just over a week. I had just joined a forum to get as much dead honest feedback and technical tips as I could, and was still testing settings and exposure modes. Upon coming home every night, I would scan through my pictures to see what I did wrong. The best ones, I kept and put online for the others to find, but I wasn’t looking for praise. I was merely practicing.
We started out in a smallish, dimly lit room with black walls. A nightmare to get sharp images. The low light meant that I had to crank up my ISO setting and use wide open aperture, with so much noise and haziness as a result that I could hardly even tell if they were in focus or not- another thing my camera was struggling with. It wasn’t until we moved to a much bigger room with better light, that I could really see my pictures for what they were. I noted where improvement was possible and practiced at post-processing.
I could tell my voyeuristic tendencies weren’t welcome, at first. I got plenty of glares, however discreet, and I could sometimes see the actors struggle to concentrate when looking into a lens or hearing the shutter nearby. It took some practice for me too, to get over the awkwardness, but that too is something I needed to learn. You get used to it quickly and if they are still bothered by it, they have surpassed the point where they need to show it. Problem solved.
Most of them didn’t seem to understand why, either. That is mostly due to the fact that they don’t share the same passion and wouldn’t get why want to, for example, get my angle right. For them, there is nothing to see simply because they don’t look at a scene the same way I do. They don’t get why they are “worth” taking pictures of, not realizing the composition they are in. And of course, they only see their flaws- but let’s not get into that.
Between the dancing, acting and reviewing, the possibilities for compositional experimentation were endless. Fifteen people standing in diagonals, interacting with someone in front or behind them, gesturing some way or another… Heaven for anyone wanting to get it on film. Most movements were slow and repetitive, allowing me to take my time to compose and re-try again and again.
As we switched buildings again, the white walls were being put up and lights installed. Suddenly, the ugly, boring background of cables and loose drapes gave way for something that actually gave depth and interest to the whole. From that point on, the quality of the pictures took a leap forward and I was able to do things that simply didn’t work before, like close-up portraits. The play of warm light with bluish background gave anything I did a whole new dimension, boosting any “good” composition to epic proportions. You might say I am biased and you would be right, but I am not the only one to notice this.
What still needs work, is my exposure compensation. I haven’t quite figured out how my camera will interpret the light, and I often underexpose. Also far from perfect is my post-processing, which could compensate for mistakes made during shooting. Next production, perhaps?
A professional photographer came by to take the official rehearsal pictures, which could then be bought in actual prints. Sting as it might, I had to admit they were very good. His workflow was far more efficient than mine, who goes by trial-and-error, and the manipulation of colors was to the point and accurate, not to mention his exposure.
I did have a few people disagree with me, however. They said the pictures had something missing, and even went as far as calling mine better. While I take this with a grain of salt (and much gratitude), I think they might be on to something: a deeper knowledge and understanding of your subject unmistakably leads to better pictures. It was the actors’ patience and acceptance that allowed me to capture them at their most intimate moments. Regardless if they liked the results or not, I will carry this with me for the rest of my career: the practice that I had in these few months was more than I could ever wish for.
So now that this is over, I have a big photo album with pictures that will soon be forgotten. Sooner or later they will be gone altogether, and the story they told will fade.
When practicing photography, you are constantly faced with the decision whether to delete or keep a shot. When choosing to remove them, with them a part of the memory disappears. The set that remains shows how I saw things, but as the memory fades, so will the interest. The art of photography seems to want to keep memories alive, by showing just how interesting they really are. A “good” picture emphasizes the things that made a situation affect you. The more closely the viewer is involved, the easier this is, but soon enough no one will know or care what all this nonsense is about and with their value, the pictures will disappear. It’s a dead shame in one sense, but still a natural process I’ll have to live with.
In the play, the residents of the old train station, who inside their roles were actors in the secondary story told, take over abruptly and demand their own ending, a good one- a “Happily Ever After” one. Sadly, the actors in the story that took place in this reality, can’t just go and do that. The end has come and the goodbye was an emotional one: Somehow, friendships were forged in this melting pot that will last for a long time to come. I didn’t get much pictures of this because my initial goal was nothing but practice in composition, which I now regret. Or would that be one bridge too far? I suppose it no longer matters…