The Language of Set Design: Dartmouth Designer Stresses Color, Light, Confidence
Set designer and Dartmouth visiting professor Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili paints the stage of the Moore Theater for the production of "Spring Awakening" at Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover, N.H., on February 13, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
An outline of what the finished stage will look like is taped to scaffolding on the set of "Spring Awakening" at Moore Theater in Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover, N.H., on February 13, 2014. Set designer and Dartmouth visiting professor Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili referred to the outline while painting the stage with Dartmouth students. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Set designer Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili's shoes rest just offstage during the painting of the Moore Theater stage for the production of "Spring Awakening" at Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover, N.H., on February 13, 2014.(Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Set designer Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili looks toward the set of "Spring Awakening" at Moore Theater in Hopkins Center for the Arts while painting the stage with Dartmouth students Cristy Altamirano, left, of Miami, Fla., and Phoebe Kurtzman of Suffern, N.Y., in Hanover, N.H., on February 13, 2014. Alexi-Meskhishvili is a visiting professor at Dartmouth, and Altamirano said she has been able to "get into his head and watch him work" since she took his set design class last year as a sophomore. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Shortly before the opening of the Dartmouth College Theater Department’s production of the musical Spring Awakening, which goes into its second week of performances tonight and runs through Sunday, the set designer Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili prowls the stage in the Moore Theater, taking inventory of what still needs to be done.
Alexi-Meskhishvili, whose official title at the college is visiting professor of theater, has been visiting since 1996, when he took the job. He has a brisk, shorthand way of communicating his intentions to the students working with him on the staging. “Go. Go. Go. Stop,” he tells a young woman mixing black and taupe paint together in a pan. “This black is not really strong,” he observes, staring at the paint intently.
He has her add more black, swirling it into the taupe paint, until the colors reach a level of intensity that he wants. That done, he pushes aside the paint pan with a sweeping motion of his foot. His shoes are spattered with a layer of dried smears and drops of paint. “My work shoes,” he says.
He then takes out a long paint brush with a broom-like handle and a mop-like head. “This is special brush,” he says in his Georgian accent.
Alexi-Meskhishvili walks across the stage, long brush in hand. Going from spot to spot, he lightly touches the brush to the floor, leaving behind a seemingly random pattern of blots; each application of paint looks a little like a dandelion dipped in paint and pressed to paper. A pattern begins to emerge on the raked stage, although from the middle of the theater the dandelion whorls blend in with the deep brown, black, grays and silver paint that give the floor the appearance of an artist’s studio.
The play’s director, James Horton, a professor of theater at the college, admires the way the design brings the floor into the “the play and makes us part of the space.” The set is dark and expressionistic, and dozens of lightbulbs hang low from the ceiling.
“Lighting is crucial, lighting changes everything,” said Alexi-Meskhishvili, who drops pithy observations into conversation like a man dropping stones into water. Tall and lanky, he has, at first glance, a saturnine air, and his speech is succinct and directly to the point, without much in the way of embellishment.
There’s a reason for his telegraphic speaking style. “I have to be very clear and confident about this so people can trust me,” he said. If he doesn’t know what he wants to achieve, then he can’t expect people working with him to know either, he added.
It’s important to have a knowledge of art history, design, color, texture, materials and the play of light, but just as important to know how to translate those elements into stagecraft that works. “If you know all the jobs it’s helpful. It’s important to know all the aspects of the production,” said Alexi-Meskhishvili.
At the back of the set there’s a long panel of photographic images from Berlin and Germany, circa the early 1900s, that have been mashed into a collage. The women and men in the pictures look poised to leap from the constraints and morés of the 19th century into the liberties and experimentation of the early 20th: modernity overpowering stasis.
Based on the 1891 play by German playwright Frank Wedekind, Spring Awakening has a rock score by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, and opened on Broadway in 2006 to stellar reviews. When the play first premiered in 1891, its frank but empathetic depiction of adolescent yearning, sexuality and depression must have seemed like a lightning strike, powerful and mercilessly illuminating.
The writer and anarchist Emma Goldman, no slouch herself in the non-conformity department, called Wedekind’s play “a powerful indictment hurled against society, which out of sheer hypocrisy and cowardice persists that boys and girls must grow up in ignorance of their sex functions, that they must be sacrificed on the altar of stupidity and convention which taboo the enlightenment of the child in questions of such elemental importance to health and well-being.”
Horton saw the musical on Broadway when it opened and put it on his wish list of productions he’d like to direct. “It’s not the typical stuff of a night out at the musical theater. It’s got real guts,” he said. “It struck me as extraordinary that somebody wrote it in 1891.”
Horton has worked with Alexi-Meskhishvili a number of times. “He has this extraordinary visual sense and he’s bold. ... He’s fearless, eager to explore and to take risks. He has instincts about story you’re telling and what it wants to look like.”
Alexi-Meskhishvili, who plans to retire from Dartmouth in spring 2015, emigrated with his wife Maka and younger daughter Ketuta from his native Georgia to the U.S. in 1991 during the dismantling of the Soviet Union. In that final collapse, “the future was uncertain and dark,” he said. They came also to ensure that their younger daughter would receive an education in the U.S., and because he had numerous theater contacts here. (Their older daughter Nina remained behind in Georgia.)
Alexi-Meskhishvili had already established himself as a designer of renown around the world in theater, opera and ballet: at the Rustaveli National Theater in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, the Moscow Art Theater, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, the Finnish National Theater in Helsinki, Teatro San Martin in Buenos Aires, the Edinburgh Festival, the Théatre du Chatelet in Paris, the Synetic Theater in Washington, D.C., to name a few. He has also designed both sets and costumes for productions in London of Hamlet, starring Alan Rickman, and The Three Sisters, starring Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, and productions at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
He lived and worked in New York City before learning about the job at Dartmouth. In addition to designing the college’s theater productions, he teaches classes in set design. Two days a week he works with students at a studio in the Hopkins Center. On a recent afternoon he moves from student to student examining their model sets, which are built to scale. The students had three productions to choose from: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Antoine de St. Exupery’s The Little Prince.
“I like young people. I help them, they help me,” he said.
Alexi-Meskhishvili asks Hannah Collman, a junior and theater and visual arts major, to bring her model set for Alice in Wonderland over to a table so they can look at it together. Collman has designed a series of windows and doors, from floor to ceiling, through which the characters can pop in and out; Alexi-Meskhishvili asks her to consider how light will affect their exits and entrances. “How are they going to open and how are you going to use them?”
Senior Nick O’Leary, a theater major who is directing and designing a production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist that will open in March in the Bentley Theater, said in a phone interview that Alexi-Meskhishvili has “really encouraged me to be an advocate for my work. He thinks that you have to understand the play and communicate with the rest of the team and the director but also should be able to say, No, this is the way it should be.”
Margaret Jacobs, a Dartmouth graduate who is now exhibition coordinator at the AVA Gallery, took theater design classes from Alexi-Meskhishvili. Although she is not now in the theater, she learned from him how the placement of objects “can determine how people move and look at things,” a skill that she uses in her work at the gallery.
Alexi-Meskhishvili’s office at the Hopkins Center is lined with his own art work and model sets. Mobiles, some of his own invention, dangle in front of the window that looks out onto an interior courtyard. A wall behind his desk is plastered over with photographs of his family, the directors and actors he’s worked with, postcards of paintings by Velasquez, Watteau, Picasso and Rogier van der Weyden, pictures of Tbilisi. The computer on his desk was tuned, at the moment, to a CNN newscast because he is closely following the crisis in Ukraine.
Alexi-Meskhishvili takes a dim view of the Russian maneuverings in Ukraine, the Sochi Olympics — “I hate them.” — and Vladimir Putin, but he is also skeptical of the resolve of the U.S. and the European Union to actually get Putin to back off in the Ukraine. “Russians don’t understand anything but force,” he said. Putin is a “little guy with big ambitions.” Members of his family were shot during the Soviet occupation, he said, and he has no illusions about the kind of power Putin wields. “He’s K.G.B. Those three words explain everything.”
An upcoming project in Georgia, which he plans to coordinate, will explore the displacement of thousands of Georgians as a result of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008.
After retiring from Dartmouth, Alexi-Meskhishvili plans to return to Tbilisi. “They need new blood here,” he said of the college’s theater department. And, he said, he wants to be closer to his children and grandchildren, who live in Berlin and Georgia, and start a national school of theater design in Tbilisi. He has led a full and peripatetic life in the theater but, with a few exceptions, he doesn’t dwell on his work or get dewy-eyed over productions he’s done in the past.
“I don’t like to keep the trace of my shoes,” he said, with a shrug. “I don’t think it’s much to look back, it’s other people’s job (to do that). It’s like sports; if you won last year, it means nothing today.”
“Spring Awakening” continues at the Moore Theater tonight, tomorrow and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. There will be a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. For information and tickets call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422 or go to hop.dartmouth.edu/Online/140221_theater.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dartmouth College Theater Department set designer Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili designed both sets and costumes in productions of Hamlet and The Three Sisters. An earlier version of this story misstated his contributions.