A Surreal Way to Look at Things: The Making of Tête-à-Tête

When it comes to theatre, even with our work in black box stages, we do like to think outside of the box as to what theatre could be. Stage plays performed inside a bookstore or record store. Doubling casting. Surprise costumes. Thinking outside of the box is part of the great fun of working at Master Mystery Productions. And with a show inspired by the Surrealist art movement of the 1920’s, out-of-the-frame imagination is pretty much mandatory. So how do you take a seemingly straightforward story and give a Surreal twist? Here’s a peek at the Surrealist artistic design for Tête-à-Tête and how we made our fantastical 3-D living painting.

A SURREAL WAY TO LOOK AT THINGS: The Making of Tête-à-Tête

The Forum Theater

You may be thinking to yourself, “Why Surrealism?” Why focus on that art movement for Tête-à-Tête? The answer is…Bury Me in Paris. In Spring 2017, we opened a show all about la vie boheme in Montparnasse in Paris with writers, painters, models, musicians and flappers called Bury Me in Paris. Well, we don’t want to do the same show twice, so what could we do to create a new twist? We started with picking an art movement, and Surrealism caught our eye. It would allow us to have more freedom in how we could stage the show. And when we saw the Forum Theater for the first time, the art on its walls–whether as a painting or a mural–and its square proscenium and intimate space reminded us of both a painting in a gallery and a charming sidewalk cafe in Paris. An idea came to mind of creating a living painting, seeing inspiration in the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. In that production, Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece had been rendered in three dimensions, animated by actors. This felt perfectly at home with the Surrealism movement. We thought it would be a fun challenge. But when we held auditions, we had a record number of actors show up. So an even more…surreal idea took hold.

Surrealism is an art and cultural movement begun in the 1920’s in Paris, France. From Wikipedia, “[In] the aftermath of World War I, artists depicted unnerving, illogical scenes and developed techniques to allow the unconscious mind to express itself. Its aim was, according to leader André Breton, to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”, or surreality. It produced works of painting, writing, theatre, filmmaking, photography, and other media.

Works of Surrealism feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur. However, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost (for instance, of the “pure psychic automatism” Breton speaks of in the first Surrealist Manifesto), with the works themselves being secondary, i.e. artifacts of surrealist experimentation.” Famous Surrealist artists include Salvador Dali and Henri Magritte.

Spot the difference…

But what does that mean for Tête-à-Tête? With the record number of actors auditioning, we decided to push the boundaries of what we’ve done before even further. We intentionally chose to double cast the show. We created an ensemble of bohemian artists who inhabit the Left Bank of the Seine, a group of, to use Salome’s term during the play, “supernumeraries”–a theatrical term for amateur character performers trained under professional direction to create realistic crowd scenes–that Yves and Salome imagine into all the suspects of the mystery. Some of these suspects are played by more than one actor, transforming onstage with a simple addition of costume pieces selected for the suspects by Costume Designers Cat Kreidt and Janis Kunz. Adding a hat or a shawl or a scarf creates a new character and we selected pieces that could complement both performers. In some cases, we even tried to relate motifs for characters. The actresses who play Denise, for instance, all share a red flower accent on all their costumes, even if their costumes are not the same silhouette. Calvin Johnson doubles as Yves and Diego during the show and we had fun selecting a shirt from our archive with fancy cuffs he could tuck as one character and pull out as an easy transformation to a more florid persona. The transformations are part of the live-action magic of theatre, and they helped create this Surrealist vision of the story being alive and mutable and part of Yves and Salome’s combined memory and imagination.

Sausage art…

The Surrealism isn’t confined to merely the casting. Our set and props embraced this dreamlike quality too. The set is filled secret pockets and surprises to transform it from a sidewalk cafe to a rich heiress’ salon and much more. The food in the cafe is served in Surrealist portions. And some of the food can even be used to make art (Keep an eye on those rascally bohemians to see how.). And when Diego appears to sketch Salome, we thought it was funny to have him sketch with a sausage, especially the largest one our Prop Master Ed Kramer could find. When you watch the show, it becomes clear why we made that choice. And let’s not forget about a mysterious pair of feet we see sticking out from underneath a table.

And the piece de resistance of our Surrealist set is the collage of the Eiffel Tower created by cast members Cat Kreidt, Valerie Kramer, Leslie Blake, Janis Kunz, and Olivia Holm. Using photocopies of a real Parisian newspaper from the 1920’s sourced by our prop master, Ed Kramer, we designed an homage to lead character Yves Dufort’s photomontages–another term for collages–by tearing the newspapers into pieces and assembling a mosaic of paper into Paris’ iconic tower. Our amazing cast members were exacting in replicating the details, even down to using photographs and drawings of faces from the vintage newspaper to fill the observation desks of the Eiffel Tower. Assistant Director Olivia Holm even imagined the final touch of having Calvin Johnson–the actor who plays Yves–sign the tower as Yves as if this collage and vision of Paris was a creation of Yves himself, further adding to the sense of imagination and Surrealism in the play. A perfect Easter egg for eagle-eyed guests.

Prepping before the show starts.

To crown it all, Lighting Designers Tristan Risden and Daniel Stallings created a light plot of colors that highlight emotion and flashback scenes with light that blends and bleeds together onstage. From absinthe green to Versailles gold to blood red to the pallid grey of a cloudy sky, we paint the set in a rainbow of light. All these little details combine to create a work of art onstage, a living painting that breaks the fourth wall and inhabits the whole world of the Forum Theater. Our artists were able to treat the theatrical mediums of costume, makeup, set, and lighting much like paint on a palette–mixing, blending, and brushing on different elements and colors to create a unique, visual masterpiece. The color scheme of rich, non-jewel colors like maroon, burgundy, olives, mustards, persimmon, navy blue, plums, creams, and chocolates form a luxurious, earthy, and unusual palette, a perfectly bohemian landscape where the unusual is held with high regard. Afterall, things can’t be too expected at Master Mystery Productions.

Tête-à-Tête has only two more performances before it closes–November 12 and November 19! Tickets are still available through EventBrite here. You can also find the link to buy tickets through the Goodent–our partner organization–website at goodent.org. Join us for a wonderful show in the City of Lights, our final MMP show of the 2022 season and help us end the year strong.

We’ll see you soon in Paris, mes amis!

–Master Mystery Productions


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