The lights go down. The hush falls. Slowly, a glimmer of light and a shred of sound open the scene.
Welcome to the theatre.
Countless hours have gone into the production and assembly of the stage; lighting, positioning, and careful selection of props authenticate the set. For Adam Ressa, a fourth year student at Virginia Tech, this magic that many onlookers perceive as a means-to-an-end is an art form in-and-of-itself, one that must be meticulous executed to preserve the integrity of interpretation.
An Eagle Scout from Fairfax, Va., Ressa applied to Virginia Tech as an engineer, but could not be kept away from his passion for theatre. Currently pursuing a B.A. in Theatre Arts and a B.S. in Industrial Systems Engineering, Ressa finds time to balance “engineering in the morning and theatre at Behind Showtime: In the Studio with Adam Ressa Jessica Martin night,” though sometimes one thing takes over, and, he confessed with a chuckle, “that’s usually theatre.” But some semesters engineering takes the forefront and he cannot have the active roles he desires in shows. For the most part, Ressa has foreseen engineering and theatre existing in a symbiotic relationship, as technical expertise in engineering aids theatre production, and the right-brain stimulation of theatre allows him to excel in problem solving for engineering.
Since 2004, Adam Ressa has performed and aided in the production of nineteen dramatic pieces. Ressa’s experience includes working with Virginia Tech Theatre Main Stage productions in the capacities of electrician (in Waiting for Godot, Tall Grass Gothic, and Boston Marriage), scenic artist (Romeo and Juliet), props coordinator (Aría Da Capo and Graceland/Asleep on the Wind), and Assistant Designer (Eurydice). For the Theatre Workshops he has held the positions of Scenic Designer for
Machinal, Assistant Designer for The Enchanted, and Scenic and Lighting Designer for The Dwarfs. Despite his busy schedule, Ressa has found time to volunteer his lighting talents with Musicals for a Cause and the Christiansburg High School Coral Department.
Well-researched set design is about building trust with one’s audience, knowing that what they see is a gateway into what they will imagine. This means that every experience must be true to its artistic intentions and achieve historic accuracy for interpretation. While some playwrights write to explicitly expose the setting, others produce works full of intentional ambiguity. Interpretation of the set then becomes the charge and, ultimately, the responsibility of the set designer. Ressa’s success in theatre can be attributed to thorough research into each of his sets, which he says is “absolutely necessary when designing in the theatre. If you’re trying to go for ‘historically accurate’ I was told there will always be some know-it-all expert in the audience that will chastise you for putting the wrong set piece in the wrong time period. If you’re going for abstract, you need to research the play to find out the context in which the playwright wrote it. Research is pivotal in getting to the truth of a theatrical piece.”
Theatre majors are required to take two semesters of Design Lab with Randy Ward and John Ambrosone, professors of Theatre Arts. Ressa’s set design for The Seagull, by Anton Checkhov, during the Spring 2007 Design Lab was inspired by the work of the late scenographer Josef Svoboda, who was famous for his abstract designs. While The Seagull’s intertextual relationship with Hamlet allows for potential Shakespearean sets, Ressa teased out the context of this famous work through careful interpretation and readings, finally deciding to present the plot of this 19th century romantic and artisitic conflict on a canvas that makes the audience ask themselves “What is art?” Just as the four main characters speak in abstractions and avoid direct references to their problems, the set is shrouded in a misty haze that conveys ambiguity. The characters’ false fronts in personality are mirrored by Ressa’s use of fake scenery that gives the illusion of things being on the stage, but in fact are specters working in the imaginations of the audience. Ressa sought to achieve universality with the set design, and therefore chose a futuristic style, costumes organic in nature, with a compilation of cultures existing within the characters, but contrasted with a clean set uncluttered by cultural references to leave the audiences mind clear to process the complexities of the story.
Well-researched set design is about building trust with one’s audience, knowing that what they see is a gateway into what they will imagine
Ward introduced Ressa to Svoboda’work and from this influence he was about to use light to create sets emulating Svoboda’s style of creating space through illuminated colored mists, even using a red light on the floor to symbolize a pool of the seagull’s blood. Research into this style taught Ressa the importance of the play of light and shadow on stage.
Ressa created physical models, photographed them, and then created “moment pictures” from the play as multiple drawings in different media such as colored pencils and pastels. These assignments were laborious and demanded meticulous attention to detail, as Ressa often spends hours manipulating lighting, photographing hundreds of shots with lighting differences, and experimenting with modeling techniques to create the perfect effects. The small models were creatively crafted using art supplies from Mish-Mish, the local Blacksburg craft store, as well as household supplies like flashlights and colored cellophane that served as glowing moons, watery abysses, and menacing red clouds of light. Ressa used a special Plexiglas filter to make a lit-up floor and cutouts of items like trees and windowpanes to create the appearance of props while only using their shadows.
A play written by John Patrick Shanley and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, the cinematic version of Doubt was produced by Celia D. Costas and released in January 2009 to select theatres, where it received immediate acclaim. Only a few months before, in a joint effort with Hollins University, the Virginia Tech Department of Theater Arts presented Doubt, a Parable to the 2008 Roanoke Arts Festival. Directed by Hollins University Theatre Department Chair Ernie Zulia and featuring Virginia Tech’s head of the Department of Theatre Arts, Patricia Raun, Doubt showed from October 3 to November 9.
Ressa worked as scenic designer on this production and led the research that created the Bronx collage project, the culminating piece of the production. Compiled from original 1960s images from the Bronx Board photo database of area-specific architecture, the final product was projected onto the backdrop of the set. The ominous church steeple dominated the landscape, its presence eclipsing the row houses and factories of the common people, and elevating the parish seat to heights that were menacing close to the heavens. Presenting the moral dilemmas of a plot that winds around the issues of truth, deception, confrontation, women’s power in patriarchal societies, and sexual abuse of children, Doubt is a piece that demands careful construction and stage management.
The 90-minute drama is set in the Bronx in 1964, an area of much publicity and wellwithin recorded memories of many in the audience. In a situation such as this, it is imperative that the execution of the stage set-up be as authentic as possible. As the 1960s straddle the line between “recent” and “historic,” young set designers must be careful, as the experts of that period are often their older mentors in the theatre world. “Our parents right now can reminisce about the 1960’s. If you give them a world that they cannot recognize, it better be an intentional move to confuse or isolate the audience or you’re in trouble,” Ressa said. The use of original images and props of time created that trust, and his research allowed him to overcome the anticipated challenges of preparing a set for Doubt.
When asked what he believed to be the benefit of doing research for theatre when many people only associate research with more technical pursuits, Ressa said “research is necessary for survival in any world, whether it be the world of an artist, a scientist, a politician, a skilled craftsman, … the knowledge we gain from history is invaluable.” For Ressa, undergraduate research has strengthened his resume and enhanced his personal experience in the theatre field as well as provided him a creative outlet to excel. After his anticipated graduation in 2010, Ressa hopes to start a collaborative theater, art, and performance group, with a business model like that of Pixar, that focuses on advanced technical media production, bringing families together, and high quality, ethical, uplifting art.