When we hear about theatre, we would automatically think about things like cinema, stage plays, acting, and actors. In general, the actors and their capacity to act are our main focus whenever we watch a movie or a play. Well, not unless you’re a critic or a really updated film or theatre enthusiast. Unfortunately, most of us are not; most of us are the type who tends to focus on these more familiar factors, practically because the actors and their acting are the two main things that we, as an audience, usually talk about. This is true when it comes to both in movies and in theatrical plays; although if we focus on the latter, there is this very important aspect that we rarely give attention to—the art of theatre design.
Theatre design is basically about the appearance of the stage as a whole; its adjustability when it comes to switching from a certain scene to another, the costumes, and the props. As mentioned earlier, we don’t really know much about it, but through Salvador F. Bernal’s eyes, we could.
Since 1969, Bernal has been excelling in theater design, mostly because of his impeccable originality. He has created more than 300 stages, which constantly inspire the younger generations. He shares his skills, concepts, and style to young designers in famous universities like University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila University. He is very well known through his persistent use of inexpensive local materials, like bamboo, abaca, hemp, and rattan, which greatly helps every stage production, economically.
About two weeks ago, Silliman University opened an exhibit honoring Salvador F. Bernal’s life and his works. Being the first National Artist awardee in the field of theater design, Bernal shows us the development and importance of its art, through his exceptional works and achievements.
Bernal establishes his work through four major aspects: symbol, sources, surfaces, and space—which are clearly highlighted in the exhibit. Symbol pertains to how the director of a certain play sees the whole production. The overall appearance of the stage will be based on this interpretation, which also depicts the most important elements of the story, dance, or play. Sources constitute Bernal’s collection of ideas, which continuously evolves as he moves on from one work to another. Surfaces emphasize the local materials which Bernal has discovered and fashioned for every production he has been involved with. As mentioned earlier, these inexpensive materials greatly aids in the budgeting of each production. Lastly, space involves Bernal’s exclusive understanding of theatre space and how he maximizes it. These aspects are crucial, and are always stressed in all of his creations.
The set and costume design of Behn Cervantes’ (director) “Lapu-lapu” in 1997, confidently portrays Bernal’s processing of these aspects. The director’s interpretation of the whole story, which involved having to sail from a certain place to another, was show by Bernal through creating wave-like podiums that, other than being used as the stage itself, also served as waves of the ocean that made sailing more realistic. Moreover, these podiums were also made from bamboo, which showed Bernal’s preference of utilizing local materials. In addition, the maximization of theatre space was ultimately emphasized in this production.
When you think about it, theatre design is a very important factor in the overall impact of every production. Despite not being the main focus of the audience, its mere involvement significantly supports the whole thing. Andy Alvarez, a friend of mine who is into acting and theatre, thinks of theatre design as something which helps every actor’s job to set the mood of every scene. He said that theatre design critically motivates the actors to get into character. From the simple choice of colors of the props and settings, to the beautifully tailored costumes, it helps create a whole new world, derived from a simple image inside a single person’s head. Andy said that as he puts on his costume, he slowly transforms into whatever he needs to be in order to reach his full potential as an actor.
Prominent stage actors, Hopia Tinambacan and John Lumapay, also said that the visual aspect of every production somehow creates a bond between the actors and the audience. It takes everybody inside a single space to another world, making the whole production worthwhile.
The art of theatre design may be unknown to most of the audience, but there is certainty that after every production seen, people will always remember the visual beauty of it, subconsciously or not.
By James Asuncion