Here’s the first of the show designs I created for Remy Bumppo Theatre Company‘s 2011/2012 Season, Mourning Becomes Electra. It was also the most difficult and time consuming.
Why? Well the main reason is the play itself. It is a loose adaptation of the Greek story of the Oresteia. It takes place in New England immediately after the Civil War and follows the Mannan family. It has Freudian overtones in that the main character, Lavinia, harbors an Electra complex, which is the female version of an Oedipal complex: she wants to supplant her mother and be the object of her father’s love. The irony is that, after lots of bloodshed, she really does become her mother in look and demeanor. So my task was to find a central image that captured many of these themes: two women struggling for the same position in the family, usurpation, the female sensibility overcoming the male within the family, the younger generation taking over from the older, jealousy, the cyclical nature of fate. Oh, and the play contains no real overt imagery, metaphorical or otherwise, except the green dress that both women end up wearing and the greek pillars of the Mannan house, the latter of which I was told not to use because we didn’t want people to think this was a Greek play. Oy!
Where does one begin? Well after reading the play and focusing on the mother/daughter relationship, their maneuverings and machinations made me think of chess pieces (see initial sketches, above). I sketched up some ideas and eventually lit upon the idea of two chess queens. This image has a certain friction to it because you cannot have two queens of the same color on a chess board at once, so it’s something that cannot be, and each is trying to occupy the same space and usurp the other.
The idea was not a hit with the director, who felt that the chess pieces were cold and forbidding and lacking the forceful female energy found in the play. Also, by this point my designs for the other plays in the season (I’ll post those next week) incorporated animals and had an organic feel, so this image was definitely the odd man out.
I was asked to think not only of the organic and feminine quality, but also the cyclical nature of the play, meaning how the daughter becomes the mother. I immediately thought of the ancient Egyptian symbol of the Ouroboros, which is a snake eating its own tail which is used to symbolize unending cycles. Sometimes it is shown as two snakes eating each other’s tails, which made sense in this context. Unfortunately, after several tries (above), I was unable to find a way to use this concept a compelling central image using the minimalist style I’d established for the season. I mocked up these two versionsof the poster (at right) to show the marketing director, just to prove that it wasn’t working.
So next I just started throwing everything I could at the wall to see what would stick. What you can see in the collection of quick sketches at left includes, in the top left, an image of the dead father with coins over his eyes and the two warring female figures on them. From there I tried different ways of making the two female faces or figures merge to create a third shape, to no avail. Since my other designs used animals, I tried to come up with animals I could use in a way that was similar to the chess pieces. I played with two birds fighting over the same nest, and two spiders occupying one web. These worked in some capacities, but since there is no allusion to these creatures in the play, it seemed like a stretch.
By this time, I’d hit a wall in my creative thinking and was going nowhere. Nothing was making either myself or the marketing director happy at this point, but the more I brainstormed and researched, the more frustrated I became that nothing I was finding was quite right. Often, it can be helpful to see how other designers have talked a similar problem, which is easy in the theater biz because we all like to do revivals of the same plays. Unfortunately, Mourning Becomes Electra is not a popular play and could find no other compelling posters that had ever been created, at least not on the internet.
Finally, a breakthrough! The marketing director suggested we use the previously out-of-bounds image of a Greek column. The columns of the Mannan house not only reference the Greek story that forms the basis of the play, but also create a mausoleum-like feeling which is expressly referenced in the play. The marketing director suggested using vines on the column to suggest the feminine (curvy and organic vines) overtaking the male (cold, rigid, and obviously phallic), and the new overtaking the old. This was a direction I could get behind! I doodled some sketches and then, since I was traveling at the time and had only my laptop with me, cobbled together a first mockup (on the left, with sketches).
Working with a mouse in Adobe Illustrator is not my preferred method of working; I much prefer my Wacom tablet. I also did not have access to my scanner, so I wasn’t able to sketch the concept out first and then trace it in Illustrator, which is a much better way of working. Thus, this first concept is rather rigid and doesn’t realize the concept that way I wanted. Feedback from the marketing director was that the vines weren’t imposing enough, which is completely true.
Once I was back in town and able to finally sketch this idea out by hand, I came up with the idea of the vines not only taking over the pillar, but becoming the pillar by mimicking its shape (see above). This is a great idea conceptually, but it just doesn’t work visually. I realized this after creating another poster version. I also in this phase realized that the common image of vines completely overrunning a structure is much, much more complicated than I could pull of using the minimal style I’d chosen for the series. I needed something that communicated the idea simply: an icon, not an illustration.
Which led me to the final piece. The vines have an elegance to them born of simplicity, while the column is definitely about to crumble. I also worked in a subtle outline of a female form in the shape of the vines, just for my own fun. Finally, when the concern was raised that the black background was too dark and foreboding, I divided the image into three color planes. As you will see, this was a serendipitous decision. This, the first play of the season and the one with the most violence, is separated into three color planes. The second, which has less discord, has only two. The final play of the season, which is about reconciliation, features only one.
So that was my process for this piece. A much longer and more difficult process than most project I take on, but ultimately one with a successful resolution. Next week I’ll introduce you to the final two images of the season, which I feel are even better than this one.