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Neil Patel

Scenic Designer

New York City

The Civilians constructed This Beautiful City from interviews it recorded during a long residency in Colorado Springs. The focus of its investigation was the rising evangelical movement based there. I have had a lot of experience designing original, company-based constructed work with SITI Company, but This Beautiful City had very particular challenges. There were many important visual ideas that needed to be integrated, including the idea of a city, the mountainous terrain of the town, the media and spirituality, plus the spectacle of a well-produced Christian rock band. After many attempts, director Steve Cosson and I settled on the idea of an all-white model cityscape that sits vertically on the stage to create a bird's-eye view. The top creates the outline of an abstract mountain, while the white buildings below are illuminated from within and projected upon. I put the band above this construction and in front of a changing, projected skyscape. Projection designer Jason Thompson, lighting designer David Weiner and I were able to create a constantly morphing environment, which eventually was fulfilled as a fully illustrated Google-style map during a song about city planning. The city model in its basic white ideal form was the constant that held the changing imagery—the imperfectly imagined, beautiful city.

When I happened upon the Polish exposition at PQ 2011 I was confused. But my two children, who had become weary of looking at models and videos, were thrilled. They rushed in immediately and started scratching away. Instead of a traditional collection of Polish theatrical design, the team had made a white box and had invited participants to enter and scratch away the paint on the walls with whatever drawings or stories they might like to share. The exhibit is part of something that makes the PQ unique and wonderful: the exchange of ideas about design and the making of theatre. It is not just a fancy trade show where we all get to spy on one another's craft, but a real intellectual community. The white box is the archetype of the modernist theatrical space and the basic museum space. It is the most basic non-representational space, where the spectator makes her own meaning of it—and, in this case, literally scratches that meaning into the walls. We are all asked when watching a play or looking at any work of art to enter into it with our own meaning. When the artist tells you exactly what it is and how to understand it, it has no mystery. When the spectator is included in the making of the art, it is alive. For me, it was a reminder that as designers, and more importantly as theatremakers, we should be asking the big questions and having some fun with them.