BWW Blog: Adam Brandner - Turning up the Spectacle: How to Dazzle on a Minimal Budget
"No man is an island." John Donne is famous for this adage but unfortunately Mr. Donne clearly wasn't a theatre teacher. Drama directors can most definitely be islands. Most theatre directors do not just simply direct. As the theatre director at my campus in Houston, I am a one-man department. My job as director quickly morphs into artistic director, producer, light/set/sound/costume/make-up designer, construction guru, stage manager, and bookkeeper to name a few sub titles. I am very fortunate to have a very supportive administration and teaching staff that is willing to help out whenever asked, but not everyone has that. It can be hard, then, to put on a show high in spectacle when there are only 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year. I feel very schizophrenic when the designers in me dissect a script and start planning big and then another voice in my head (The Bookkeeper) pulls me back down to earth and shows me my budget. I am lucky to have a very nice budget, but I would need thousands upon thousands to pull off my best-case scenario. I have to make smart, economical choices when planning my annual one act play for competition. However, I've learned you can sprinkle a little spectacle in small doses here and there to pump up your program. In this article, I'd like to explore ways to give the illusion of a big budget when you are working with little to nothing. There are ways to "give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle" without breaking the bank.
Producing a full-scale musical can get extremely expensive if you try to go big. Especially when you have no lighting or sound system to work with. I have found though, that just doing a single musical number here and there can still wow the crowd in a smaller dose. For instance, let's say that your campus or community is hosting a coffee night at the local coffee house or library media center. You want to bring students or cast members to perform to promote your theatre program, but you have no idea what to do. You don't want to bring some rinky-dink, plain performance that will be forgotten. You want to fill your five-minute block with a little spectacle. First, you need to choose a number that allows you to show off a little. For this example, I will pick the song: Freak Flag from Shrek the Musical because it will get the crowd going and has a positive message. For those unfamiliar, the song starts off with Pinocchio needing a little pep talk from his fellow fairy tale friends also known as his fellow 'freaks.' The Gingerbread Man (Gingy) starts the upbeat song with a soulful verse explaining that it's just fine to be who you are and you should embrace your inner 'freak.' If you've seen Shrek the movie, Gingy is a little guy. The Original Broadway Cast put him on a cookie tray and had his puppet features operated by the actor that holds the tray. It looks awesome. It also can be easily made. A simple cookie sheet can be used along with basic fabric and fabric paint. The effect will be impressive even though it doesn't take that much money to produce. Some other characters featured in this song are the three little pigs, the Big Bad Wolf, and the Wicked Witch. All can be done with a very simple yet effective costumes like a pig's snout, a witch's hat, and wolf ears/grandma's robe/lingerie. Most of those things can be found at the dollar/Halloween store. The Gingy prop though will impress and add the spectacle that you are looking for at a low cost.
My second suggestion for spectacle on a budget will address a full scale musical. I could go into detail about how to address each design element but I'll focus here on the trees in the Jungle of Nool from Seussical the Musical by Dr. Seuss. I will be doing this musical this spring and instantly I started to brainstorm ideas to make my Jungle look cool but not spend hundreds of dollars. I wanted to capture the design flair of Dr. Seuss and his famous Truffula Trees. I made a trip to my local party store and dollar store. Being the end of summer, I walked away with pool noodles for less than a dollar each. Planning ahead and knowing when to buy seasonal items will save you multiple headaches. I bought all the pool noodles they had. I threw a 99-cent yellow crate paper in my cart along with party paper machete centerpieces of various colors. Using my handy glue gun, I created 16 Truffula Trees for about $40.00. They take up my whole stage and then some and really pop. I have many other little set pieces on stage with the trees, but they are the focal point and really will steal the show.
I hope that this article helps those who need a little spectacle but don't have the money to spend. There is always away to make a cool, unique idea cheaply. You just have to keep brainstorming and be sure to chose a piece that allows you to put in a little flair and creativity. I personally like the challenge of figuring out unique ways to make a fantastic show on a minimal budget. It can be done!