Buckets of blood and bursting steam pipes make a vivid IWU musical 'Carrie'
In transferring the scary movie "Carrie" to the stage, as a musical, there are some challenges. Like that one scene near the end when, in a horribly cruel prank, Carrie White gets splattered with pig blood at a high school homecoming.
It's just before she goes all ugly on her tormentors. Illinois Wesleyan University is up to portraying that challenge. With "Carrie" — the musical plays at IWU from Oct. 11-15 — scenic designer Curt Trout said it's all about choices.
"You know, when you're developing a piece theatrically, you can take any number of approaches for a big effect like that. You can enhance it with video. You can take a more fairy tale approach and do things with fabric or lighting or a combination of those things. In working with our director Scott Susong, I said to him in a meeting, ‘You know, Scott, we're early in the process. If you simply say to us, I would really prefer a bucket of blood, that's what we'll shoot for.’ And he said, ‘I'd really like a bucket of blood.’ So, we're going there,” said Trout.
It’s the crowning moment of Carrie’s school bullying. It’s the straw that broke her camel's back. It is the thing that causes her to lose her mind and become lost in her telekinesis. That's what happens in this production as well. Now, what's effective on stage is not necessarily the same as what's effective on camera, getting up close to liquid.
Trout said they are adding to the blood in a traditional theatrical manner.
“Using the tools that a proscenium fly-house will allow you to. We'll have pieces of scenery moving. We'll have things being dropped. We'll have fog ports that will emulate the breaking of steam pipes and girders falling. That is what's elicited by her, invoking her telekinesis to get even with all these people that have destroyed her,” said Trout.
The action is centered on the high school gym throughout the production, said Trout, who along with co-designer Mars Mulvin, have formed ways to change the mood from an ordinary school environment to a home life with a repressive religiously strict mother, to that climactic grim moment.
“The other pieces are being treated fragmentarily," said Trout. "They will slide in and slide out. The set is designed in terms of alleyways that will allow those pieces to move on, and for Scott Susong to be able to sketch the scene with a minimal number of additional pieces that take us out of the gym. And that's where we'll be relying on lighting designer Michael Rathbun to help us make those leaps to other places.”
Trout is in his 34th and final year with Illinois Wesleyan University’s scenic design program. It is his 40th year in professional theater.
“Oh, my God! What hasn't changed or developed! When I was working on my MFA in the early 80s, everything was done by hand, right? I learned to draft by hand, paint, draw, sculpt, and model,” said Trout.
It was difficult to obtain representative imagery to help the design process then. Today, he teaches students to do collaging after visual research. And the internet speeds up that conversation with a director beyond all recognition.
“I'm reminded of trying to look for imagery myself. I couldn't afford to have lots of magazine subscriptions that I could then cut up and recycle. I'd go to the library. Xerox machines were in their infancy. And a color copier — if it had been invented, I'd never seen one. But you'd go to the library. You'd go to the card catalog. You'd find your list of books. You'd go to the stacks. You'd pull that perfect book that you knew was going to answer all your questions. And someone else had cut all the pictures out of the book,” said Trout.
The spring he graduated as a scenic designer in 1983, Trout saw his first computerized light board two weeks before the end of school. Now, what used to take three people pulling large levers on various pieces of equipment to get one visual or lighting effect can be done with one pre-programmed keystroke. That year, there were not even any academic programs for sound design in the country. That has exploded in the last 15 years, he said.
Trout made his living with a paintbrush and pencil, and it wasn’t until he got to IWU in 1990 that he had a computer on which to do his work.
Trout still makes model boxes and hand-drawn renderings for each production, though not out of necessity. He learned a computer-aided design program years ago. But the models and drawings are part of the design language he speaks.
“Technology is only a tool. It's a way to further access the ideas that one makes,” said Trout. “For me, as the idea is coming from my mind’s eye to the paper for the first time, it doesn't go through a computer, it comes out of a pencil on a piece of paper. The idea is jotted down. It may be very quickly scanned, and photo shopped and played with, but it comes out of the pencil first. And, after all these years of doing it, I’m a very quick study. I can usually produce the initial loose sketch to show a director in less than 15 minutes.”
Drafting by computer saves no time, he said. What it does do is put all of that creative work into a fluid, mutable document you can continue to change and share and edit, sometimes right in the middle of a meeting or rehearsal.
“You can't do that with a hand-drafted plot. But the ability to craft and model and sketch absolutely bridges the gap. It still is the primary mode of communication,” said Trout. “It defines the collaborative process for me.”
Trout said he’s not sure what he’ll do in retirement. He’s thinking about it.
“Lord knows! I’ll graduate fully credentialed if you will. I could continue to freelance and build, as it were, a more fulsome second career. I have continued to work professionally, straight along,” said Trout.
Scenic design is actually his second career. He taught choral and general music for a few years between undergraduate and graduate school.
“I think I still have quite a lot to give. Maybe I have quite a lot to do. I think that I would have a lot to offer to any arts organization from an organizational standpoint, and level that would be finding an opportunity. You know, some of my work has been in collaboration with architects, and in a more decorative physical aspect that certainly would appeal,” said Trout.
Trout builds doll houses. He’s into puppets. He’s dabbled in fine art painting off and on. Whatever he does is likely to help feed his creative impulse, as well as "keep body and soul together."