Shoestring virtuosos Essay

Published: 2021-06-29 01:28:40
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Category: Culture

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Dex Edwards’s designs are often hailed for their “magic.” This, it turns out, is not completely coincidental. “I started working professionally as an actor when I was in the third grade,” he confesses, “and that was because what I really wanted to do was be a magician.”
Edwards’s career has been a continuum of becoming one thing while pursuing another. His childhood experience led to further training in acting and then directing, first in Texas and ultimately at the University of Mississippi, where after a long process (“I kept taking a year off to work, either as an actor or in a scene shop in New Orleans”) he received a BFA and an MFA. While following his new goal of becoming a professional director, he occasionally designed sets. “I was a strange sort of designer: Not only did I think of myself as a director who was ~just doing this to be helpful,’ I literally couldn’t draw a stick figure until my second or third year of college. Then someone showed me that if you could tell what was wrong with a drawing, you could draw, so I sort of learned to draw with an eraser.”
Edwards entered the Southeastern Design Contest almost as a fluke, with his design of a local production of Children of a Lesser God. “I based the design on how I would direct the show. The offstage voices are a real problem with the play, so I came up with a way to incorporate them as silhouettes behind a scrim that grew expressionistically through the play.” Although the only undergraduate in the competition, in true Horatio Alger fashion, he won. The judges singled out his transformation of a textual problem into a production strength. By the time Dex received his MFA, he was designing mainstage productions, a feat virtually.
During the summers he designed for Oxford’s Festival of Southern Theatre. “The budget there has a very rigid ceiling, so I started thinking of sets as ways to solve problems, rather than ~Where do I put the doors?’ It became sort of a game to see if I could find something to do with the other side of each set element, so it would work in another show.”
After a second win at the Southeastern Design Contest, he moved to Atlanta to work as a painter at the Alliance Theatre Company. He was quickly designing all over the city’s smaller houses, including a setting of Serious Money at the Horizon Theatre Company in which (despite a distinctly un-serious budget of about $800) “everything moved – there were stock market quotations running across a screen.”
The real breakthrough for Edwards, though, came with his first production for the Alliance Children’s Theatre, Merlin. This one-hour show, which not only had to play in rep with Alliance’s adult programming but tour as well, featured 26 locations and 18 pyrotechnic effects. A highlight for Edwards was an effect he calls “meteor-on-a-stick.” He found a way to make it appear that a glowing meteor was approaching the stage behind a scrim; then it crashed through to the floor and was picked up, still glowing, to be carried behind a pillar where it was transformed into the sword Excalibur.
“After that, I kind of got pegged as the designer to turn to for magic tricks,” he says, “even though I don’t like magic magic” (by which he means tricks simply for effect). Edwards prefers to view his work as problem-solving, but he acknowledges his fascination with “perception things – l like to play with objects. And having a three-year-old around the house helps, too. A lot of effects I’ve used on stage have come from things I’ve come up with to amuse my son Tyler.” This includes “gravitron,” an anti-gravity device that played a central part in the children’s science fiction play he co-wrote last year with fellow designer and comicbook artist Brent Trammell. Gravitron consisted of a balloon half-filled with helium (so it stayed roughly where it was placed in the air, rather than rising), painted gold. The effect consistently drew gasps from youngsters and adults alike. “I found that painting was just an easier way to balance a balloon.”
Over the past two years, as resident designer for the Alliance, Edwards has begun to find time in his schedule to work nationally (he recently created a richly realistic setting for A Raisin in the Sun for Milwaukee Repertory Theater), giving him larger budgets, but those old habits the hard. The use of “incredibly atypical materials” has led to some distinct prejudices. For instance, Edwards now prefers mosquito netting to scrim. “It does a lot more tricks – for example, it doesn’t moire if you layer it, you can see through it better, and it throws backlight better – plus it only costs a nickel a yard.”
Asked about favorite “cheap tricks,” Edwards immediately brings up a production of Steambath at the Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit. “The show is typically cost-prohibitive because of all the fog needed. I found a dozen vaporizers at Goodwill Shops for about a buck apiece, and put them under grating. Then we put a Rosco Fogger upstage with a fan to suck the fog upward. So we had real steam right in front of the first row of seats and the appearance that the set just went on forever.
“At the end of the play,” he goes on with a sly smile, “the janitor reveals he’s God, and there’s this ambiguous stage direction, ~He performs a miracle.’ Well, downstage we had a kiddie pool with an aquarium filter attached to make it bubble, so it looked as if it were a jacuzzi. I attached a small propane tank to the filter, and had a pilot light hidden behind a running faucet. At that point in the play, we turned on the propane tank, and we suddenly had two-foot flames dancing on the water. We checked it with the fire inspector, and he found the flame wasn’t near anything but water, so it was okay. It always got a big response from the audience.”

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