IRVINE — The next time you plunk down cash for a theater ticket, look around and consider how your impression of the evening's performance is shaped by where you are and what you see there. You'll get an idea of how much some scenic designers manipulate not only the stage but also the entire auditorium in shaping the evening's performance.
Douglas-Scott Goheen, the UC Irvine drama department's resident designer, is one of those designers who tries to build each production he works on from the ground up. A perfect example is Shakespeare's "As You Like It," which opens Friday in UCI's Fine Arts Village Theatre following a preview tonight.
"My research responsibility for 'As You Like It,' " Goheen explained in a recent interview, "goes beyond finding an appropriate scenic environment for the production. I feel compelled to take a fresh look at the medium of theater itself. Given the director's general interest in a theatrical approach, my stylistic options are nearly infinite."
The Village is a proscenium theater, the action taking place within a frame that the audience looks through. For this production, Goheen has returned to a pre-Renaissance-type theater layout, in which half the audience is seated in front of the stage, the other half behind it.
The action of "As You Like It," then, unfolds between two sets of viewers. The main playing area is a large green carpet, a postmodern indication of the grass in the play's Forest of Arden, with green brick pillars standing for the trees on which Orlando places his love notes. An eight-foot-high cyclorama with a military camouflage design surrounds both the action and the entire audience.
"I'm interested in having the audience (reconsider) their understanding of what it is to go to the theater, what it is they know about our specific theater, and what sort of expectations they have," he said, "not just intellectually, but physically, spatially, as they attend the theater with this particular production."
In all the productions he's designed, Goheen has insisted on the site-specific approach. The Village Theatre, reflecting as it does '60s notions about theater design, "is not quite appropriate today, unless you want to function as a museum," Goheen said.
He and "As You Like It" director Robert Cohen wanted to experiment with this production, which has been in preparation for about a year.
"What I've tried to do here is dis-frame this proscenium theater, to simply destroy that Renaissance-founded notion of what it is to see theater . . . ," Goheen said. "For so many years we were interested in keeping the viewer in his place and letting the artist make his statement in his place, and not letting the two mingle too much.
"Well, of course, we've moved beyond that into environmental theater, and all that," he said. "But we're still confronted with using these proscenium spaces. So, by trying to remove this separation it takes us much more into the '90s, investigating what might be valid in the next century.
"We really want to know that a true symbiotic relationship between audience and actor exists . . . ," he said. "And this does not suggest that we want to go back to that touchy-feely stuff of the '60s. But it is a performance together."
Goheen's design work in the past few years, ranging from a 1989 staging of Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute" to the 1992 production of Heiner Muller's "Hamletmachine" has been completely non-illusionary.
Here, the green carpet and green brick trees, he explained, represent the essentials of the forest or woods, the pillars "vertical elements" that are basic parts of a forest.
Director Cohen, whose respect for the text keeps Shakespeare intact, has chosen to bring the period of the play to the 1940s in the first part, and a strictly contemporary 1994 in the second.
"People have a very mixed-up idea of what they call updating Shakespeare," Cohen said. "When Shakespeare conceived of a tree that would be used in staging, as for example the tree that Orlando pins his (love) letters to, Shakespeare was thinking of an architectural construct, what probably would have been described as a Roman-type pillar holding up the canopy over the stage. Goheen's brick-sided pillars representing trees are very much in keeping with Shakespeare's own notion of staging, as is the basic neutral playing area."
In that respect, you could say Goheen's design is starkly traditional Shakespeare, simply substituting carpet and brick for board and stone. And it's staunchly Elizabethan in the interplay between viewer and actor.
"We don't do these things separately, either one of us," Goheen said. "I'm always interested in reminding ourselves of some of these essences of theater, communal intention--and communal result."
* "As You Like It," UC Irvine Fine Arts Village Theatre, Bridge and Mesa roads, Irvine. Preview tonight at 8 p.m. $6. Regular run opens Friday and continues Wednesday through Nov. 20, 8 p.m. Matinees Nov. 19 and 20, 2 p.m. $6-$15. (714) 824-2787.