"Social media isn't a fad," says scenic designer Donyale Werle. "It's our lives."
With that mantra in mind, the Tony Award winner began work on her newest project, the off-Broadway revival of Bare, now running at New World Stages. Her set employs 15,006 four-by-four photographs which were donated to the production by friends, family, and public feeds via the photo sharing site Instagram.
"[Director] Stafford Arima and I are intrigued by the way teenagers – and all of us – communicate," Werle continues. "We're all on Facebook and Twitter. People put their lives online, and the social experiment [we created] was to see what they were comfortable with [sharing]. Using a piece of somebody's life in a show is a big statement."
The idea to decorate a set with a plethora of photographs (5,786 in total, which were then duplicated to reach 15,006), she notes, "came from looking at the way teenagers decorate and express themselves." While the photos aren't arranged on the set in any particular order, Werle considers her design to be "extremely structured," with the four-by-four squares lined up one after another, row after row, covering nearly everything but the stage floor.
Werle's set is inspired by the stained glass imagery seen in houses of worship, as well as the work of English artist Damien Hirst (specifically, his massive triptych "Doorway to the Kingdom of Heaven" and the wall of pills called "Lullaby, the Seasons"). "It's all about color and light and squares," she says of the similarity between religious imagery and the way Instagram photos appear both on the actors' smart phones and on the set. "They reminded us of the [metaphoric] boxes that we put ourselves in, and the boxes we put others in; the way we label things and people, and ourselves. You look at the 10 or 12 years [since the show originated] and the social labeling is just so much worse [today], at least publicly."
For a show that is set within the confines of a Catholic school where two young men have fallen in love (and are subsequently outed by a smart phone photo), this experiment seems to be an ideal plan. "Naturally, students [in 2012] would use Instagram," adds projection designer William Cusick, who not only uses pre-taped projections, but live feeds from on-stage cell phones that allow audience members to see the photos that are taken in real time.
"I don't think there are any rules," Werle concludes when asked if this methodology is the future of scenic design. "This was an interesting experiment with social media that had a lot to do with our show, conceptually and dramaturgically." (Indeed, the show's script calls for photos of the cast to be projected on stage throughout.) "It was a fascinating interweaving, as technology is a huge part of our lives," she says. "People want that social component." While Cusick admits that every show has different needs, he sees Bare as great progress in the design world. "We speak and read in images now in a way that, fifty years ago, wasn't necessary for theater. For a show like this, about images of self and identity, it is absolutely necessary."
While social media's convergence on the world of theater isn't new (almost all shows now use Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram in their marketing campaigns), Bare, which has gone one step further and incorporated it into the production itself, has broken new ground in a rapidly expanding field.