Underproduction by Design



Restrained by budget,

Restrained by time,

Restrained by resource,

Restrained by design.

Nope. Not one of my Tenets; simply a feature of the Process, most of the time.


I’ll wager that we all encounter the first three of these, regularly. Budgets that are smaller than the vision of Client or Creative, clients who want a brilliant and fully fleshed-out concept squeezed immediately from some toothpaste tube of creativity, not enough money or floor space or ceiling height…

These restraints – constraints might be a term with more clarity – are the obstacles that challenge us to stretch our Creative Muscle; finding ways to surmount and ensure quality of the experience we are creating for our audiences. Interestingly, more times than not it seems – at least to me – these challenges tend to result in enhancing the experience through the process.

I view this restraint as another form of discipline as we navigate the channels of creativity and production, and it keeps things interesting.

Sometimes, though – taking Subliminal Engagement to a virtual extreme – one can achieve a powerfully compelling result through spare production by design. Underproduction, while maintaining finesse and elegance, can actually captivate and engage an audience; less is significantly if not substantially more…

Effectively realized; a huge, open, dark space, far larger than the audience it is meant to contain can become an immersive theatre, an experiential time machine of sorts. Lit with “islands” of light as performance spaces with a combination of physical expanse and visual darkness such that the distant, enclosing walls cannot even be perceived; this minimalist staging can support a fuller suspension of disbelief.

The audience is Comfortably Disoriented and the experience is Successively Revealed as sounds come out of the darkness, lights fade in to spotlight a moment of action or narrative, then fade out; leaving the audience Subliminally Engaged as they weave the connective thread of their own making through the experience(s) offered them.

Obviously, sight lines and acoustics must support the experience and more than some cinder blocks and flashlights are necessary to render the ignition of imagination. That being said; much can be accomplished – much experience communicated – by evoking with sound revealing bits and pieces with light.

I am lucky to have been able to see two like experiences created at the same venue, years apart and with essentially the same program format, and to witness the difference in audience response to the two, disparate approaches.

In the name of full disclosure, I produced and directed the one of the pair that I found most effective and compelling; though, I believe I am being objective in my assessment and comparison of the two. If not; well, the name of this site is “imho”…ergo, this is my opinion!

When asked to select from my body of work (so far) which of my productions am I most proud; one of the three is the CandleLight Ceremony for the AIDS Memorial Quilt at the Lincoln Memorial in 1992. Twenty years later, this yet ranks as one of my finest accomplishments and, in retrospect, all of my tenets were applied to its creation; though, I had not given language or name to my methodologies at that time — it was all instinct.

Later, in 1996, ceremony for the Quilt was produced at the Lincoln Memorial by a different group. This latter production was what I would call a Standard Event Format; as the landings on the stairway were heavily populated with chairs for orchestra, performers and speakers; the stage was lined with rows of tents for talent and support, scaffolding and technical detritus was everywhere. (Is my disdain evident? Hey, this is imho…)

We had done it, differently.

Using what was there, we designed our lighting towers and screens such that views of the reflecting pool, the steps leading to the Memorial and the Memorial itself remained unobstructed. The Memorial was our stage, and my sense was that to augment would be to distract. So, no stage was built, all support, backstage and green room were completely out of view, and the memorial was lit only from towers hidden in the trees.

Well, that…and the glow from the candles held in the darkness by the 250,000 gathered marchers.

The program consisted of an august list of speakers and performers:

  • Melissa Errico
  • The late James Callan
  • Patti Austin
  • Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton
  • Cleve Jones – the founder of the Quilt
  • Liza Minnelli – as speaker rather than performer (Liberation of Preconception!), she offered the Spiritual Moment…an effectively unexpected use of pre-eminent talent; reflecting a philosophy to be covered in a later post.
  • Joel Grey – singing the finale.

The program went up at 8 and was to close at 8:45. I had no play in this schedule, as Representative Nancy Pelosi had arranged for a 5-minute window of no air traffic over the Potomac for my Final Effect (hang on, I’ll tell you…). So, that was that; no one gets to run past their scheduled times (techniques for that in an even later post!)

Backstory: going into this, I had developed a reputation for doing fireworks, indoors, at many of my ceremonies and productions in and around San Francisco. The casual joke among my friends and those who were familiar with my work was “…how are you going to write fireworks into this one, Kile…?” If anything, this came closest to a Memorial Service, and there was no appropriate place for celebratory fireworks…there was nothing to celebrate; hundreds of thousands of our friends had died and were still dying as the scourge of AIDS took them from us.

The final piece, though, was Mr. Grey singing, “Jonathan Wesley Oliver Junior;” a song sung by a man who has come to the Quilt to say “goodbye” to his boyhood buddy, whom “somebody told me you would be here…” If you are not familiar with it, this is a very poignant and sad song; one of loss and forgiveness, redemption and nostalgia for an innocent time.

The song speaks of when they were kids, just farm boys playing in the fields and sitting on bales of hay at night, talking and looking for shooting stars. The final line in the song is, “…tell me, Jonathan, up in Heaven, are there shooting stars…………….?”

The great George Zambelli had built for me one, single, giant, bright-white skyrocket that would explode silently…brilliance and absolute silence. As Joel Grey held his last note, the audience could see the tail of the rocket weaving upwards from behind the Memorial, then virtually fill the sky with shimmering brilliance.

And, all one could hear was the simultaneous, spontaneous, quietly personal gasp as 250,000 people had their breath caught in their throat.

12 thoughts on “Underproduction by Design

  1. Wow Kile. I know it has been a long time since our paths crossed. This was a gem to come across this morning. Wonderful reliving of that event on the mall so long ago.
    I, for one, remember it well. For it to be one of your favorites says a lot. Glad I got to witness it.
    Trust you are well!

    • How great to hear from you, Lance; and what synchronicity for it to have been over the Quilt, once again… Thank you for the comment and, as I share that sentiment about our paths having crossed in the distant past, let’s purposefully cross them again in the near future!

  2. I met my father one day at Universal cutting out large abstract shapes of gold paper in the parking lot, with a pair if scissors. (This was after he had won his four academy awards in feature films). When I asked what he was doing He said I’m doing a TV show. I said, but you havnt done television in years and there’s no budget to do the kind of things you dream up. He said, I know but I’ve never won an Emmy and thought I would give it a try. That year he won the emmy for best art direction for Ziegfeld, the Man and his Women with a TV budget that was next to nothing. It can be done 😉

    • Hey, I appreciate that enthusiastic response, Banwarth! Thank you… I post on Wednesday nights, and feel FREE to subscribe!
      Support such as that you express is MUCHly appreciated…
      Glad it engages…

  3. Fantastic post! What is not done at an event like this can speak louder and have more meaning than what is done. It takes far more skill (and talent, iMho) to execute good creative under restraint and restrictions. Thanks for pointing this out and sharing your story. It inspired me.

  4. Yes, I love the idea of constraints being the true tests of how we use our creative muscles….and you have illustrated it so well…..amazingly written and topical, this is what true mentoring and education from industry legends should be…and you have done it so well, without any bells and whistles…just as your title says….

    Nice work Kile!

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