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  • Writer's picturePayton Jane

Designing Theatre New Works - EMMA AND RICHIE'S BIG VIKING FUNERAL; From College to Hollywood Fringe

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

Welcome to my first blog post hosted here on my website. I'm not much for introductions but I suppose this being my first entry is something to be acknowledged. To give some credibility to myself before I begin: I have been designing theatre since I was a sophomore in high school, I studied theatrical design at the University of Southern California, and I have been able to make a living in LA as a full time designer for the past few years. While, in theatre, I specialize in lighting design, my cross over into film these last few years has inspired me to stake my claim as a Theatre Production Designer as well. Though this isn't a common title, I feel it is what best describes my multi-facetted work for the projects I take on. My work can be seen on other pages of this website. I plan on sharing my process, reviews, and more on this blog, but I am only one person with only so many experiences. These are my opinions and interpretations, which may not always be "right". Feel free to take my opinions at nothing more than face value. Now, with that out of the way, lets begin...


The first time I heard the names "Emma and Richie" strung together in such a way, was freshman year of college, 2019. It was a few weeks after the start of the semester and I was interviewed by two seniors running a theatre club on campus. (The same club I would run just about a year or so later). I was interviewing to direct a new one act play that their club was putting up at their end-of-semester one-act festival. They had four plays picked out and asked which one I was interested in directing. Amongst those four, was Emma and Richie's Big Viking Funeral. A story that follows a young couple, Emma and Richie, as they throw a party with their friends (the audience) to celebrate their breakup. To find closure, they perform a viking funeral ritual and accidentally summon two real vikings back from the dead. Emma and Richie must survive the night with these new guests-who believe themselves to be in Valhalla-while facing the reality that their relationship really has come to an end.

It was a funny, original, and at times, incredibly moving. I did not pick it.

Emma And Richie 2019 One Act Festival

Not to fret though- about half way through the semester, as I was directing one of the other four plays, it was brought up that we needed a lighting designer for the whole festival. Lucky for everyone, that happened to be my passion. Directing took a back seat for me. I passed off rehearsals to my assistant director, and spent my time sitting in on the other three rehearsals.

Taking on this role entailed discussing each show's layout and any lighting specials that would be needed. I had to create a plot that accounted for lighting the whole festival. First I plot the specials, then I filled in with wash lighting in two tones (warm and cool- which was done the old fashioned way of hanging two par lights next to each other, one with a cool gel and one with a warm). To add to this, the lighting board we were using was an ETC express, we had a total of 20 working dimmers, 3-generation-old lights, and all the circuits had to be run through a Soco that was tie-lined to the grid. Needless to say, creating a plot in these conditions was challenging. However, this is the way in which most theatre is done. No broadway stage with unlimited movers and dmx compatible lekos at your disposal. Theatre is, I would say, more often than not, created using out of date technology and duct tape.

Designing for a festival is very different than designing for a regular theatre run. Rehearsals don't move into the theater until last minute, if ever. You have multiple shows sharing one singular lighting plot, one plain black painted stage, and only a few minutes to load in and out of the theatre between multiple back-to-back performances. Or in this particular festival's instance, a 1 min max blue-out.

In these circumstances, much of the in-depth design of a show goes out the window. Festivals love to push that this is actually a positive- you can show off the acting and script much more without all of the bells and whistles distracting from it. No design needed! As a designer, I dislike this notion. It's not that I believe that every show needs a grand painted set and moving, changing, gobo-strapped, LED lights-- but I do think that every show uses some aspect of design to refine the visual experience of the audience. We say so much with our clothes, our shoes, how we do our hair, the way we design ourselves in real life- it seems silly to not acknowledge that even the most bare bones of shows are, innately, designed. It is a skill to do so even on a minimalist level. And when a show's team lacks that skill, audiences notice. While I may have had opinions on all of these design choices for each of the shows in this festival, I was only directing one, and only lighting designing the others. So unless asked, those opinions I kept to myself. But the bud of production designing was placed.

Emma and Richie's Big Viking Funeral 2019

Starting this process freshman year and sitting in on these college one-act rehearsals was incredibly new and invigorating. This is where I met the team of Emma and Richie. While I look back on this festival with fond memories, in the moment- this process was incredibly stressful. Moving into the theater to hang a plot 4 days before the festival goes up, meant that there were lighting sessions that went until 4am (when I still had to get up for my 8am classes- remember people I was a freshman). There were times I had to walk out of the theater to cry because I was so overwhelmed, felt like an imposter, and was running on no sleep. I don't recommend creating this way- but I have a horrible habit of doing so. It is a habit because at the end of each process, when I look back on it, I remember the wonderful moments where we got the cue just right, the cast and crew hit the mark perfectly, and we felt the grandeur of the scene swell up inside of us- and I'll be damned if we don't get to those moments because I threw in the towel early that night.

All in all, the festival went up with few mistakes and I learned so much about myself as a designer, and the role I wanted to play in theater. After the festival wrapped, we all parted ways. I thought about that show often. How funny and original it was. I hoped to work on shows that I loved as much as that one again and again. I was unaware that three years later, I would come to love the show again- this time in a much fuller and all-encompassing way.

E&R Final Scene 2022 Hollywood Fringe

So, here we fast forward to mid 2022. I was working on a short film as a production designer. There, I reconnected with a friend from college who happened to also be on set. She let me know that they were producing a full-length version of Emma and Richie's Big Viking Funeral at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Of course I wanted to be involved. This show that I still thought about 3 years later was going to be remade in a longer version? Count me in. And they did.

When I first joined the team, I agreed to join as a "production designer" (which again, isn't usually a thing in theatre but it worked for us). At the time, everyone else had already been working on this project for at least a month. I tried my best to be helpful and not overstep with too many ideas or opinions. Unfortunately for them, everything I do, I do whole-heartedly. So, I quickly became a staple piece of every rehearsal, meeting, and email chain.

The script was still in development when I joined, which presented many opportunities and challenges. This time around, the general premise of the show remained the same, breakups-vikings-death, but we expanded the characters and situation, while diving deeper into the subtext of what was happening. When you come on to design a project that is still in script development, it can sometimes feel slow and frustrating. After all, I'd been taught how to create worlds from finished scripts and well established shows. However, to ever really make your mark as a production designer, you need to go above and beyond-make the world you design not just be an interpretation of the script, but a part of it.

The first time I did this show, I wasn't so much involved in the workshopping of the script and world itself. After all, I was only a lighting designer for it. I now entered the space 3 years older, with 3 years more experience, and now with a film production designer's brain as well. I now understood world-building and script breakdowns, from a design perspective anyway, and I was exciting to bring these new found skills to the table.

Official Show Poster

This time around, I spent time in the writers room solidifying storylines, at rehearsals doing movement work, and one-on-one moments with each actor to cultivate their character's visual style. I hand-stitched a viking cape with 3 layers of fur that told a story of multiple battles over the years, and contained a hidden pocket for a blood-bag to be used in the finale. I cut, styled, and deshedded an 80s rock wig to turn it into the golden hair of a Valkyrie. I spent every pre-show powwow braiding Nordic braids into our viking's hair. I spent my mornings before rehearsals listening to 20 different sound bites of tree branches to be put into Qlab and handed off to the theater tech for the show's sound design. The shows producers and I would sit hours past rehearsal planning, writing press releases, and researching. And, while I usually work with graphic designers to help inspire the mood of the graphics, for this, I became the graphic designer as well. There was not any aspect of this show that I was not a part of. The same goes for every person involved.

While most of us had done the show before, it was like we were rebuilding from the ground up-and it was beautiful. And on top of this, we were also experiencing being a part of Fringe for the first time. There were parties, networking events, showcases, and so much more that we had never explored. Getting to learn and grown as a young professional in the creative field, I have never been more thankful to have surrounded myself with wonder fellow creative to take this journey with. The team for Emma and Richie quickly became some of my best friends.

Cast and crew of Emma and Richie's Big Viking Funeral at the Hollywood Fringe Festival opening night party

The Hollywood Fringe Festival has dozens of shows put up in theaters all across LA. At our theater, the Mccadden, we only had one day in the theater to tech, with no rehearsal days there. In these few hours, we had to practice load-in/out, have the technician program the lighting cues, and set all the sound levels. Of course, this day happened to fall on a day where I was also on set designing a music video. I left that production half way through to be at the Mccadden. Our cast went through cue to cue and we set sound and lighting levels. The actors got to experience the space for the first time, we photographed moments, and prepared for our upcoming opening night. I sped off back to my other set and we were continued rehearsals back at our home-base the next day. The Mccadden was a place were we came to feel at home during our run there, and apparently they felt the same. Each theater gives out an encore award, which allows the production to continue performing shows the week after the festival ends, which the Mccadden awarded Emma and Richie. We were also offered many opportunities to hold a more long-term place at the theater. It was encouraging and we all felt so proud.

Being a part of this show for a second time felt like the universe was aligning again. There were many things in my life happening at the time of the first production that seemed to be happening again here 3 years later. Funny how 3 years worth of decisions lead me to an amplified version of the same situation. It made me acutely aware of the choices I was making- both on stage and in my life. Should I make the same ones as before? or do I want to take a different path?

I have had the unique opportunity to see my growths, my downfalls, my person change-through doing this show twice. There is quite literally side by sides of me as a creative. From being overwhelmed lighting the show to thriving designing the entire thing. I have a direct comparison of who I have become in the last 3 years.

Designing theater new works within a festival setting makes a stressful process even more complicated. More limitations, viewing the designs within a different scope, and working with a sped up timeline. However, people who come to see festival theater come in with that expectation. The goal is not perfection, but an expression of your interpretation of the story. A glimpse at what this could be. Mistakes and all. Festival theater is not for the perfectionist. That is something I continuously struggled with. However, my favorite theater pieces to watch are those that acknowledge to the audience that they are watching theater. That mindset helped me to live with the limitations that we simply did not have the time or resources to "fix".

If I do believe that what I design is a reflection of my inner-self, no wonder its so scary to put my art out there. No wonder its emotional looking back at the past works I've helped create. I'm proud that I have been able to put so much of myself out into the world. I look forward to continuing to do so.


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