Jorge Cousineau has never appeared onstage or uttered a single word in front of an audience. But that doesn’t stop him from being our runaway choice for PW ’s 2010 Philadelphia Theater Artist of the Year.
If you’re a regular or even casual theatergoer in Philadelphia, chances are you are familiar with the versatile Cousineau's work. He was involved with 11 productions last year with a ridiculously wide range of job descriptions, designing sets, sound, lighting and video and serving as a composer, co-director and co-conceiver—often creating multiple elements per production.
Why do we think that's such a big deal? Because it results in productions with a single, cohesive vision of the onstage world, a rarity when the usual is fusing ideas from three or four designers. “I find it easier to make the elements compatible if I’m working on all of them,” Cousineau says of his multitalented multitasking. He enjoys collaboration, but when he’s in control of designing multiple elements, “it’s easier to make the environment compatible and seamless.”
Cousineau’s most visible work last year was probably the video and sound design for the Arden’s Sunday in the Park With George, recently noted by the Wall Street Journal ’s theater critic as one of the best shows of 2010 (one of very few from outside New York). Cousineau also considers Sunday a highlight of the year, as well he should—the video elements of the Sondheim musical are significant, and notoriously tough to pull off, but transcendent when done right.
Sunday splits its focus between two artists: The first act follows painter Georges Seurat, mostly unappreciated even as he invents pointillism and works on his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte;” in the second act, we jump forward in time to meet Georges' great-grandson George, a successful contemporary artist, at the black-tie unveiling of his latest multimedia video installation, “Chromalume #7.”
Both acts present technological and design challenges—during the time we spend with the elder Seurat, his omnipresent sketchpad is often projected large, the sketches (which Cousineau did himself) gradually coalescing into the familiar scene of “La Grand Jatte.” But “Chromalume #7,” conceived by Cousineau and wife Nikki, was the real showstopper. A fascinating setpiece employing live action, moving screens, bluescreen video, computer graphics and “La Grande Jatte” itself, the Chromalume leaped over the hurdle of coming up with art-within-art that doesn’t come off as pretentious or hopelessly naive (Rent, anyone?). Figures from the painting and first act return as ghostlike projections, walking around the stage (via moving screens) before disintegrating into dots that erupt into a pointillist, swirling blizzard of color, light and movement. Both similar to and a contrast with “La Grande Jatte,” this was by far the year’s most visually dazzling moment of theater.
Despite the dazzle of Sunday, Cousineau believes he’s doing best when he can create a natural, unintrusive world that expands to fill not just the stage, but the whole theater. “The most important things are the actor and the story being told,” he says. “When the audience is in the moment, they shouldn’t be noticing the design.”
Hence, there’s no Cousineau signature—he has no particular style, adapting to serve the needs of each production. The Arden’s artistic director, Terrence J. Nolen, who split “conceived by” billing for Sunday with Cousineau and worked with him on three other plays last year, credits this chameleonlike ability to how the designer “listens” at each stage of a production’s development. “He doesn’t impose” ideas on a production, says Nolen, “he creates from within.”
Though this year Cousineau worked on productions as dissimilar as the Arden’s kiddie-theater If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (sound, original music, video) and Theatre Exile’s incendiary, ultraviolent That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play (set, lights, video), his goal is always the same: to create a believable, immersive space where the characters and audience can temporarily coexist without reminders that it's all an illusion.So, though he’d rather not be recognized by audiences, we recognize his skills here nonetheless.
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