Surfing with Nixon

Posted by Vanopsmd On 12:58 PM
A highlight of the summer for me was a wonderfully productive and illuminating trip to Santa Cruz, California to work on VOA's new production of Nixon in China. It was an odd combination of people, places, and subject matter to be sure: a Canuck stage director meeting an East Coast designer in a counter-culture surfer town to bring to life the story of an American president's historic journey to Asia in the 70's. But the randomness of these elements seemed to bring out the best in each of us. The meetings were fruitful to say the least, and we're all agreed that the pieces are in place for a fantastic production in 2010.

Tom Wright and I met at the airport in San Francisco in late-July and drove down to Santa Cruz together. The weather was perfect, the traffic terrible and the scenery gorgeous, just as you'd expect from summertime in Northern California. The first evening we had a chance to walk around a bit, and take in the ambience of that beautiful coastal town. We learned that Santa Cruz has some of the best surfing conditions in all of North America, so board-riders come from all over the world to test their mettle there. As you might expect, surfing culture is huge; board shops, tiki-themed restaurants and lots of happily disheveled youths were on display everywhere. Santa Cruz also boasts a decades-old Shakespeare festival, and its resident scenic designer was the subject of our particular interest.

Erhard Rom is a highly-regarded and extremely busy set designer based in the Washington, DC area. He joined us for supper on the second night and we hit the ground (well, the dinner table, actually) running. He and I had already enjoyed a number of lengthy phone calls and emails that built a solid connection, but we had never met in person. He's a lovely guy; lively in conversation, knowledgable, thoughtful, full of ideas and yet fully open to the ideas of others. A perfect collaborator for such an important project.

The three of us spent the next day around his dining room table. Erhard and I worked our way through the entire opera, looking at various images he had been developing as a result of our earlier discussions. Tom provided the company perspective on a number of issues and was totally supportive (as always) of our creative process. We batted around a host of ideas for theatrical approaches to this complex and fascinating opera that would best serve our audience - and potential co-producing partners. We were incredibly specific at times, delving into the minute detail of how a rolling platform, for example, might connect with others to form an interesting picture. Other times we talked in elliptical vagueries, grappling not only with the meanings and symbolisms of Nixon's trip to China, but also the ground-breaking importance of Adams' opera itself. It was an exhaustive, and exhausting, exercise. At the end of it we had a wealth of raw material which now must be distilled down to the most essential and effective elements. Most importantly, we left Santa Cruz riding a wave of confidence and enthusiasm for the signature production of Vancouver Opera's '09-'10 season. The surf was up, indeed.

Michael Cavanagh
Stage Director
Nixon in China

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