Interview by Jenny Collins '05
They both speak from the stage, but their voices are never heard.
What sounds like a riddle is reality for Donald “Doc” Rainbow, Ph.D., professor of theatre, and Sam Cook, operations and production manager for Maranatha Hall. The two artists create a harmonious artistic forum by combining their voices as director and scenic designer, respectively, for theatre productions at Northwestern.
Rainbow and Cook have collaborated to develop the stage worlds for Godspell (2009), The Crucible (2009), Working (2010), Children of Eden (2010) and The Boys Next Door (2011). In his eighth year at UNW, Rainbow previously taught at the University of Sioux Falls and Bethel University and led college theatre troupes that performed internationally for the USO. Cook, who joined UNW in 1998, holds an art degree from Bethel University.
They shared a recent conversation where they discussed perspectives on theatre, life, communicating creative vision and their unique artistic partnership. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Collaborating to tell stories
Doc: The real, pure artist in the process is the playwright. I am still an interpretive artist of a playwright’s creative piece. I, in turn, ask the collaborative team to be interpreters of my vision. I’m a director who has a strong sense of what I want. Some directors say “I could care less." With Godspell, I said, “Sam, I want to do Godspell on a beach with a Los Angeles-style lifeguard stand.”
I want to emotionally touch an audience but physically touch the audience, as well. For me, nothing happens behind the curtain. For The Boys Next Door, I said, “I want the set to hug the audience.”
Sam: From the designer aspect, my role is to support and enhance the story, not distract from it. If I can help the director, the playwright and the actors portray that message, I’ve succeeded.
Doc: I love working with Sam because he’s an artist and he understands my desire to work in a more nonliteral kind of world. Sam can create living sculptures.
Sam: It’s kind of like a dance. Doc will try to lead for a little bit, then I’ll try to lead; we step on each other’s toes a little bit. Godspell was a little bit of a struggle, to really understand his vision.
From napkin drawings to the stage
Sam: Doc will do some of the sketching—“the napkin plan”—then I take that and try to put it into the space, making it function physically. He has the acting medium, telling the story verbally and physically through people. I have the medium to tell the story with the physical space. It’s a synergetic thing—lots of creative minds coming together to create an artistic forum. In theatre you have actors, stagehands, carpenters, painters…
Doc: I basically know the structures, the scenic elements I want and where I want them. But Sam says, “Let’s try this…” things I didn’t even think to ask for!
Sam: It’s form following function or function following form. When you’re doing art as an artist, you’re pushing those elements in a different way.
Doc: On the one hand we hope you [the audience] never know what it takes to get us there. On the other hand, you say, “I wish they understood what this takes!” Hours, meetings, cups of coffee…
Sam: Fortunately, our love is the process as much as the product.
Doc: If applause at the end of the show is what you’re doing this for, you’re in the wrong game.
Keeping your artistic voice when supporting another’s vision
Sam: I’m in an event business where I provide a product every day that is not really ever seen as my product. It’s the people on stage, the people up front. I work with a crew that provides a product that for the most part no one ever really knows it’s there. We provide that structure to emphasize what the event is. So the greatest moments for me are when the last thing’s cleaned up, no one got hurt, people are walking away smiling and feeling good.
The artistic side is where the struggle comes. You’re trying to create something for someone else, yet also keeping something of it as your own. For me in this process of theatre it’s deliberately putting my “Easter eggs” into the set. I ask, “How do I put a little of my signature on this but still honor the design itself?” With The Crucible it was the floor, the trees. For The Boys Next Door it was the cutaway line at the top and night-lights.
Appreciating each other’s strengths
Sam: I enjoy Doc’s artistic vision, how it challenges me to see the space in a different way. I enjoy the way he tells a story, the way he becomes passionate about telling the story. It’s hard not to catch the enthusiasm once he casts his vision. At the same time he can chastise me…put his hand on my neck, and say, “This is where I’m going.” That’s amazing to have that relationship. I read [a play] in terms of functionality and sometimes miss the overall, underlying message. We’ve also developed a trust, a personal relationship. Because art is so intimate and so exposed, I have a trust and respect for Doc that’s deeper than our working relationship.
Doc: I have a deep personal affection for Sam and tremendous respect for his artistry. He is a wonderful, creative artist. It stimulates me, enriches me, feeds ideas to me, enlarges me. Sam has a positive, can-do spirit. He always finds a way to do something, or says, “Have you thought of doing it this way?” He’s a perfect manager. I’m a visionary and he can free me up to create because he’ll look after details—stuff that I don’t do well and don’t want to be burdened with.
Being true to beliefs
Sam: Doc isn’t willing to compromise his artistic vision based on outside things. He won’t do certain shows because of his beliefs. It’s a reminder for me to be selective of what I put myself into.
Doc: The delight of my life is that my work life is not separate from the rest of my life. It is my life. It’s who I am and it goes to the very core of who God gave me to be.
Sharing the message from the stage
Doc: My hope is that when you tell the story of someone’s life, like in Spitfire Grill, and the redemption that was offered her through that town…you want people to catch the germ that they can be the agent of redemption in people’s lives. We can perform acts of love and kindness and caring in the name of Jesus.
You don’t have to follow my work long to see the stories I want I tell—that of disenfranchised people, people who have been pushed to the edge, marginalized, discarded. That’s who God has placed on my heart in strong ways. I tell these stories so that others might feel a sense of responsibility to the have-nots, to those who are hurting and suffering. I don’t discount the value of entertainment; I work hard to make them entertaining, but I want them to function at another level. And I think they do.
If a handful of people find their breath taken away by a moment, an insight that’s important to them, that’s cool.