'Harold and the Purple Crayon' returns

November 30, 2011

“It’s great to see a six-year-old have their own moment with what’s onstage. Kids are great audience members—when they’re having a wonderful moment of catharis or immersion, they don’t care what they sound like.”

Matt Miller, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s lighting director, is reveling in the vociferous responses to Hubbard Street 2’s Harold and the Purple Crayon: A Dance Adventure, based on Crockett Johnson’s 1955 picture book and set to music by Andrew Bird. After sold-out performances a year ago, when the show debuted in Chicago (it opened first at the Kennedy Center), Harold is being remounted this weekend—with some tweaks Miller made to his own lighting. “The audience probably didn’t care,” he says. “But it didn’t meet my standards.”

“Ryan [Wineinger] did the projections and scenery,” says Miller. “And he drew a lot of wonderful inspiration from the idea of folded paper, with the stage like a big white open book. The projections are the focus of the show, what the kids pay attention to the most. It’s like TV, but they also interact. They stay involved, seeing lines getting drawn, creatures taking shape.”

However, he says, “a white set is sort of a death trap for lighting. When you’re lighting a dance, you usually use black masking—the thing that keeps people from seeing backstage. But with Harold, the masking was brighter than the dancers. It gave me an interesting palette, and there were great moments where it worked, but… the design choices on the dancers were minimal.”

This year, Miller is putting the same scenic elements in a purple frame instead—“still like the book, but also like the crayon. In this business, you don’t often get a second chance! Now the colors are on the dancers, not the background.”

Wineinger says that, in some ways, his “set and projections were easy because they were a re-creation of the children’s book. But they also provided an opportunity to travel through the book, doing it through video. Harold travels through the landscapes, and sometimes draws them. He’s creating all these places, and the dancers are the spark.”

“We wanted the scenic elements to be huge,” Wineinger adds—not only the projections but the oversize bed and window he designed. The result: the six HS2 dancers playing Harold, some of them pretty tall, look child-size.

Miller started out at Hubbard Street as the production manager for Hubbard Street 2. “I was a one-man song-and-dance,” he says. “I did the lighting, the stage management, driving the van, washing the costumes…. ” In his current job, as lighting director for both companies, he estimates that 60 to 70 percent of his work is adapting the lighting designs of pieces that HSDC has acquired. But he will be designing Hubbard Street’s January show at the MCA, “danc(e)volve,” a showcase of new works by HSDC and HS2 dancers.

A self-described art geek, Miller says, “Whether it’s great design or choreography or cinematography, art that can move you is just so fantastic. Everyone can understand it, but we can almost never put our finger on it. Someone once told me, ‘Bad lighting is easy to see, but good lighting is not.’ At the end of the day, the goal is to make art.”