In college I had a friend named Patricia. She was a graduate student in theater design and I was a costume designer so we’d work together to design plays and films. Collaborating with Patricia was the first experience I had with someone with serious talent. I mean, I knew a lot of talented people, but Patricia was a design alchemist. She could take cheap materials and a tiny budget and transform a set into a new world. Patricia was from Panama, and until she turned 18 she’d planned to be a nun. This life change from Panamanian novitiate to theater design student seems bizarre, but if you were familiar with her work, it made sense. Patricia’s productions had the sublime quality of a golden, incense and chant-filled cathedral. The thing with her is that she never over-dramatized in way that a lot of young artists did: her sets were a little muted, with watercolor-style edges.
Patricia, like her art, could overwhelm you with subtlety. With her frizzy hair and acne-scarred skin, she wasn’t pretty, but she was intensely appealing. Patricia had an awe-inspiring attention span and despite that she never stopped working, she always seemed to be paying close attention to those around her. Patricia was a real friend; she was kind and she heard me. I hope I was the same to her.
After graduation Patricia moved to New York to be an assistant to a famous theater designer. We’d call each other occasionally, but eventually lost touch after one of our many moves and phone number changes. I’ve since searched for her online, but she had a common last name and has possibly moved out of the country.
Last month HOB and I visited Riga, a town that had me thinking constantly of Patricia: it could have been designed in its entirety by her.
Patricia’s signature as a lighting designer was to light from the sides of the stage. In Riga, the sun never rose overhead—it just shown sideways though the trees, casting dappled, tree-shaped shadows.
The sideways light made all the town’s details theatrical.
The Art Nouveau architecture of Riga is outrageous. Bewitching and campy: the ornamentation encrusting Riga is heavy on screaming masks, bare chested maidens with flowing locks, gryphons and other fantastic animals.
Riga’s slanted light, flickering through tree branches, animated the faces, bringing them to life. Patricia, like all skilled lightening designers, used this trickery to her advantage, even making actors seem extra vivacious.
Riga has that warm/cool/hard/earthy/slick/scrappy thing going on that all the greatest cities share.
I wonder if Patricia has been here, if she’d see watercolors paintings in the reflection of the windows.
HOB and I did not visit any sites in Riga. We just walked and walked and loved everything.
I may never see my friend Patricia again but I hope, with all her talent, she is still creating and I wish I knew what it was. We were quite young when we worked together and had a tendency to be (what I now recognize) as overwrought and cheesy. Did we always have to put doll heads and angel wings in our films? And why did we insist on actors with fake French accents? Surely we could get together some day and have a giggle about the doll heads, couldn’t we?
I don’t know if Riga is always this theatrical and astonishing, or if we just arrived at the perfect time of the year. I love Riga, but in a way I never want to go back. I just want this time we had in the city to be like the memory of a youthful friendship, a perfect play, or a delicious meal: something to put away all golden and delicious, all mine yet all lost.