Working In The Theatre: Scenic Design


[music] My mother trained as an opera singer and
when I was quite young I vividly remember her taking me backstage during the
intermission of Verdi’s Macbeth and I watched the scene change and there was a
sort of big Stonehenge looking set on stage and this man walked out and pushed
one of the boulders across the stage and I was just shocked because it looked for
all the world like a twenty thousand pound stone and yet clearly it wasn’t
and I think that was the first time I kind of understood stage scenery as an
artifice, as something representing something else. I met Hal Prince when I was getting out of graduate school, we talked for a
minute or two when I was completely overwhelmed and terrified of him
but the next week he sent me a letter and said it was nice to meet you it was
nice to see your work so Hal has always been a mentor to me that way.
The first time I was really working with him I think it took me about six months not to
be completely terrified. You walk into his office and the entire history of the
20th century of American theatre is on the wall. He either directed or produced
most of it. People often asked me, “How did you how
did you find your way to doing set design from architecture?”
and I always think it’s a funny question because to me the tasks that I’m doing
are exactly the same: building models and drafting. However, it’s almost like set
design and architecture the flip sides of the same coin that with set design
it’s it’s a completely ephemeral thing. I took my first painting class my senior
year of college and after that I wanted to do a little bit more painting and I
spent a year in Italy ostensibly painting but then making my way back to
three-dimensional the 3-dimensional world. I started building installations
and objects and it was actually a teacher of mine he said to me one day
“Have you thought about scenography?” [LAUGHS] He’s British so you know that’s their word
for set design so then I went to graduate school because I didn’t know
anything about theatre When I graduated I worked as an assistant
designer for a few years and I assisted a designer named George Seaton who also
had an architecture background. His studio was sort of like a sculpture
studio, you know and it was great. I find if I get a good concept, a good
idea that really kind of encapsulates the show in a simple way it it helps me
determine every other choice I need to make in the design and everything else
just kind of falls into place because it answers a question and sort of guides me
through all the other visual choices that I do and if I don’t have a good
concept or a good solid idea for it that’s when I get into trouble and I
start thinking well I don’t know what the answer is I don’t know whether it
should be blue or red because my idea isn’t strong enough. A huge part of what the set does in
theater is it creates the frame and the surround that we present the human
figure in. I think what in film the camera does in framing things the set
largely has to do in theatre with some help from the lighting. I’ve started
thinking recently of scenery design as a transformation of space over time is
kind of what I’m doing. A big part of my job is how do I get from point A to
point B quickly and seamlessly in a way hopefully that helps tell the story well. What I like to think about actually is
like what is the nature of the event? I’ve always been interested in like how
the audience is engaging with the piece like how to engage the audience in a
more visceral way, so often when I’m designing a play when there’s flexible
seating I think about what the relationship is between the audience and
the play actually that’s sort of the first question that I that I think about. One of my favorite things about being a
designer is that I’m constantly learning. When I get a play that I’ve been asked
to design, I’ll read it and I try to read it without too much preconception of
anything I just sort of read it and see what images pop into my head and before
I spend too much time trying to figure out what the set should be I’d sit down
with the director and I just like to have a good long talk with the director
or maybe several good talks with the director to find out what they think the
play is about what they’re trying to to get across in our telling of the play,
and I don’t tend to be interested in you know do you think the set
should be green or do you think it should be this style or those kind of
things so much but I want to know what’s the feel of it? Does it feel cold? Does it
feel warm? Does it feel friendly? Does it feel unfriendly? I can make a model a sort of
a rough model but finished enough that it looks like something I just sit it on
the shelf for you know a week or you know for a few days at least so it’s
kind of there in my studio while I’m working on other things and I kind of
see it in my peripheral vision and usually then I’ll start to think “Oh, well,
that doesn’t look quite right,” or some part of it will bug me and just by
having it kind of there on the periphery I start to catch things that I want to
change about it or the feel of it isn’t quite right, that the kinetic energy in
it isn’t quite right, and I’ll start to mess with those things compositionally. Somewhere in there is where we sort of
nail down what the set is and the model gets more and more finished and more and
more looking like what the final set is going to be. And then I have to actually
get that you know that small model and make the big version of it and for that
then I’ve got to do a bunch of technical drawings and we send it out to a shop to
build the full-scale set and then ultimately that moves from the shop
that’s built it gets taken apart and brought into the theatre and installed
in the theatre and then we go into technical rehearsals where you add
lighting and you add the sound and the actors get onto the set for the first
time and that’s really where it all comes together and that’s where you
learn whether the set was actually a good idea or not I kind of really don’t
know until we’re running the play on this on the set, and you see if it works
for telling the story or not. Sometimes, something looked really beautiful and
seemed like a great idea just doesn’t somehow work to tell the story the way
you thought it would and sometimes something that I really thought might
not work, you know, I was worried about it or didn’t think it was a great
idea and suddenly once you get the actors in there to activate it and live
inside it, it becomes alive and it really does work. When I’m in early stages of working on a
project, often it involves going to buy materials. Sometimes one of the early
inspirations for design can be a material. I will go to the paper store
and see like what kind of paper you know feels right. This is my
favorite part is you know is kind of trolling about and like kind of
letting your thoughts wander and seeing what hits me- going to the library!
That’s a big part of my process. Sometimes I go and I just like
wander through the aisles and just pick random books like sometimes you don’t
really know what you’re looking for yet, There’s also this room called
the picture collection at the Mid- Manhattan library which I pretty much go
there at the beginning of every design process. I don’t know there’s something
about being in that space that is more contemplative than sitting in front of a
computer. I tend to draw only as much as I need to
in order to figure out the idea. And then, I try to move to a model form as quickly
as possible that I feel like I’m really a very three-dimensional person and so I
think I figure things out more intuitively in a model form. For me
models don’t lie so in a drawing you can make it work, like you can fudge things
you don’t, the implication of depth in a drawing is just all by
perspective and so you can fake that so there are things I think that you might
not realize in a drawing but as soon as you build it in a model three
dimensionally you realize “Oh, we’re going to see that side.” And then in
communicating with directors and choreographers and people who don’t
might not necessarily understand a technical drawing- like things exist in
three dimensions, so a model is just a smaller form of it but it’s closer to
reality so it’s easier to understand and communicate with other people. So I’m
actually just getting ready to ship this model to Chicago, to the theater, but
I actually have built a new object that I need to look at in this model so I
need to unpack it. This is a play that’s about the
urbanization of China, it’s called The World of Extreme Happiness.
We have decided to use a kind of neutral envelope for all of the scenes.
So then this space opens up and actually acts like a diorama this is a moment when
they’re wandering through the countryside. You know it’s written in a pretty filmic way and we cut from like you know it’s
the magic of you know the fluorescently lit factory, essentially, then the final
scene is in a mental hospital, that’s sort of the final the final scene. Basically I’ve shot photographed every scene so this is this is the beginning
and then the second scene so I’ve storyboarded through with the
model. It’s a projection moment. This was the grass scene that I was setting up
and there’s there’s also a backdrop The idea for act 1 really came to me in
one of those lucky Eureka moments. The first draft that I read was 150 pages
long it had 50 locations in it and all of them were very short scene so I had
to get from one place to the next very quickly. I’d done a model of a kind of an
empty backstage approach to the play and all the different locations would be you
know an actor drags out a chair and suddenly were in an office and they
bring out a desk and were in a different place I was going to show to James
Lepine the director and the night before that meeting I had this kind of nagging
feeling that the idea just wasn’t good enough but suddenly I said wait a minute
no instead of doing this empty bare stage let me do a great big turning
thing that has a multiple level thing on it and each one of those locations had a
little cubbyhole onstage that it existed in and the set would turn and you would
be play a space here or a space here a space up here and a lot of the needs of
the play were difficult and we’re sort of answered by that kind of a design.
So, we had the sort of the fancy set for George Kaufman’s townhouse and the not
so fancy tenement where Mosshart grew up with a stairwell leading up to the roof
all the laundry in the backyard. And the theater here which curtain came
in and out and we played lots of different theater scenes here and there
was a whole audience up in the balcony sometimes, audience in the box. One play that I worked on recently a few
months ago was called An Octoroon, it was at Soho Rep, Sarah Benson, the director,
she and I both I think are interested in this question of what is the nature of
the event and we started talking about it like maybe as in more of a
performance-art context, as opposed to a theater context and the reason for that
was because we really wanted the audience to not be able to sit back and
like hold this piece at a distance. Like as a historical piece, like this is not
something you know we’re living in a post-racial society and we don’t need to
think about that anymore, we wanted it to be like actually like- the audience like
physically and viscerally affected by the production. The wall that you see
when you’re coming in, 14 foot high wall would fall towards the audience and when
that happens like the gust of air that’s you know blowing out the audience is
quite immense. Soho Rep is a tiny theatre. It’s got 70 seats and the
audience was literally five feet away from where the wall landed and it
reveals two women dressed as 19th century slaves knee-deep in a sea of
cotton balls the next scene in the play is that were in a plantation and I
didn’t want to depict any sort of realistic architecture you know it
wanted to be you know sort of abstract in a way. When I’m dealing with sort of
more realistic things where the characters are that inhabit that space
becomes very important and in that sense you kind of have to put yourself into
the mind of the character you know as much as you can and it is I guess almost
like acting or you know sort of thinking through what would the character do, what
would they choose, if it’s a sort of a talky play, where people are just
sitting around that I need to provide chairs and things for them to sit on and
sort of focus areas around the set that will draw an actor over here over, over here,
to help with the staging and give the director a reason to make a person walk
from the side of the stage to the other so it’s not just a random movement but
it’s motivated in some way by something that’s existing on the set. My aesthetic bent is definitely not
realism. I feel like the reason that we do theater is to be able to see
something different and see something differently. This is for the dance piece
to the Schubert music and the ideas that we’re going to make a forest of trees
out of string. I would say that my favorite things to do are generally a
little bit more abstract and sculptural. My work with a lighting designer is very
important to me, how the light lands on the set, how it affects and shapes the
set is so important to me. There’s a lot of just kind of physical back-and-forth
that you know if I put this piece of scenery here, you can put a light here,
and you can put a speaker here and we all have to play together in the same
space. And as video has become more and more a part of theater, I’ll have a lot
of interplay with a video or projection designer as well so that the set is a
surface that will take projection well and in the past year or so I’ve started
doing the projections myself sometimes because as the set designer I have a lot
of opinion about what that should be and sometimes it I would prefer just
to do it myself and have it kind of be my vision. The people who are building
the set is really a collaboration with me as well and all of those people need
to have a sense of what I want as a designer because I can’t be there
dealing with every little detail of all of it I need to have a team of people
who kind of understand my taste and says it works almost like a symphony
that everybody’s doing their part and it all comes together to create something
that’s coherent. Here it is. On the tomb. So that’s John’s only copy of that,
guard it and maybe once you’re done get it back to him but I think if you can
get it up in some kind of online way for us all to access it would be great. Collaborating with the choreographers is
very different from collaborating with directors I find. choreographers
obviously tend to think more spatially I actually think choreographers and
architects get along very well. They think about space in a sculptural way.
They’re basically composing bodies moving in space, sometimes directors are
not necessarily, you know, understanding space quite as strongly as a
choreographer. I think the biggest compliment I find
when I’m working on a play and then actors come and they discover the set
and they start living on the set and if they say to me like oh I feel really
comfortable in this space or like I feel inspired by the space like that’s
always like the best feeling. There’s a company I work with a lot in
Philadelphia called Pig-Iron Theatre Company. They create a
performance as a group and so all of the text is generally generated by the
actors improvising in rehearsal and the design is created alongside the piece. But what’s great about that is that as a designer I’m there from the very
beginning and potentially a design proposal that I put out there at the
beginning could could really you know dictate the direction that the piece is
taking. I find it to be a very gratifying way to work. It’s me and the actors and
the director in a room before we know what the play is. You know sometimes designing a show that
isn’t fully written yet can be a big challenge when I when I was hired to do
The Last Five Years, Jason Brown hadn’t finished writing the show. I had an
outline and could I kind of generally knew what it would be so I had to design
a set for a show that wasn’t fully written yet it was similar on Sondheim
on Sondheim and in both cases I think it was exciting and they’re actually two of
my favorite sets that I’ve done. In some ways I think not having the
rigidness of a finished play was was kind of liberating. There’s definitely
like the fear at the beginning of every project when you’re staring at the kind
of blank piece of paper or the empty model box of the theater and you’re just
like I have no idea what I’m going to do. It’s a good kind of fear you know it’s
um feels like it’s full of possibility? My real nervousness is that sort of
jump from the small scale to the big and putting the people into it and you know
it as much as I have some expertise doing it, I’ve done it a lot of times, I’m
nervous every time. You never know for sure until you see the big
thing if it what looked good this big is really going to look good this big. The budget is important to me obviously because it affects what I can do if my
concept for the set is sound is really good then I can do the cheap version or
the expensive version but obviously you can’t have a big grand expensive
difficult idea if you don’t have a big grand expensive difficult budget but I
feel like most things can be solved in sort of a simple evocative way with
scenery. If you’re careful you can really stretch the money and and that’s the one
secret I’ve found to trying to make a budget bigger than it feels like it is. I do always know the budget before I’m starting the project but generally I
don’t tend to let it affect my thinking too directly at the beginning
unless it is very extreme, you know, like unless the budget is literally like $200
and I know that I’m going to have to come up with some kind of very simple
idea or some kind of interesting material that’s going to be a single
gesture. Other than that, if it’s just kind of you know a normal budget which
can range from you know ten thousand to a hundred thousand dollars I would say
my process would probably be about the same. I feel like it’s always best to to
not be hampered by thoughts of the budget at first, for the very you know
just genesis of the idea, I try not to think about it too much and then you
know soon after that I’m trying to figure out how to make it work. Theater, I fear, is an inherently not very
eco-friendly artform. Sets tend to be thrown away at the end of a production.
I think everybody tries to be sustainable about it and and I do try to save stuff
and it was interesting working at Lincoln Center recently almost all the
props for the show were things that we pulled out of storage either Lincoln
Center had them in storage or some other theater did and we borrowed them and use
them but scenery inherently because it’s kind of a custom-made thing for a
particular production used in a particular way a lot of it gets thrown
away and I always feel bad about it and I don’t know the answer to it.
You would need enormous warehouse space to try to save all that stuff. The impermanence of set design versus architecture: what that means is
generally that after four weeks of performance, the entire set tends to be
thrown in a dumpster which always just feels like such a tragedy. I have a hard
time throwing anything away I think this is maybe the curse of the designers like
every little thing has like potentially useful and like “Oh well that could come
in handy someday,” or you know, so I tend to keep things and try to reuse things
as much as possible. Maybe this is also coming from architecture where like I’m
very interested in using real materials. I’d rather use a real material than have
a painted version of it. It’s kind of a struggle sometimes because sometimes
it’s much more practical to fake it. By the time an audience shows up I kind of
know what I think of the thing, usually. And you know and I’m interested what
other people think of it too but I don’t like it even if everybody else loves it
I’m kind of disgruntled about the project. Yeah there been other times
where I did a set maybe I did it quickly or maybe the director pushed me to do
something I didn’t want to do and I’m just not satisfied with it in the end
and if I feel like if I really love it even if everybody else hates it was
still worth it to me. [MUSIC]

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