Using the Written Word as Inspiration, Set Designer Christine Jones Finds Off Broadway Success

I asked Christine Jones to stop by the office and show me samples of her work, and what does she bring me? Words! Pages and pages of words: text from a play, quotes from famous and not-so-famous people, blocking diagrams, poems, notes to herself, notes to a director.

What the hell's going on here? After all, visual artists, by and large, are more comfortable with images than with the written word, aren't they? Wouldn't most designers rather build models than build sentences? What's the old cliché? If you want to explain something to them, it goes, draw a picture!

That's why I was astonished when Jones cracked open her portfolio and all these words poured out. Turns out there's a method to her madness: It was the bulk of research and inspiration she'd amassed for the current Off Broadway production of Lanford Wilson's Burn This, part of a new process that eschews a strict adherence to a visual concept in the early stages of a project (no set models or sketches) to one involving the above ingredients, plus the usual assortment of charcoal sketches and research photos. It's a method of building the groundwork for a project that the designer has only really begun using extensively in the last several months. Judging from her recent work, it is a method that has served her very, very well.

Jones' profile has risen significantly this season thanks to a raft of very different plays, which include Debbie Does Dallas Off Broadway, Arthur Miller's latest, Resurrection Blues at the Guthrie, the latest from Warren Leight, No Foreigners Beyond This Point, at Baltimore's Center Stage, and the aforementioned revival of Wilson's play. The latter, part of the Signature Theatre's season-long tribute to the playwright directed by James Houghton, a longtime collaborator with Jones, was one of the big hits of the fall season Off Broadway and continues its run at the Union Square Theatre.

The basis for this process is quite simple. “I really believe it begins with the text and the bodies on the stage,” Jones explains. “What are they doing? What's the event of the moment, either the emotional event or the physical event?

“So I start at the beginning of the play and write down as I go along,” continues the designer, a native of Montreal who received her graduate degree from NYU in 1992. “I'll write down the phrases and the lines that jump out at me, and begin a kind of dialogue, either with myself or the director. As I'm writing the text, other thoughts come into my mind and I'll write those down too.”

Leafing through her notes, all written in marker on white 11" × 17" paper, Jones picks out chosen bits of dialogue from the play. Burn This is the tale of a dancer named Anna, mourning the sudden death of Robbie, one of her roommates, who ends up falling in love with the deceased's brother, Pale. The story takes place in the roommates' loft in SoHo. Jones zeroes in on a conversation between Anna's boyfriend at the start of the play, Burton, and Anna's other roommate, Larry, about the camp film Lust in the Dust. “This is Burton's line: ‘It can't happen [therefore it] cannot be a good movie.’ I started to realize what this subtext was, which I wrote here: ‘Burton has the vision; lacks the faith?’ He doesn't on some level have a romantic vision of life. Whereas Larry, who's the one quoting Lust in the Dust, he has the vision and the faith, and he takes the risk, because he's the one that actually brings Pale and Anna together in the end.”

Just the Facts

What you don't see in these pages are particularly descriptive words or phrases, something Jones says she has consciously avoided. “I don't even go there. That's a consistent part of my process, really just starting with the basic text. Sometimes I think it's like dating — if you skip too fast through the early steps, you miss the opportunity to go through the other steps.”

The next step usually involves assembling quotes that in some way reflect ideas expressed in the play or simply resonate on some level for Jones. As part of her research, the designer visited the studios of several dancers; in one space she found a poem written on the wall, “A Chance for the Soul,” by Carl Dennis, which contains the line “Am I leading the life that my soul, mortal or not, wants me to lead is a question that seems at least as meaningful as the question am I leading the life I want to live.” Other quotes Jones amassed included everyone from Kierkegaard to Audrey Hepburn (now there's a duo).

After that, Jones starts to get a concept of how the people onstage are living in the space. “I literally start at the top of the play — sometimes I'll use letters for their names or sometimes a black dot — and just track through when this person enters and this person exits. And I start to be able to feel it; does it feel as if they enter from stage left or stage right?”

For Burn This, such a process revealed something important to Jones. “Looking at this schematic, I realized that it was really like a choreographer's blueprint, and the way Lanford Wilson composed his scenes is just how a pas de quatre might happen. Anna is actually choreographing a pas de quatre, and the play is a pas de quatre. You never know what's going to be revealed, but there's always something beautiful and essential.”

The last steps, before the actual model building, usually entail photographic research, and charcoal drawings, which gives Jones a sense of color and texture. “The drawings are not the set,” she notes. “I'm just trying to let the play reveal things to me; it might be about color, or it might be about something else. What I'm trying to do is not reduce the play but distill it to the piece the director and I connect to the most, and use that as a touchstone to design. Because once you get into the model it's easy to get distracted and lost in the visuals.”

After driving around New York with her director, taking pictures of building exteriors, and from visiting people's lofts, Jones realized that in New York, anything goes. “There are so many variations,” she says. “I realized we had the freedom to personalize the space and still make it believable. Working in model we pieced together elements that felt right (the full-length windows, Anna's room with Robbie's loft above it, a lived-in kitchen area), until we arrived at a whole space that seemed like it had the potential to cradle the play.”

To give the set “authenticity and heart,” Jones rented furniture from one of the dancers she had visited, and had the cast and crew bring in personal items and photographs of family and friends, which she used to cover the stage refrigerator. “In the end I realized that the set echoes places I have lived,” she says.

The finished set is one which New York Times critic Ben Brantley said was “designed with knowing detail…that tellingly summons the wide-open spaces common to converted lofts in Manhattan. It is an easy place both to keep your distance and to lose sight of others.”

A Stenographer?

Jones' process makes sense when you take her background into account. “I didn't do much visual arts when I was in high school and college,” she says. “I wanted desperately to be a dancer.” That didn't pan out, so after high school in Montreal, Jones attended CEGEP, sort of a junior college, and got involved in a theatre company led by Victor Garaway, who specialized in movement-oriented theatre. She began studying English literature at Concordia University while continuing to work with Garaway. “He's the one who suggested I be a scenographer,” she says. “I said, ‘a stenographer?’ But literally, as he told me what it was all about, I thought, this sounds great. I dropped out of my classes and signed up for the theatre department. But I'm still glad I had that earlier education, because I had almost a year and a half of English lit, philosophy, psychology, and mythology before I got into the theatre program.”

After graduating from what Jones calls a “phenomenal” undergraduate program at Concordia, she attended NYU for graduate work. She counts John Conklin, one of her NYU instructors, as a major influence; it was in his classes that she first began writing down lines from text, which served as the basis for the process she now employs.

Though she worked briefly after graduation as an assistant under Tony Walton, whom she calls another key influence, lightning struck twice quickly for Jones. First, Mark Lamos of Hartford Stage decided he wanted somebody young and new to design a production of Richard III, and had seen her work at NYU's annual design show. Around the same time, Joseph Chaikin was mounting a production of Texts for Nothing at the Public with Bill Irwin, and was also looking for a new face; he called NYU and was given Jones' name. “On the same day I got a call from Hartford Stage and from the Public Theatre saying, could you come in and interview for this job. I couldn't believe it. I'd done nothing to make it happen, I was just very lucky.”

Jones' luck has continued. Her Broadway debut, Julie Taymor's visually sumptuous fairy tale The Green Bird, earned her Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations. In New York alone this season, Jones also designed both Debbie Does Dallas and Ghosts. The former, a staged version of the porn classic (without the naughty bits — it's now the story of a girl chasing her dreams!) was originally presented during the New York Fringe Festival. It has been recast and reconceived for its current incarnation at the Jane Street Theatre; Jones, for her part, recast the theatre itself, transforming the entire space into a mélange of pre-Giuliani Times Square and Monday Night Football. And while Jones was not able to employ her new process on this production, her research did take her (and the entire, all-female design team of lighting designer Shelly Sabel, costume designer Juman Malouf, and sound designer Laura Grace Brown) to area strip clubs; she also tried to adopt the same close collaborative relationship with Debbie director Ericka Schmidt that she'd had with her other longtime directors, Jim Houghton and Daniel Fish.

Schmidt welcomed the opportunity. “It was the first time I'd worked with her, and at first I was a little thrown off by how aggressively verbal she is,” says Schmidt. “But she's a true collaborator. She doesn't just build the set and then leave. She's also a tremendous researcher. My thesis for the play was a rodeo/porno/football/circus, and she took those four words and created a visual vocabulary for what that means. And also an actual definition. We'd been talking about those four words for a year, and she came into the first rehearsal and had actually defined it: ‘A public exhibition of skill and sex in which players defend their goals in an arena of fun, excitement, and uproar.’ I still have it up on my wall.”

Fish has worked with Jones not only on Ghosts, but also on The Importance of Being Earnest at the McCarter, Twelfth Night at the Shakespeare, and True Love at the Zipper, among other projects. He suspects their long, successful collaboration is partly the result of their common respect for the written word. “For someone like me, who's deeply interested in language, that's just the connection we share,” he says. “Very often in the process we'll just sit and read the play, and usually it's not early, usually it's when we're having a difficult time, where we've come up against a wall and we'll say, well, let's just read it. When we did a production of Twelfth Night in DC four years ago we were doing that as late as three weeks into rehearsal. But certainly the concern for language is very important.”

Her close collaboration with directors, her strong affinity for language, even her association with designer/director Tony Walton, begs the question: does Jones entertain thoughts of directing herself? “I feel like I'm in an ideal situation because I don't think I'd be able to direct actors as well as the directors I've worked with, and just deal with all the pressures and responsibilities of a director. Being a designer is an ideal position because you get to be involved from the beginning to the very last moment in a significant way.”

Jones expanded upon this thought — and many others, I might add — in a long email she sent following our meeting. Filled with additional ideas on some of her recent projects, the invaluable role lighting designers play in her work, even quotes from Rilke, Andrej Tarkovsky, and Audrey Hepburn (there she is again), it was a fitting extension of our meeting and a heartfelt self-examination of her role as a designer, not to mention a glimpse of her process in action. One quote in particular seems an especially appropriate coda here:

“Stories make dents in you. Being a designer is like being a mold. You pour the plaster of the story into you, give it time to harden, then crack yourself open to reveal the shape it left behind.”

Not bad for a stenographer.