What lurks in the unconscious mind of a set designer? Adrianne Lobel certainly found out while working on the Princeton, NJ-based McCarter Theatre's spring production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. The creation of the fleeting world of the play was very much the end of an imaginative process on Lobel's part. After talking to director (and adapter) Emily Mann and reading a translation of the play (not Mann's), Lobel did what she terms "mood paintings" that were based on each act--and not on the dimensions of the McCarter's stage. She wanted, she explains, "to get a sense of the emotional impact of each act."
The next step was meeting with Mann and then reading her translation, which was "just a revelation because it kind of was what I was doing, which was really clean and abstract and emotional without being melodramatic." Lobel then started drawing and interpreting her paintings in a more concrete manner--the drawings were still abstract, but attempted to take in the theatre's space. The sketches eventually became more and more specific, and Lobel built a model.
Why such an extensive process? Lobel explains, "When you enter a design, you have to free yourself up and there are many kinds of exercises that you can do to get into your unconscious--and get into your unconscious in a way that connects to your material. That's what I try to teach my students [at New York University] to do."
Though The Cherry Orchard refers to the soon-to-be razed trees of Mme. Ranevskaya's estate, only one of the four acts is set outdoors, and that takes place in a meadow near the orchard. The others are set indoors, in a former nursery for Acts One and Four and in a drawing room with a ballroom behind it for Act Three. Lobel interpreted the literal setting of the piece in an abstract set design that featured time-specific set pieces. Framed screens created both the interior and exterior settings: the screens, some empty, some translucent, and some opaque, flew into position to create the play's settings. One of the opaque screens featured a painted-on tree that appeared or disappeared depending on the lighting; the rest flew in and out of play to represent walls or trees as needed.
The play may signify the passing of a way of life as the cherry orchard is sold and cut down, but, for Lobel, this outing marked something of a return to regional theatre and to an old style of theatre. It was a return that left the designer singing the praises of the McCarter and its staff. "The McCarter is fantastic. It's one of the better-organized and run theatres that I have worked at in a long time. And that's a pleasure when you finally find a place that works the way you imagined theatre would work, and it's not just fantasy. It's like the old days; they make all the furniture and you can design the props and they get built."
For this production, the shop constructed, among other pieces, a child's wooden train set, a toy chest with folk painting on it, a bookcase with doors, and various end tables. The bookcase is the object of a dramatic monologue by one of the characters, who declares that a birthday party should be thrown in honor of its centenary. Lobel researched 19th-century Russian Biedermeyer furniture and furniture from the Pushkin Museum to find pieces that went back 100 years from the time the play was written.
Some pieces, such as a rocking chair for the nursery of Act One and a beautiful, large chandelier for the ballroom of Act Three, were not constructed by the shop. For the chandelier, Lobel visited AC Knickerbocker, a New York City staple for lighting designers in search of the perfect fixture. "That's where everyone goes for great lighting," says the designer..
Because the scenic design was abstract and suggestive but still set in the time period, Lobel knew the importance of set pieces. "Having that prop department to build stuff from my drawings that were right from research, I was able to control where the audience was and what the details were in such a vague and amorphous space."
Lobel also points out that the McCarter "has a pretty decent budget to work with, so instead of scrambling around trying to find what's free, you can actually say, this is what I want, and they will get it for you. It's so much less effort to be able to work that way--to just find the right thing and be able to afford it rather than what happens Off Broadway, where you find the perfect thing but you can't have it. You then have to find something else that's like it, but it's going to have to be donated, and you spend more of your time doing that than designing the show. That can be discouraging sometimes."
A translucent muslin drop hung upstage became a canvas for the colors of James F. Ingalls' lighting design. The scrim featured abstract, neutral-toned brushstrokes. Painted by Hudson Scenic Studios, the lines were, as Lobel points out, "varying degrees of opaque, so the light could come through them at some points and at others it couldn't." Lobel describes it as "an emotional abstraction of a surrounding orchard of trees." But because it was so abstract, the backdrop seemed to represent more than the orchard: the river reeds one of the characters refers to, the emotional mood of a given scene, and so on. Indeed, says Lobel, "I don't like it all to be spelled out. It will mean reeds to you and fire to someone else. And that's poetry."
Together with frequent collaborator Ingalls' lighting, the design was airy and fragile but not overemotional. Says Lobel, "It was all about things appearing and disappearing and being there and not being there and the ephemera and sadness of the play, that time and those people. You know they are all going to die and the world is going to change. But it wasn't just mushy atmosphere; it had hard-edged lines around it. And that's what gave it a contemporary, without being updated, feel."
The Cherry Orchard ran at the McCarter Theatre in March and April. Jennifer von Mayrhauser designed the costumes; David Budries, the sound.
In the ancient world, Cleopatra knew how to travel in luxury. Today, Houston Ballet's Cleopatra is moving around the US in style, thanks in part to Thomas Boyd's palatial set designs. (Costumes were designed by Judanna Lynn; original lighting design was by Timothy Hunter.) The ballet is a $1.2 million co-production with Boston Ballet and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and will be shared with those cities. Adirondack Scenic built the sets, which were painted by Michael Hagen Ltd., both in South Glens Falls, NY.
Egypt conjures up images of pyramids and sphinxes, but the historical Cleopatra was actually Greek. "The Egypt we all think of was as ancient to Cleopatra as she is to us," Boyd says, so one of his first challenges was how to marry the two styles and convey the feeling of the ancient world being conquered by the modern one. "In the throne room, I went right to the conventional--columns, hieroglyphics, lotus blossoms," he comments. "But in her bedroom, I did a 'post-modern' combination of state-of-the-art Greek influence and ancient Egypt."
One of the most striking things about the design is its skewed perspective, with the vanishing point upstage left. "When I started mapping out these columns, the challenge was to achieve the sense of scale that one associates with that architecture, and I thought, there's got to be an angle that's more interesting than just flat-on," Boyd explains. "So the sketches started appearing from off to one side."
Another consideration for Boyd was keeping a cinematic flow. Many scenes move quickly back and forth between Egypt and Rome. There is one horizon drop with a desert scene along the bottom, which can be covered up by set pieces for the Roman scenes; it can also be lit for any time of day or evening. In addition, there are column drops in the wings, which can be Roman or Egyptian style, depending on what set of column capitals flies in over them. But the main trick used is a painted scrim downstage, in front of which certain ballet transition scenes take place, while the next set pieces are put in position. "Initially it was to be a backdrop for Calpurnia, but in tech we started using it more and more, and it was able to do many things--fly in and out, travel on and off, and also go off at an angle, so it became a transition drop."
Other set pieces work double duty: Cleopatra's bath swivels around and becomes her throne, the palanquin for her procession into Rome becomes a barge platform. The barge has wings that start out parallel, running downstage, like the sides of a long boat, then are swung out to each side, revealing beautiful blue, turquoise, and gold paint, resembling an elaborate royal necklace. "I just went completely Expressionistic; it goes from this stylized boat and turns into jewelry," Boyd says.
Another dramatic gesture takes place in Act I, when Cleopatra declares herself Queen of Egypt and takes up the crook and flail, ancient symbols of the pharaohs. Her handmaidens attach the bottom of a drape to her shoulders, then the drop releases and floats down to the floor as a cape. A spectacular moment, but how to control the drape so that it doesn't plop down in a cloud of dust? "Working with Michael Hagen on this concept, we talked about weights of different fabrics," Boyd says, "and I jokingly said we'll put a parachute on it. He laughed, but later built into the border something like a pocket, which controlled the descent to the perfect speed."
Houston Ballet has an established relationship with Adirondack Scenic and Michael Hagen Ltd. "Michael's great about giving ideas on fabric choice, hardware, how things are rigged, how they're mechanized," says Boyd, "because of his having been trained in the great opera house tradition. I trust him to the point where I can say, what do you think? And his relationship with Adirondack is like that as well. They build it and he paints it, but if there are mechanics to work out or special needs that the built pieces require, he keeps an eye on things, because he's going to end up with it ultimately to give it the final look, so he's been great about supervising it. It's a huge advantage for me, I must say, so I really like using that shop."
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Boston The Tempest Set design: Scott Bradley Costume design: Clint E. B. Ramos Lighting design: John Malinowsky Sound design: J. Hogebuckle
Connecticut Repertory Theatre, Storrs, CT Sweet Charity/West Side Story Set design:/Crystal Tiala (Charity); Jessica Wade (Story) Costume design: David Howard (Story); Melissa Richards (Charity) Lighting design: Tim Hunter (Story); Ken Smith (Charity)
Geva Theatre Next Stage, Rochester, NY Women Who Steal Set design: John King, Jr Costume design: James Edaburn Lighting design: Derek A. Madonia Sound design: Dan Roach
Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT Man of La Mancha Set design: John Lee Beatty Costume design: Catherine Zuber & Fabio Toblini Lighting design: Pat Collins Sound design: Tony Meola
Hartford Stage Company, Hartford, CT Rough Crossing Set design: Tony Straiges Costume design: Susan Hilferty Lighting design: Chris Parry Sound design: John Gromada
Huntington Theatre, Boston King Hedley II Set design: David Gallo Costume design: Toni-Leslie James Lighting design: Donald Holder Sound design: Rob Milburn
North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, MA Honk (New England premiere) Set and costume design: Peter McKintosh Lighting design: Jeff Croiter Sound design: John A. Stone Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ Pippin Set design: Michael Anania Costume design: Gregg Barnes & Gene Meyer Lighting design: Kirk Bookman Sound design: David B. Smith
Philadelphia Theatre, PA Side Man Set design: Michael Brown Costume design: Janus Stefanowicz Lighting design Brian Aldous: Sound design: Peter Rydberg
Prince Music Theatre, Philadelphia St. Louis Woman (concert version) Scenic element and lighting design: Peter Jakubowski Sound design: Nick Kourtides
Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, RI Fall (world premiere) Set design: Eugene Lee Costume design: Marilyn Salvatore Lighting design: Yael Lubetsky Sound design: David Van Tieghem Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia La Cage Aux Folles Set design: John Farrell Costume design: Theoni V. Aldredge (original); Colleen McMillan (coordinator) Lighting design: Jeffrey Koger Sound design: Scott Smith
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, CT The Constant Wife Set design: Richard Ellis Costume design: Howard Tsvi Kaplan Lighting design: Susan Roth
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA Tonight at 8:30 Set design: Allen Moyer Costume design: Ilona Somogyi and Linda Cho Lighting design: Rui Rita