KLARA ZIEGLEROVA: Set Designer "You don't want to remember there was a set," Klara Zieglerova says about her first Broadway assignment, the reprisal of Lily Tomlin's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, opening in November. "It's about Lily Tomlin, not about the design."
Tomlin plays 12 characters in this update of the Tony-winning show, sometimes in virtuoso combinations of two and three. In May Tomlin and Jane Wagner, the show's writer-director, invited Zieglerova to Maine to see a test-drive performance at Bowdoin College. At lunch the next day, they asked her reaction to the no-set setting of blacks and borders.
"I could almost say there was nothing there," the designer told them, "except I wouldn't say that at all. I would say there was too much there. The legs were distracting. If you sit on the side, you see into them, they catch light, you are aware of drapery. I want to see Lily in a space that doesn't end, a space without corners."
Some of Zieglerova's initial sketches included specific astronomical imagery of planets and wormholes, but, typical of her work, she abstracted the environment down to its essence. In the end, Zieglerova placed Tomlin in an all-black void, with a glossy black disk that floats against a curved velour surround and a semi-gloss portal.
For Daniel Fish's production of The Real Thing at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, she adhered to the same steely purity. "We started with a set that was much more real, more accommodating. We were looking into an architectural space with lots of complicated hallways and staircases," she says.
Throughout the play they wanted the room to get bigger and bigger until the main character was left in a vast space by himself. But how to get there? "At one point, we looked at the final image that we liked and said, `This is it, this is his landscape for the whole play.' " The show's multiple environments were all played against two towering neutral walls and a bare raked floor. The actors moved five chairs and a table to suggest changes of locale.
Zieglerova's interest in the interplay of planes and volumes may stem from her background. She is a native of Prague, where her father is a graphic designer and her mother is an architect. She was preparing for a graphic design career at the Academy of Applied Arts and doing sculpture on the side when the 1989 revolution opened up international contacts. Fluent in English, she met a theatre professor visiting the Academy from Miami University of Ohio. After seeing her work, he invited her to enter Miami's MA scene design program.
After a year in America, she headed back to Prague, completed her studies in 1993, and began working as a graphic artist. But having learned just enough about scene design to intrigue her, she decided it would be healthy to go to a different country, speak a different language, and concentrate on a different field.
While at a graphics conference in West Virginia, she called Ming Cho Lee at Yale and asked to show him her portfolio. "I said, `I have a fine career in Prague being a graphic designer, but this is what I would really love to do,' " Zieglerova says.
After getting her MFA in 1996, Zieglerova spent nine months assisting Lee. She then worked a year as an associate designer for Tony Walton on 1776 at the Roundabout and Major Barbara at the Irish Rep. Charlotte Moore, artistic director of the Irish Rep, asked her to design The Shaughraun in 1998.
Since then, the 31-year-old designer has been juggling Off Broadway productions (eight since 1999) with out-of-town assignments, including the Old Globe in San Diego, the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, the McCarter in Princeton, Florida Stage, and the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in West Virginia.
For Mirandolina at the Pearl Theatre, Zieglerova expressed director Lou Jacob's notion of women as both earthy and feminine with a giant nude torso obscured behind a white scrim wall. Openings in the wall were covered with narrow-slat Venetian blinds (the play takes place in Venice). Closed, the blinds continued the wall. Raised to varying heights, they created windows and doors. Tilted at different angles, they went transparent when lights came up behind the scrim. As the blinds shifted configurations, what appeared to be hills and valleys against a sky were gradually revealed to be a landscape of the female body.
Zieglerova says she doesn't want to create a setting that is "an illustration of where it's happening, that shows you what you can read in the playbill." When the audience walks into a theatre, she wants them to think, "I wonder what is going to happen here? What would be possible to happen there?"
Is she a European designer? "I do think I have a different sensibility," she says. "Americans tend to be more literal. I don't take things literally. If you work in film, you are expected to deliver a certain kind of realism. In theatre, you can be more than real. You can introduce some element that is unreal, that makes a statement. I like to enhance reality."