Scenographer Jason Simms has an interesting rule of thumb: “There isn’t anything I don’t want to do,” he says of his design career. “You have to be open to all possibilities. Otherwise you niche yourself into one area. When designing for theatre, I feel strongly about not locking yourself into one aesthetic. Be more of a chameleon, and serve the play or the performance as best as you can.
Winner of the 2012 USITT Rising Star Award, Simms took a year off after receiving his undergraduate degree from Cornish College of the Arts and before his graduate studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, which he completed in 2009. During that year off, he jumpstarted his career, serving as resident designer for a season at Seattle Musical Theatre (formerly Civic Light Opera) and designing five out its seven productions. “That gave me some great hands-on experience in the field before going to grad school,” Simms recalls.
While not averse to the classics, Simms quite enjoys the challenges of working on a new play. “You can ask the playwright questions. Sometimes there is something written that is impossible to achieve in a naturalistic space, so you need to work that through, knead the play a little,” he says, citing a recent production of The Whale, directed by Hal Brooks at The Denver Center Theatre Company, as an example. “Playwright Sam Hunter was in the room with us. The design influenced his writing; it was a give and take, which ultimately makes for a better story, something that happens when the set becomes not just a set or a background but a living space where a story can take place. The story can be richer. It takes on a new dimension in a way.
As for his design process, Simms explains, “I don’t really do sketches of sets anymore. I used to, but they discouraged us from doing it in grad school because a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional idea is a ‘lie.’ If anything, I do a quick rough model or sketch model for a director.” His sketch models are done in 1/4" scale, and the finished models are in 1/2" scale.
One of my most fruitful productions to date was the set for A Bright New Boise, also with playwright Sam Hunter, for Partial Comfort Productions,” Simms adds. “It was our first collaboration and the first time I felt, as a designer, that I could work hand-in-hand with the playwright and the director to really create a world and not just a set for a play.” See more of Simms’ work at www.jasonsimmsdesign.com.