I love productions that break with tradition; you think you’ve seen it all, and then you see it for the first time. Working with imaginative directors, designer Monika Essen met challenges no previous designer of The Importance of Being Earnest and Little Shop of Horrors had ever confronted.

Going Wilde

When Julia Glander staged The Importance of Being Earnest in the round at the Tipping Point Theatre in Northville, MI, gone were the elegant furnishings associated with it. Taking off from Wilde’s description of the play as “exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy,” Glander reset the production in post-Victorian England, a more decadent period, and called on her design team to create a world that simply bubbled. Essen thought about circles for the scenic design. “The circle was a prevalent design in art deco. I painted the floor to look like an art deco painting,” she says, adding that the plan was for a turntable to help create movement, “like a carousel, with crystals hanging from it.”

Essen embodied the concept in a chandelier above the stage that glowed and released soap bubbles on cue. To do that, she searched a hobby store for round holiday ornaments that could be opened and filled. She selected several sizes, from 2" to 6" in diameter, all of clear plastic, then wired little candelabra bulbs and hung them inside. “You couldn’t see them, but they made all the bubbles glow,” she explains. Using ornament hooks, she wired the bubbles together in the shape of a chandelier. A bubble machine, operated from the lighting console, hung above the chandelier. From the seats in the house, where actors in Glander’s whimsical production sometimes wandered—Cecily watered a spectator along with her plants—it felt like being at a party. Wilde, who enjoins us to “treat all the trivial things of life serious and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality,” would have loved it. Costumes by Christianne Meyers, with lighting by Joel Klain, and sound by Quintessa Gallinat added to the delight.

A Moving, Talking Prop

When Little Shop of Horrors first opened Off-Broadway in 1982, the plant was male, imagined through an offstage voice, but when Essen designed sets and costumes for Carla Milarch’s production at the Performance Network Theatre (PNT) in Ann Arbor, MI, he was a she, and actor Naz Edwards created her on stage. A living plant would be more frightening, and “you could see her emotion, and you could see the more aggressive, sexual, real relationship,” says Essen, who had to find a way to build a living prop through costume and makeup.

Milarch’s production, influenced more by the darker Roger Corman film than the stage adaptation, benefited from this larger-than-life plant who could reach for her prey. Essen feared Edwards would have difficulty acting without the use of her hands, so she had to make sure she could use them to express her full ferocity. “She had to act with her upper torso and face, too. It was fantastic,” Essen says.

The headpiece, which Essen created as an afro-style hairdo from the 1970s, proved the most difficult part of the project. “I wanted the ‘70s look because the music is very groovalicious; a lot of it was ‘50s, but I felt the plant was really rooted in that era.” She wanted it to match headpieces on the puppets she created for other plants, smaller versions of the topiary, but Edwards also had to move in it. Essen began by creating a turban structure, padded it to protect the actor’s head, and wired plastic roping that was made in the ‘50s to create little flowers that she attached; the flowers matched the large leaves behind the plant. “I made that out of heavyweight canvas. I wired a Styrofoam base, painted it, and wired them on.

“I couldn’t really cover her face with any kind of mask. I used stylized makeup to make her look plantlike and alien at the same time,” adds Essen, who referenced sci-fi movies with female villains and didn’t want to recreate a Venus flytrap or any other particular plant. “The first things you saw were her big teeth, and having her face green accentuated them.” Evocative lights from Justin Lang and sound from Ken Faulk helped set the scenes.

Down by the Riverside

Essen says there’s a magic in Styrofoam and substances similar to it. She has built stones and boulders along a river, recreated a Giacometti sculpture, and created objects and walls with materials that could pass for brick, marble, steel, and wood on tiny budgets.

For Ed Nahhat’s production of 9 Parts of Desire at PNT, Essen used some real rock but couldn’t fill the entire area with stones and boulders, so plastered Styrofoam rocks did the trick. “Mixing the real and the fake can be effective,” says Essen, who placed real and fabricated rocks side by side; from the front row, it was impossible to tell which were real.

Former PNT technical director Janine Woods Thoma says the team built a framework with wood and covered it with bags of sand, to give the rubber pond liner a soft cushion, and held sections together with a lot of glue. They covered the chicken wire, used in creating the rocks, with muslin and a water-resistant product, Fossilcrete. A hose ran underneath the rocks from the upstage right corner to downstage left. The water had to stay clean, since actor Sarab Kamoo had to walk into the river; they treated it with chlorine, but the water carried some of the glue. When they removed the glue, they discovered spectators in the intimate space could see through the clear water to the liner. “We ended up dumping Elmer’s glue back into it,” Thoma recalls. “It was a little murky but more like real water, and you couldn’t see the liner.”

More Styrofoam Solutions

Woman Before A Glass, about Peggy Guggenheim, took place in the art collector’s gallery. For Malcolm Tulip’s production at PNT, Essen created furniture influenced by Jean Arp. She also recreated Giacometti’s sculpture Woman Standing but not before she bent the sculpture’s gender, this time from a woman to a man “to represent all of the men in her life.”

Trying to replicate something as skinny as a Giacometti piece proved difficult. Essen couldn’t have made the sculpture out of metal. Instead, she used wire, Styrofoam, paper mâché, and joint compound. She began the process by gluing pink insulation foam together with Liquid Nails, letting it dry for a day before drawing the figure she wanted to carve on it. Because she couldn’t carve skinny arms, she attached wire to both sides, and then covered the entire form with newspaper and glue, a mixture something like paper mâché. She began cutting with a saw but used an electric meat carving knife for most of the project and a hand carving knife for detail. “Tools don’t always have to be used for their intended purposes,” she suggests, explaining that she’s used a screwdriver or a meat carving knife where others might use expensive sculptor’s tools. “Dive in and chop away,” she advises. “You can always glue something back on or paint over it.”

Finally, she covered the developing sculpture with muslin, and then dipped it in a glue mixture. After that dried, she covered it again with joint compound to create a rough textured quality. Then she applied a sealer to prevent chipping. Using a base coat of a dark bronzy color and a second coat of a light turquoise color, and darkening it all with a brown glaze, she achieved the look of aged bronze. (Essen did costumes as well as sets; Mary Cole did the lighting, while Suzi Regan did the sound design.)

Similarly, after researching Rococo fireplaces for Milarch’s PNT production of Ice Glen at PNT, Essen hand carved one out of Styrofoam, covered it with light plaster, and then primed, painted, and gold-leafed it. “I’ve used these techniques in people’s homes, too,” says the designer, who doubles as an interior decorator.

Her downstage side of the piano for Tim Rhoze’s production of The Piano Lesson at PNT looked like carved wood, but it wasn’t. “I did a lot of research about what these pianos that slaves owned looked like and found all kinds of carvings,” says Essen, who knew that attaching a wood panel would make the piano heavy and damage it when removed for other shows. It also would be much more difficult than carving on Styrofoam. Using small carving tools, she roughed the edges of meticulously crafted carvings, so it would like someone with limited talent had chopped away at wood. “It was folk art that a slave had worked on,” Essen notes. Since the detail was tiny and minute, she didn’t plaster over this, but sealed it and then painted it.

For Carla Milarch’s production of the Joseph Zettelmaier original play, Language Lessons, Essen created a stone fireplace. For David Magidson’s rolling production of God of Carnage for the Jewish Ensemble Theatre and PNT, Essen created a giant modern fireplace, again out of Styrofoam and plaster. “Everything we do on the stage is built around it being disposable or reusable,” says Essen.

Essen is so adept at finding low-budget solutions that she has used them when doing big budget work. Two one-act operas at the Michigan Opera Theatre required steel poles. “Giant steel poles would have been hard to put up,” she says. But creating poles by filling Sonotube concrete forms with foam instead of concrete, then painting them to look like steel, made the build and load-in much less labor intensive.

“I don’t ever let the constraints of budget formulate my ideas,” reflects Essen, who would rather build a fake fireplace than buy a real one, and builds costumes, even when doing modern plays. “If you see a real fireplace on stage, there’s no theatricality in that.”

Davi Napoleon is a theatre historian and journalist who writes widely about the arts for national and regional publications. Her features on design have been running in Live Design and its antecedents since 1977. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theate.