1. As a contemporary scenic designer, how do you approach a period play such as The Heiress, which you recently designed for a revival on Broadway at The Walter Kerr?
I had seen the Lincoln Center production, starring Cherry Jones, and thought it was extraordinary. Naturally, I read the play several times. I always start with a lot of research on a period, and as I work on the design as a contemporary designer, I know that I will be attracted to certain parts of the research and not others. Contemporary period and tastes influence and color every so-called “period” design, whether by conscious choice or not. As evidence, you need only look at some of the big period movies made in the 1970s and check out the hair and lipstick, or the type fonts on the building signs, or the color palettes, and you will see the style of the ‘70s everywhere. All of those features helped those movies feel alive and immediate to their audiences.
2. I understand you visited historic homes on Washington Square here in New York.
The director, Moises Kaufman, and I visited several period homes on Washington Square, some by invitation and some spontaneously. We went to the Merchant House, which, though not actually on Washington Square, is only a few blocks away, and has been preserved in its original state since the 1850s. I was struck by how plain much of it was. We also went on pre-arranged tours of a number of houses on the north side of Washington Square where the Sloper family would have lived. Those houses are now owned by NYU and are mostly used as offices. The detail in a few of those is quite luxurious, with really wonderful period, neo-classical features.
We did have one curious experience. There are a few NYU-owned buildings still used as residences, and we saw a man emerge from his home. We introduced ourselves and asked if we might take a look at his house. He warned us that the house had been altered and would not represent what would have been true in the 1850s. In fact, the tall-ceilinged living room was only about 10' deep, which felt odd, and there was a tiny kitchen off to the side. He explained that NYU had built dorms on the site, but because they were landmarked, and the designation only applied to the first 10', the building had been chopped off at that depth. He opened a steel door in the back, and sure enough, there was a low-ceilinged, fluorescent lit hallway with dozens of doors coming off it, that ran the entire length of the block to the right and the left.
3. How true to period is the set in reality?
It is, and it isn’t. Everything in it is based in the reality of the period, and yet virtually everything has been molded or altered or pushed to fit the mood I was trying to create, which was one of both great wealth and grandeur combined with great restraint. The Sloper family has an almost puritanical distaste for vulgarity, so conveying the wealth without offending their sensibilities is a challenge.
4. What shop did you work with, and how are the set pieces fabricated?
Global Scenic in Bridgeport, CT built the set. It is made out of many different materials. With the exception of the lace we used for the walls, I was not particularly concerned with the type of materials they used, rather that they created the shapes I had drawn and painted it as I had the model, something they did very beautifully.
5. What about working with the LD?
I worked very closely with the lighting designer, David Lander. He and I have collaborated several times before, and he was very active in helping figure out how to light it most effectively. In particular, I wanted an effect of the lace walls dissolving into sky at the end as Catherine ascends the stairs for the final time.