Problem

Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman unfolds in an interrogation room where a writer is investigated because the plots of his gruesome stories resemble recent crimes. Scenic designer Sara Ossana says the Kafka-esque play is often used in college design classes. “Professors assign it as a design problem dealing with the nature of the world of the imagination and where that world leads in real experiences…The play is about the value of the written word as art and the separation of the artist and the man.”

When Ossana and director Peter Sampieri started talks for a production at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, research revealed that designers usually highlight this separation by showing scenes from the stories above the “real” characters, or behind a scrim, creating a filmic quality, but as Ossana worked on her own model, that approach didn't feel quite right.

Sampieri says that, when he works with Ossana, he doesn't come up with a production concept and then just send her away to do the set. “Sara and I have a unique process,” he says. “For instance, we collect a lot of research together for a very long time. This includes any visual research but also music, film, video, and fiction. We'll sit together with sketches or a white drawing board and literally try and begin building the model together.

“So when she came in with an idea for The Pillowman that she thought I wanted, but neither of us liked, we literally ripped the model apart and started again with a bare stage,” Sampieri recalls. After testing several ideas, Ossana remained unsatisfied. “We were designing a very well-known and successful current play. Many former productions approached the scenic elements in a similar fashion,” she says. “I always try to push myself and to push the discipline of design, so I questioned what I proposed initially. If it's not pushing the play, it's just scenery.”

An idea began to gel. How would she convince the director, cast, and artistic director “that the direction I wanted to take the show in visually was a good one?”

Sampieri says he shared her view that they should go beyond a “received production design. We really wanted to approach the material anew.” He encouraged her to go off on her own this time to see what she would find. “When she came back, she completely surprised me with a vision of the set that was totally unexpected and a little scary,” he says.

Ossana saw the stories encroaching on the protagonist. “Initially, the most exciting thing for me was the bleeding together of the two worlds,” she says. “I proposed that the main character, fiction writer Katurian, was so in his mind that, when he speaks about his stories, they come into the room.” In one story, for instance, spectators discover the writer's parents had locked his brother in a room, torturing him in order to make Katurian a better writer. “This led to Katurian killing his parents, and that's usually flashed through scrim,” says Ossana, who wanted the child to slaughter his parents in front of the audience. In another story within the play, a girl named Little Jesus is crucified by her foster family. “I wanted her to be crucified in front of everyone.”

Although they had started the design process early, Ossana went back to the drawing board with just a week left before rehearsals started, also just one week before set building would begin. How would Ossana design a set that would allow Sampieri to bring the action into the interrogation room, where the play is set, and allow the writer's characters to interact with him?

Solution

Drawing on her background in interior architecture, Ossana decided to create “magic furniture.” Actors portraying story characters would enter through the metal office cabinets. Once in, they would interact with Katurian. “It made Peter come up with endless staging possibilities,” she says.

Sampieri says Ossana's new design “didn't change my concept much. In fact, it heightened and sharpened it. I wanted to blur the lines between fact and fiction in the play even further. I felt that the characters in Katurian's stories really needed to come off the page, or walk through the screens as it were, and not just stay safely upstage in a light box. I wanted there to be a layering of events in staging and design so that the harsh world of Katurian's prison and interrogation were frequently interrupted and invaded by his imagination and vice versa.

“So when Sara came in and wanted to set the whole thing in Katurian's drab police interrogation room, I was skeptical,” he continues. Then she showed him “how that room could morph and change — how creatures, characters, and objects could emerge from and disappear into the file drawers and cabinets and how a crucifix that looked like a door molding for two-thirds of the play, popped off at the right moment for ‘The Little Jesus’ story.”

Ossana adds that, after Little Jesus is crucified, the script calls for her to be buried in a glass coffin, for which the designer decided the girl would come out of a large standup two-door cabinet. By taking the front facing off a drawer and building a Plexiglas coffin that would fit within, the girl could enter from the cabinet, and the coffin could roll back in with the girl inside. “There was a single piece in the center of an industrial door, and a cross popped out,” says Ossana. “Pegs were holding it into the door. The girl was forced to carry the cross in a circle until she collapsed.” Ossana adds that a Fresnel, strategically placed on the back wall, created an evocative backlight on the coffin. “We also placed lights in the grates on the floor to uplight the coffin while the girl was inside.” Credit goes to lighting designer Richard VanVoris, costume designer Marilyn Salvatore, and sound designer Charles Cafone for the full effect.

“Gradually, we came upon a use of the room that ultimately stayed within our budget, was right for our intimate space, and used a lot of very old-fashioned theatre tricks, like magic cabinets, to make something entirely new,” says Sampieri. “We eventually ended up with a unit set. It transformed a lot, but it was always in some way set against the backdrop of the very gritty and real world of that totalitarian police state — of that drab, gray room. So it put a lot more of the burden on me, and on my staging, and on how it was used to create contrast and difference. The biggest change had to be that Katurian, just by the nature of spatial proximity to other actors, had now become a character in his own stories. Because he couldn't just sit in a chair and be a passive narrator, he had to do a lot more, become more involved in the physical world of the fantasies.”

Sampieri was happy to change his staging to accommodate Ossana's new set. “I think that, as any artist, you have to constantly question today what you thought you knew yesterday,” he says. “It's all a part of a process of refining and focusing down into the best way to express an idea. In this case, that bravery in our process on The Pillowman became both the problem and its solution.”