Finding Her Tribe: A Conversation with Rachel Hauck

by Howard Sherman
Designer Rachel Hauck
Designer Rachel Hauck

Glance at the current resume of set designer Rachel Hauck and under “Recent Off-Broadway” you’ll find more than 50 productions. Look at “Recent Regional” and you’ll find yet another 50 shows. Under Broadway, no “recent” is required, because Hauck has but three credits, but what impressive credits they are and one ends with a Tony Award. Her first Broadway credit was for John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons. The other two are for productions that have been running simultaneously during much of 2019. One is Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, for which Hauck created an amalgam of the VFW halls that Schreck frequented in order to compete in essay contests in her teen years. The other is the Tony Award winning Best Musical of 2019, Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, for which Hauck won the Tony for Best Scenic Design of a Musical. Less than a month after her Tony, Hauck sat down with Stage Directions to talk about her career. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Where did you go to college?
I went to UCLA. I got an undergraduate degree in theater, a liberal arts degree in theater, and that’s it. Because I was interested in design rather than acting as somebody entering college, a lot of doors were open. From the jump I was very interested in design. Some programs were interested in me, and at the time all I wanted was to go to a conservatory, but my parents quite wisely wanted me to go to a liberal arts school. I think they were very hopeful I would find a reasonable profession; they certainly wanted me to have a backup in my pocket. But: what are you doing plays about? You’re doing plays about the world, you’re doing plays about literature, you’re doing plays about history, so I’m very, very grateful for that liberal arts education. 

Were there design courses at UCLA that you were taking?
No. There was a drafting class. I learned the basics of drafting, but truly the basics. I did not really learn how to draft on a computer. I designed shows while I was undergraduate at college. They were small shows. Every one was required to do some design element, and of course, I would do the sets. Those were the first times where I had to figure out how to really draft something. We had help, for sure. I crashed the class with the brilliant Bob Israel when he came to teach the grad students at UCLA. I frustrated him to no end because I didn’t know how to think about anything. He really taught me so much about how to think about things globally as a designer, an extraordinary amount. 

I was constantly looking at other people’s drawings. Whenever I was in a TD’s office and left alone, I would look at whoever else’s drawings were there. I’d never known how to do a proper paint elevation, which I finally figured out. I assisted a set designer named Martyn Bookwalter in LA, and he taught me how to make models when I was a junior.

Do you draw?
I don’t draw very well. I build models. I took an incredible sculpture class at UCLA that was super formative, with Nancy Rubins, who is an extraordinary artist. She taught me a fundamental piece of my aesthetic which was teaching materials not to be representative of something else, but to speak on their own terms. It was an incredible lesson about sculpture and space and honesty and material. That really helped define my aesthetic for a long time. It’s still very, very fundamental to how I look at material and space and mass. In Constitution, there is a massive fake concrete beam that is just gently oppressive over the world. So, I’m manipulating the environment in ways that are fundamentally shaped by these moments at UCLA when I was sort of digging around. 

Did you go directly from UCLA into the internship with the Television Academy?
Yes. I worked in television for about three years, and it was really like grad school. Because you’re making scenery so fast, even as a PA or an intern or a very small part of those departments I learned an enormous amount. If you get that internship, it is like the door to the industry is wide open. The first month was in soap operas, the second month was in sitcoms. For the soap opera portion, I was on the CBS lot with The Bold and the Beautiful. The second month was sitcoms, and Dahl Delu was the production designer. He was working on three shows at the time – Cheers, Dear John and the first season of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I was an intern on those shows and was hired to stay on as the art department PA for The Fresh Prince, where I worked for a couple of years.

After that experience, did you think about grad school?
I didn’t really. I wasn’t eager to go back to school. I had three years in television with doing theater on the side, and it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to do both. I needed to choose. I loved television, but theater’s my medium. So, I did that thing that kids do – took a backpack, went to Europe, walked around for three months, came out of the closet, reorganized my life, and then came back and started working exclusively in theater in LA.

My next level [of advancement] came when I fell in with The Actors’ Gang in LA. It was an incredible, fearless, rule-breaking company. Anything you can make happen, you can do. You just have to rebuild the theater when it’s over. I also started to work on new plays at the Taper. They had an incredible new play development program that, under Gordon Davidson, they had a number of artists in on Mellon Grants, including Lisa Peterson, Chay Yew, Luis Alfaro, Diane Rodriguez, John Belluso, all of whom were heading and building a community of writers.

They were doing the New Works Festival under Bob Egan, and I met all those people. Then Lisa and I became a couple. I got the girlfriend ticket to tag along for an awful lot of new work, writers working on new work, and being in the room with writers as they were working on new plays, just as sounding boards for each other. That’s where I started to learn how to talk about new plays. 

How did your design philosophy evolve?
It’s purely discovered and self-taught. I think it’s heavily influenced by the artists with whom I’ve worked. The aesthetic has just kind of formed itself between the extremes of The Actors’ Gang aesthetic and the Mark Taper Forum aesthetic which are such different ways through the world.

When I came to New York, when Lisa finally said we should really be in New York, when we were here full-time and I started to fully invest in New York, I understood completely what she meant in terms of anything that you’re interested in artistically is here. Your tribe is here some where, you’ve got to find them. In the city, anything you want to talk about, any style, all of those things are here.

How did you find your tribe?
I got very lucky. When Wendy Goldberg started to work at the O’Neill, she needed a new designer to do their dream design process, and somebody thought we might be a good match. We’d never met. We spoke on the phone for about half an hour, and I was basically begging her to let me come do that job with her. I loved that job. I was at The O’Neill for ten summers. I worked with eight playwrights and directors every summer.

To be in a room with a playwright while they are forming new work is an incredible opportunity. To help them to see, to reflect back to them in a way what they’re talking about. Designers look at plays so uniquely. We are looking at plays globally. We’re looking at the whole, but also the intensely personal, because you can’t figure out what shoes somebody’s going to wear if you don’t really know who they are. Wendy always says [of The O’Neill], quite correctly, the play’s not done when it gets here, and it’s not done when it leaves.

There are these incredible conversations you get to have with a playwright in which you ask the director to just listen for the first hour then you let them speak after that. That opportunity when a playwright says, ‘I don’t know how this world will look, I don’t know how it feels, I don’t know what it is. I know what the characters say.’ Then when you start to speak to them about what’s important to them about that world, they of course, absolutely know what it is. To ask them to articulate it and by doing that, begin to further define what their own world is, whether or not it becomes a couch on stage is not the question.
Cast on the set of Tiny Beautiful Things at the Public Theater.

You now teach. You’ve taught in several places.
I have taught all different levels of students. The first time I ever taught anything I went in for Chris Barreca when he went on his sabbatical from Cal Arts, and I taught graduate students. Chris Akerlind was there at the time. I was so nervous. Those guys all trained at Yale. They are very, very, very brilliant designers. They called me and said, probably partly because I was local and I was there, but they said, “Will you come in and teach?” I said, “I didn’t take these classes. I don’t know what happens in these classes. How will I teach these classes?” They said “Well, the brilliant thing is, you won’t do it how we do it. Obviously, you’re good at what you do. Trust that and go teach.”

I also taught undergrads which is a very different level and kind of teaching. They’re in a very different place in their thinking – how they’re processing and what they’re looking at. I ask the questions of them that I ask myself. I choose to teach design by teaching great writing, so I bring in the most exciting writers that I know. Then I ask them to look at the story problems and begin to think about how that play looks and moves and feels. I have developed for myself a very specific process that I follow. I’ve learned a lot from my assistants and my associates. I have a very specific way that I move through the work. 

Can you describe how you move through the work?
My process is that I will read the play a couple of times and then not do anything until I’ve spoken with the director, because, of course, there are 500 different ways a play can look and honor every word that’s in those stage directions. I don’t want to think about how it works until I know what the director is interested in and if the playwright is around, what they’re thinking about as they’ve written it. Then I go away. We’ll have a two-hour cup of coffee and talk about the characters, and eventually, maybe, whether there should be a couch. It never starts with that. Then I go away and do research. I do very specific research on all of the worlds in that play. I don’t know how to abstract something if I don’t know what it is. If I make up what it is, I’m bluffing, and then the work’s not as strong.

When I started, it was all paper copies, so I would sift a pretty massive imagery search, 200-300 images, and sit with the director. The director would start to flip through, and in the first five images, they would be very careful about whether they felt it was right or not right, what they liked, what they didn’t like. By the time you get through that stack, it’s a way to trick the conversation out of the director. Now it’s much more boiled down, but that’s how I started.

Then I make a very specific model of the theater that shows you exactly what the architecture is of that room, and then we start to work with the space inside of it. I’m a very firm believer in finding a way to get energy across the proscenium. Very rarely am I interested in something being contained. Hadestown’s a perfect example of that. That involves being aware of what the architect has done, being aware of how the room works, where the focus is. It all develops together.
Shakespeare in Love at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In looking at your resume, you have done a lot of your work with female directors. Is that something that’s been a conscious choice?
It’s the women directors who have given me a chance. Straight up. Those opportunities have come because it’s the women who have believed, they are the ones that gave me the opportunity. It was years before I realized that men actually weren’t hiring me very much. A male director pointed it out to me one day. It’s a really interesting moment to have, and in the last five to seven years its changed. Bill Rauch [at Oregon Shakespeare Festival] has always been a champion of mine but it’s pretty recent that I have been invited to work with the guys.

I think it was Anaïs [Mitchell] who talked about this so beautifully, saying it matters who’s making the decisions. It matters who’s spending the money. It matters that our Hadestown producers are women and the producer of John Leguizamo’s show is also a woman. I do not mean to suggest that men are not interested in giving women opportunities. I just think that it matters who is making the decisions about where these resources are going to go. It is 100% true that these opportunities have come to me through women.

What kind of advice would you give to aspiring designers about developing as artists and about coming into the field?
See as much work as you can. Be in the room for as much work as you can. Doing anything, I mean anything and find your tribe. Find the people who excite you. Find the people whose ideas invigorate your own ideas and work with those people.  

A Bit More on Hadestown

Eva Noblezada, Andre De Shields, Reeve Carney in Hadestown.

The show went from New York Theatre Workshop to the theater in Edmonton to the Olivier to the Kerr. How much was informed by moving through these spaces?
We knew very early on that the piece felt embracing. That was the most important thing that we started with. We had the very generous support of New York Theatre Workshop in finding a way to make that world feel so inclusive.

There are quite literally binders and binders and binders of research images from all the worlds that Anaïs has conjured. What do you gravitate to in the music in the first production versus the second production versus the third production? Where the music has changed? So, the aesthetic we most leaned into at the Workshop was Pete Seeger and the Dust Bowl, and always the Greeks. When I think of that space, I think of it as a hybrid of a barn and an amphitheater surrounded by a warehouse, and all those things together. Then of course, that big beautiful epic tree in the center of it.

Next, our producers quite brilliantly took us to far away Canada in the middle of winter. We sort of threw everything out, and tried a much more literal answer: actual railroad tracks, a big silver tree that flew. We did one preview, and Rachel [Chavkin, the director] knew there was something very wrong. We had lost our connection to the characters. We lost the warmth. It was very chilling. Fearlessly, we put half the scenery, two-thirds of the first act scenery, on the dock, and pulled some table and chairs from the basement and started to figure out the beginnings of what’s on stage now.

We came back from Canada and started a very long process of the hypothetical Broadway production, which we were hopeful would happen in the fall. We started to design, of course, back to my genius roots of having no training and having assisted nobody like a fool, how does Broadway work? I didn’t know any of this. My very smart friends advised me: you make a box that’s basically the parameters of the smallest container and you start to work from it until you know, because the day you get the phone call, you have to put the scenery in the shop within minutes. You can’t wait to start working. 

As we were figuring out how to embrace the Olivier, we also enlarged the ideas that were in our hypothetical Broadway theater, knowing it was going to bite us in the ass when we came back. And in fact, it did, but the Kerr is such a magical theater that we had to do an awful lot of trickery to make the ideas work in that tiny space. We knew it was worth it because the intimacy and the warmth of the theater itself was just perfect for the show. There is a lot of fancy math on that stage to make those ideas fit, and everybody had to compact in a pretty intense way. Hudson [Scenic] is doing some pretty spectacular technical tricks to make some of the ideas work. Moving all those wagons in the Olivier, you just move them and use 17 feet of trap space before you even have to think about it. That’s not the Kerr.