The Story Doesn't Stop for the Scene Change

by Michael Eddy

Scenic Transitions: A discussion with scenic designer Dane Laffrey 

Scenic and costume designer Dane Laffrey is based in New York City, but his work has taken him to Japan, Australia and Norway. In fact, after he studied at the Interlochen Arts Academy, Laffrey moved to Sydney for a number of years to study at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art. His numerous professional credits include many regional theaters and off-Broadway work. His current Broadway work saw him receive his first Tony Award nomination for the set design for the revival of Once on This Island playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Stage Directions recently caught up with Laffrey to discuss some of his thoughts on the scenic design considerations around transitions in a piece.

SD: Transitions are very important and often fall heavily on scenic elements. Tell us about how you address transitions and how they support the narrative.
Dane Laffrey: Dynamic movements, those instances where you need to move between spaces. Transitions are important things to understand within the story to design how that move happens. It comes up so often, these days. We’re in bit of a golden age of new American playwriting, which I’m really excited about. But a lot of that work is inflected by television and the way that the playwrights are now, because so many of them are working in television. They’re not writing Tennessee Williams plays anymore, and they shouldn’t be writing Tennessee Williams plays now, but Tennessee Williams plays tend to take into account how you can effectively move through space in a theater, and so do the old musicals. 

I think a lot of the new musicals, which are based on movies, want to move like a movie moves, but that’s not possible, right? You’re just left with a situation, where you literally have 45 single locations to deal with in this show and 60 transitions. That’s not the case when you’re doing Hello, Dolly!, because there are just different considerations taken for space. I think figuring out the way you do that transition has to come out of the story and can’t just be the path of least resistance or the most mechanized. 

For an example, I did the set for a musical adaptation of Benny & Joon, the movie from 1993 with a young Johnny Depp. You begin just thinking, is there a machine that drives this, somehow? Does the world happen around the characters, and what does that mean? That kind of mechanized movement felt quite wrong for that piece. It’s a little story about people who are a little stuck and trying to connect with each other; sort of failing in simple ways. It’s like, the idea of a grandiose theatrical movement around it, would feel a bit out of scale for that story.

You have to realize that there’s something amazing about theater magic in terms of what is possible. Theater’s the only place where things fly away, or come out of the floor, or drop into the floor, magically appear sliding on, etc. Those things are very specific to the theater. We don’t have a reference point for them in life. So, I think it’s important to take into account; know when that’s appropriate, not just because it’s easy or that’s the best way to get that wall there, but what does that do, that movement do, to the storytelling, even the moving between these humble places, the way we get between them, it’s so grand. That, I think, is the thing that needs to be figured out. The technology is there and it’s incredibly useful, but it does mean something. The idea that a world is mechanized means something. 

How did you address those transitions in Benny & Joon?
So, for Benny & Joon, I looked at the steeple chase carnival-type games where the horses move in a 2D, flat space, but can pass each other. We had a deck track every six inches, but none of them were automated. You could drop an object, any piece of furniture, a diner counter, or whatever it is that you need to move, into one of these tracks, at the varying depths onstage, then the actors would push them on or offstage. 

We always moved scenery on from right to left; we never pushed anything on from stage left toward stage right. I said to the director, "This feels right to me." I’m not sure that the audience ever thought "Why aren’t they bringing something on from stage left?" I don’t think audiences think that way. In a piece that was about people who are stagnating, but we need to move all the time, we came up with the idea that the characters felt like they were part of continuum, a loop of some kind, where you never really progress because things just kept moving and then reappearing back the other side. That’s a good example of how I think that the way you move between things and the theater needs to reflect the piece. It can’t just be a separate vocabulary that’s about available technology or something.

Tell us about a scenic solution, that allows for a transition, in one of your designs that you feel really just worked.
I’ll speak to one that is incredibly low tech but worked successfully. In Once on This Island, there’s a movement between the world of the villagers and the protagonist who goes to the city. There was a need for both stark contrast and also an evolution of the storytelling vocabulary that moved beyond just the catch-as-catch-can of telling a story in the midst of this post-hurricane setting. The floor of Circle in the Square is filled with sand. Underneath the sand is all tile. To make the transition to the city, we had to get down to the tile. We tried it with a 12-foot by 12-foot sandbox in rehearsal and we thought that we could easily sweep or shovel the sand; it would be great. When we got on stage and the whole floor was sand, everything ground to a halt; shoveling was a disaster. The sand had been torrentially rained upon and was really wet and heavy; it was bad news. So, all teams put their heads together—I’m certainly not going to take credit for this idea alone—but it was very successful. We had two tarps under the sand, which you can’t see, with just tiny pieces of webbing coming out of the sand. You can’t see it, I personally have never seen it and I have no idea how the actors find it every night but they do. The webbing is very well hidden.

The actors go over and pull those tabs up, out of nowhere, and pull the tarps back to reveal a perfect rectangle underneath. It’s done with two tarps. With this solution, we layered a rug underneath the tarp, so the first thing you see under the sand is this lush Oriental rug has appeared, which is a wonderful image. Then the rug is rolled up and the tile is revealed for this final scene at a ball. Occasionally it gets applause; people gasp; and think it’s a cool thing. It’s so simple, it’s so absolutely low-tech, low vibe, but it was exactly the solution that was needed, and it was a bonus, that we were able to actually create this sandwich of materials and simplify a transition that we thought was going to be more complicated.

Talk a little about Strange Interlude, where the scene changes included the audience.
Strange Interlude is nine acts long, it’s like a 5 1/2 hour experience. I did a version this past fall with a very brilliant actor, David Greenspan, who did the show by himself. It was a one-man version and the design proposition for that was really interesting. It is a well-made, early-20th century play that has an act structure and moves between scenes every act. But I thought that it would be an unbearable experience if it was David Greenspan in a single environment on a chair, talking to you for six hours. That would be untenable, even though he’s very brilliant.

So we actually, for this one-man show, made this enormous scenic installation in Irondale, which is a space in Fort Greene. It’s an old church hall kind of thing. And we built inside it a structure that held two fifty-seat jewel box theaters. So it was like four rows and they mirrored each other so there’s a central wall and then 50 seats on one side of it, 50 seats on the other side of it and then a little stage behind this cove proscenium. The audience moved between them through the show, at least for the first seven acts.

So you’d start in “space a” for the first two acts, and then you would move to “space b”, “b” being a new space. Then there’d be an intermission. Then when you came back from intermission, you were back in “space a” because “space a” had been changed to a new scene while you were in the other space. And it kept moving like that, and then for the final two acts, the audience moved to this wrap-around mezzanine in the room that had two longer rows of 25, and then he performed on top of the structure that housed the two jewel box spaces. He moved outside basically. One is on the deck of a boat and then the final scene is on this vast lawn in Southampton. And so he was just on top of this huge structure. 

I was really pleased with how that looked but also how it functioned in that we took a gamble making such a maximal design solution for a one-person show, but I think it really was the design that was needed. It felt really essential to the experience.