Designing a World in a Single (Small) Space

by Natalie Robin
in Feature

David Korins’ maquette of his design for a hotel lobby location in Chinglish and the fully-realized lobby during a performance.
David Korins’ maquette of his design for a hotel lobby location in Chinglish … And the fully-realized lobby during a performance.
Scenic designers solve the spatial puzzles of multiple-location plays

Set designers create the worlds that actors live inside. Sometimes those worlds hold a single room, sometimes an entire universe of rooms. And sometimes the universe has to fit inside a single room—that has no wings or fly space. How do designers solve the problems of not enough space while being true to the dramaturgy of a multiple-location play? I spoke to three set designers about how they approach shows in spaces which don’t allow for the “old-school” tradition of flying in or tracking on enormous new sets for each scene change.

 

Rachel Hauck’s model of the living room set from The Call
Rachel Hauck’s model of the living room set from The Call

Heed the Call

 

Tanya Barfield’s new play The Call, directed by Leigh Silverman at Playwrights Horizons in New York City, primarily takes place in two rooms of a NYC apartment, with additional scenes in an art gallery and at a park dog run. It was performed in The Peter Jay Sharp Theater, the more intimate space at Playwrights NYC home, which has no offstage wing space and a lighting grid about 11 feet off the deck.

 

Rachel Hauck
Rachel Hauck

Set designer Rachel Hauck, a longtime collaborator of Silverman’s, started with the dramaturgy of the play. She and Silverman talked for quite a long time to find out “how this play wanted to move and breathe.” Even in a larger theatre with wings and fly space, huge changing scenery may not have been right for the play. For Hauck, The Call was very much about “what’s missing and how hard they are working to have a child … absence is a massive part of the script.” She and Silverman honed in on the apartment, where most of the action happens, and started by designing that. Negative space, which surrounded the more fully realized apartment, became very important to the design. It was necessary that the two rooms in the apartment (the living room and a studio-transformed-into-nursery) not be visible at the same time, and that the two non-apartment locations be, in fact, outside of the apartment. It was absolutely crucial that the final scene of the play involve a reveal; the audience needed “to not see coming the fact that the room you saw in the first act had changed completely.”

 

Hauck developed a model of a fully-realized apartment. And then they had a “fun meeting where we tore the walls out of the model.” Eventually, their collaboration let to a “graceful, light, but fully-realized corner of the apartment” that the audience saw. Hauck placed this apartment design on a turntable that allowed them to spin the set so as to “minimize the importance of the apartment.”

Of course, once the apartment had been solved there left the art gallery and the park bench. “There was so much dialogue in the art gallery that initially we didn’t have [any scenery] at all,” says Hauck. But during tech it became clear that the actors needed something to ground the action. For a quick little fix they rolled on a small table full of wine glasses, a hallmark of gallery openings, downstage of the turntable where the actors played the scene.

The park scene, however, was a “huge, tricky thing to solve.” The action of the scene mainly involved two actors sitting, but the sightlines of an actor sitting on a chair on the floor was a problem. In tech, time was spent trying to find a way for Kerry Butler to sit as high as she possibly could. Finally, Hauck came up with the top to a park bench which sat on the floor of the apartment: “all you need is that hunter green to tell you: you are in a NYC park.” The actors sat on the top of the bench, giving them the height they needed.

Hauck thanks the Sharp for its limitations in driving the scenic solutions of the play: “We really benefitted from the situation we were handed. I don’t know if we would have found such a graceful answer.”

When Hauck is approaching a play like The Call, she says that “In a sense, the playwright has designed the aesthetic of the play.” The frame of the set should allow the play to be heard. Hauck starts her process with extensive visual research. She then sits down with the director to go through to see what feels right and like the world. Together, they define the “texture” and needs of the play. Then Hauck goes away and comes back with two or three different ideas. Throughout the process she is constantly going back to the script and asking “what is the heart of the play?” The director responds. She remakes the models. The process repeats, with input about budget and resources, until the right solution is reached. Hauck prioritizes the processes of her collaborators. It is really important “that the playwright be able to continue their work and not be restricted by how the set works.”

A scene from LoveMusik on Broadway, with set design by Beowulf Borritt.
A scene from LoveMusik on Broadway, with set design by Beowulf Borritt.

Slay the Space Monster

 

Though we don’t think of Broadway as small, even a Broadway theatre might not have as much room as a show needs. For Beowulf Borritt, part of the challenge of designing for Broadway is that for most of the Broadway shows he has designed “I have not known what Broadway theatre they are going into when I design them.” So he starts with the smallest possibly Broadway house—40 feet wide by 29 feet deep by 20 feet high—and builds a model box. “If it can fit there, it can fit any of the ones it might go into it. If there’s more room that’s great.” Borritt also starts with what the play tells him: “I design what I want it to look like and figure out how to make it fit later. Every time I sit down to sketch I don’t try to fit it into the ground plan—that would make me crazy.”

 

Beowulf Borritt
Beowulf Borritt

For the first show he designed for Hal Prince, LoveMusik, Borritt thought they were starting at the Huntington and designed the whole show before the Biltmore (now the Samuel J. Friedman, and where the show ended up playing) was even on the table. LoveMusik had close to 30 locations and rarely returned to a location more than once or twice. When designing a large musical like this, Borritt says, “It is my job to figure out a way it can all fit,” and he has to do it during the design process. He’s happy if the crew comes up with a better plan once it’s in the theatre, but the designer has to have thought ahead. For LoveMusik, he designed only a couple of pieces per location because of limited storage space and transition time. A lot of scenery came offstage then got stored in the air, so pieces had to be designed to both sit on the ground and fly. Even then, the first time they ran the intermission shift it took an hour and a half. Obviously, after a few tries, it fit well within the intermission.

 

The “jigsaw puzzle” of backstage led to all kinds of ingenious discoveries. There was a palm tree for a scene in the second act that had to be flat for the sake of space. But a painted palm tree just wouldn’t cut it, so Borritt found a trick he has used ever since: He stapled palm tree leaves flat on top of the painted leaves which made it look “incredibly dimensional” yet didn’t take up any more space. Other pieces in the show made multiple appearances with minimal dressing changes: a judge’s bench had a changing crest and flag so it could be used multiple times, and even spun around to become a cabaret stage for Lotte Lenya’s performances. As Borritt sees it, “Ultimately what we are trying to do is make the actors feel like the dominant thing in the space, and less ‘stuff’ clarifies the storytelling.”

You can download a high-res version of the ground-plan here.

A moment from Chinglish
A moment from Chinglish

Finding the Right Language

 

Describing his process, David Korins explains “when I read a play, I always start by doing a kind of breakdown: location, who is in it, what’s happening, and what is the least amount of stuff I need to solve the problem.” He says he instinctually looks for the “lowest common denominator of the scene” because if you do that you get to the root of dramaturgically what is happening.

 

David Korins
David Korins

“I don’t love making ‘realistic’ scenery,” he says. “We all go to the theatre knowing we are going to make something fake. Right off the bat you are doing yourself a disservice pretending it isn’t fake.” Thinking abstractly creates a “more theatrical solution,” though he says that even when he starts in a more abstract direction, his designs “don’t always stay there.” Like Hauck, Korins says, “You have to find out about the style before everything else. Set is the canvas in which we can paint upon; It is not the painting.”

 

In David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish (also directed by Leigh Silverman), Korins had to create the world of an American in China trying to speak a language and start a business and communicate with a culture. In spite of resisting traditionally realistic scenery, he says it was also clear that “you don’t want to set the play in a snowdrift.” In his view the designer’s first responsibility is always to support the story.

Working on Chinglish was the “first and only time when I went to bed and woke up in the middle of the night with an idea which became the play.” Korins used double turntables to achieve nine locations (as opposed to flying scenery in) because he felt that the play did not exist in a vertical world. He really wanted to support the journey of the protagonist who had a hard time communicating with a culture, and to create a kind of assault with the world simultaneously “caving in on and exploding around him.”

Korins was also inspired by a Chinese puzzle and used that as inspiration for fitting small, intimate scenes together. His locations ended up not being abstract at all, as he decided that “if we didn’t serve [the individual scenes] realistically” the play would not be successful. Korins storyboarded the entire play, but acknowledges that “no designer comes up with something by themselves and then hands it off.” He had specific ideas which he shared with Silverman and then supported the way the design grew during rehearsals.

In the end, all these designers started small—and had to stay small—but they also let their design grow organically in rehearsal, leaning on the talents of the director, actors and the rest of their design team to let the stories come alive even when the entire set fit (very nearly) into a drop of water.