Moving the Story

by Michael Eddy
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A Conversation with Scenic Designer Jason Sherwood, Part 1

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with designer Jason Sherwood about his approach to scenic design. There was much I wanted to discuss with him about his evocative use of movement, both through automation but also his static scenic elements that create a sense of movement, as well as his affinity for ceilings on sets. He also does some incredibly detailed theatrical environments that transport audiences. A lot to discuss with an interesting designer, so we will present that conversation in parts and this month we have Sherwood’s thoughts on movement through automation.

Stage Directions: When you’re reading a script and designing your space, do you start thinking about automation as you’re designing?
Jason Sherwood: It’s a little tricky. Frankly, I think automation is a little bit of a dirty word because, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that I really think we should or that it serves the story. I’m primarily interested in making things move and shape space in a way that subverts our expectations of the room that we’re in.

I think a modern theater-going audience, has been trained to understand left and right tracking wagons, and up and down flying drops. And that’s really beautiful, but I don’t really know how to do that. I’m interested in the thing that rises and forms a canopy, creates a pressure, the thing that envelopes the space that comes at us asymmetrically, or feels vast and enormous.

When I think about how a show should move or what it feels like to me, I want to subvert the static. Like in my design for Paint Your Wagon there’s a slice of hill that’s rotating in tandem with a moon or sun that’s either travelling with it or against it, to create a perspective shift. And that happens without us having to get off our seat. Better yet would be if we have gotten off our seat, or even better still, we figure out a way for the seat, we are actually in, to be moving as well creating that perspective shift. Basically, I think that automation, of course, as a utility, moves things around, right, but then, really what it does, is I think it gets us to listen more closely; gets us closer to the play somehow.

I think that in real life, space, and how we perceive it, is about our utility of it and then how we aestheticize that. Whereas on stage it’s traditionally about apertures, how we see things, and what we see them through. I want to use automation in a way that creates an opportunity for the two to meet. The audience and the space become linked in a way that connects the audience to performance. So, when people walk into the preset of my design for Frankenstein and it looks like there’s a stage, and it’s this big, muddy floor and there is this big grave dug in it. And then all of a sudden, instead of the play happening sort of far and away from us, the whole set, the entire palette for the show rises and comes up out of the ground and suspends itself over the audience in a way that feels like they’re closer to it. So really using automation, stage technology, in a way that enhances the storytelling and creates a small surprise that gets the audience to lean in.

And then sometimes the lack of movement does the same thing, right? ‘Why haven’t we moved?’, you know? Sometimes you watch a play and you’ve gone to 80 different places, and we’ve told six different character journeys, and we haven’t moved at all, which I think is thrilling in its own way. 

You like to create ceilings and overheads, which we'll talk about later but tell me now about your design for The Mountaintop which is a ceiling that moves, creating a very powerful narrative element.
The trick with Mountaintop, and I think the trick with Katori Hall’s play, is that, we wanted to create something that feels very, very solid and then blow it apart. When someone writes a play like that it’s a total dream to try to figure that out. We wanted to create a world where, instead of just this motel room that Dr. King is in, that it sort of dismantles; comes down on him and he climbs above it. That the world that is to exist after him is projected on the rubble of that room. So, he literally climbs up on top of this ceiling that’s just come down like a top hat over the space.

Your recent design for Robert O’Hara’s production of Macbeth at the Denver Center is another example of your use of automation to seamlessly reinforce the storytelling scenically. 
I love the challenge of a play that demands a lot from the physical space and the Denver Center is one of those incredible places to do that kind of work. They’re engaging their local community in a really challenging and thoughtful way, bringing in Robert O’Hara to stage this all-male, diverse version of the Scottish play. And Robert wanted it to feel like a coven of witches are telling a story. We christened their brand new in-the-round renovation of their Space Theatre. It was so many awesome things happening at once.

From the get go, we wanted to create something that felt very textual, and very real, but very other worldly, sort of like an ancient thing with a very futuristic thing loaded on top of it. So, we created these three concentric rings, turning. And the ensemble of actors created all this movement themselves; and used those turntable rings, and a series of lifts to basically sculpt and craft every moment of that play without a single piece of naturalistic scenery to tell us where we were.

We wanted that space to feel ceremonial. When we looked at the ground plan of the room, it’s shaped like a pentagon, and a pentagram is an iconic element in how we perceive the world of symbolism of witches. We took those patterns, layered them on top of each other, and then played the majority of the play in the aisles, down the voms, around the audience. When Macbeth is crowned king, he comes down the aisles and he reaches his hand out. We had eight to 12 audience members, real audience members just on their own every night, kiss his hand. It was part of the performance report, how many hand kisses we had in the coronation! They got drawn completely into the world.

That is almost always the best part of a project, is that you get to go somewhere. In the case of Macbeth, we had audience members who were so excited by that show—and some who weren’t excited. It was fun to watch the audiences. It was incredible to watch high school students come in for a student matinee and be, ‘holy shit, Shakespeare is more like Game of Thrones than it is like Jane Eyre.’

The design was really there to reinforce the room. I think what was fun about Macbeth’s design was, instead of being a set inside their new theater, it felt like their new theater and the set ran into each other, and you couldn’t tell where one stopped, and the other began.

The crazy thing about Macbeth was that there were two ring turntables and a turntable lift that had a pool inside of it. It rained, it snowed, and there was so much fog, smoke, and atmosphere; it was utterly bonkers. And they just pulled it off seamlessly at Denver Center. The technical director there on Macbeth was a new guy, Eric Moore, who was incredible. 

Part of what I love about my job, in general, is that every project comes with five, to 10, to 20 different people who I get to work with, who I haven’t worked with before. And all those people bring an idea, or a reference point, or a style of execution, or a style of communication. I find that from all the conversations that you have with TDs like Eric at Denver, or Erik Holden, the TD at Seattle’s 5th Avenue, he is incredible also, that is where I did the Paint Your Wagon I mentioned earlier. As you talk to the TDs and the scenic artists, and prop artists, and obviously the rest of the creative team, they are all just such a huge influence. It’s like the least lonely job in the universe because you’re constantly talking to people. And that’s the best part about it. Every theater comes with its own community of people.