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The Dramaturgy of Design: A Conversation with Scenic and Costume Designer Arnulfo Maldonado

Michael S. Eddy • Current IssueDesign InsightSeptember 2020 • September 9, 2020

Arnulfo Maldonado is a New York City-based scenic and costume designer. Maldonado, a graduate of NYU Tisch’s Department of Design for Stage and Film, is a recipient of a Princess Grace Fabergé Theater Award and a multiple Henry Hewes Design nominee. He recently received the 2020 Obie for Sustained Excellence in Set Design, as well as a Special Citation Obie as part of the creative team of the Pulitzer Prize winning A Strange Loopby Michael R. Jackson.

Other notable design credits include Clare Barron’s Dance Nation (Playwrights Horizons), Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls, Or; The African Mean Girls Play(MCC Theater), Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men On Boats(Clubbed Thumb/Playwrights Horizons), and Donja R. Love’s Sugar In Our Wounds(Manhattan Theater Club, Lucille Lortel Award Outstanding Scenic Design recipient). In addition, he has also designed the New York premieres of Christopher Chen’s Caught(The Play Company) /Passage(Soho Rep) and George Brant’s Grounded(Page 73). U.S. premieres include Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck(Woolly Mammoth/Public Theater) and debbie tucker green’s generations(Soho Rep). Maldonado designed the regional premieres of Paula Vogel’s Indecent(Guthrie Theater), Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon (Berkeley Rep), and Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton(Philadelphia Theatre Company). He has been a Resident Scenic Designer of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. He has also exhibited at the Prague Quadrennial, the international exhibition of scenography. In 2017 he designed the world tour for The Magnetic Fields in support of their album 50 Song Memoir.

When COVID-19 shutdown theater, Maldonado had two shows that were about open—Jocelyn Bioh’s Nollywood Dreamsat MCC and Sylvia Khoury’s Selling Kabulat Playwrights Horizons. Both are sitting in dark theaters waiting to resume. Maldonado shared some of his time to talk about his work and career path.

How did you come to design for theater?
I grew up in Texas and went to the University of Texas to study painting originally. I found the program at UT to be overwhelming and very large, and so I transferred midway through to a smaller liberal arts college in San Antonio called University of the Incarnate Word, which had at the time, a pretty good solid theater program. I had a lot of friends that were part of that program and that’s really where I immersed myself in theater, but I also was a double major in English Lit. So, for me, design started there, and it started with my professor, Margaret Mitchell. She pushed me to try it, knowing that I had all these background skills. It really was like a dual concentration of both theater and dramaturgy, and English literature, which was my second major. I was able to really do a deep dive into a lot of the history of design. I was fortunate enough to be one of the researchers on my professor’s book—Making the Scene: A History of Stage Design and Technology in Europe and the United States—that she co-wrote with Oscar Brockett.  I spent a year and a half researching from the origins of theater and design thru to the present, and I felt like I really had this crash course in terms of understanding the different styles and approaches to design and the way design has evolved throughout the centuries. And during that time, I really got interested and immersed in European design, in particular, action design that was part of Czech theater with Josef Svoboda.

The Carpenter at Alley Theater, TX Jan 2019

How does that inform your design approach to ensure you’re supporting the narrative.
I was just interested in how something that was live and performative; how do you instill art into that without distracting from it? I found that that particular mode of operating, or designing, was something I really gravitated to. The main objective or thrust of action design, is that at the root of it is the text, so anything that feels superfluous or feels in the way of the text or the performance, then it’s stripped away. Action design at the time was about paring down and trying to get at the root of it, but without losing the emotional connection of what the piece is about.

When I left Texas and came to New York, straight to grad school, all of that was in my brain as I started studying at NYU. That was when I really learned the ins and outs of the practical side of being a designer. I continued that idea through my career, that no matter what—I find that the word—the amalgamation of both the spoken word, the text itself, the performance, those are all part of the ingredients, and the design is as well. For me, I’m always trying to put the text at the forefront of everything—and that includes the design itself. To me, design is one component, but I’m always very attuned to not wanting to distract from what is being spoken on stage.

Model of The Carpenter at Alley Theater, TX Jan 2019

Having worked there myself, I can see why you were a good designer for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference.
The O’Neill, for me was my second bit of training. To be placed in that mindset; it’s a month-long intense thing where you’re just churning out work. And so, teaching my brain to really analyze a text in that rapid succession was something that I had never done. And it helped further my understanding of how to break down a text and how to just talk about a play, too.

What are some of your favorite scenic solutions that you designed; things that just worked in your opinion?
With the musical A Strange Loop, we had to create a world from the ground up. The piece revolves around the character of Usher and his six thoughts that are always with him and seamlessly enter and leave his mind. There was a sense of ‘Where does this take place? Is this Usher’s mindscape? How do you literalize the mindscape?’. Once we landed on each of the thoughts having their own framed entryway, using this archway—what we kept calling the show portals—that unlocked a lot of things for us in terms of how we could really move and transform that space. The set was deceptively simple in the sense that at the most base level it’s this brick wall unit with six openings that’s broken up into units that undulate forwards and backwards and breaks apart; splits to the side and it’s constantly evolving. I felt that was like learning the language of the play and how to help the story move along with the set being an additional character in the play. That unlocked a lot in terms of the choreography of the piece and how the performers reacted and interacted with this additional character of the set.

Transitions are always very important. How do you address transitions and movement between narrative storytelling and the physical show itself.
I think that differs depending on the play, it depends on the story. I do tend to, when I can, always ask myself, ‘What is the envelope of the play?’ When I did Indecentat the Guthrie, that was very much a play that dealt with memories. And we knew right away that the cast, the ensemble of that piece would be the ghosts of the theater. We knew we wanted to set it in a dilapidated, war-torn theater but very nondescript in a way, too, so that we allowed ourselves the freedom to create new spaces within that space. I don’t necessarily think that that happens all the time (creating an envelope from the onset), but I do try to start there as a point of departure in terms of figuring out transitions.

Has there ever been a transition in a play where you’re like, ‘I have no idea how we’re going to get from here to there?’
For sure. I think this is true of a lot of newer contemporary plays that I gravitate to. I like the challenge, but there is a sense of, “How the Hell do we come up with 12 different locations within this tiny space?” Dance Nation,done at the Sharp Theatre at Playwright’s Horizon, is a great example in the sense that it’s such a compressed space, but there’s so much storytelling. It started with a container of the dance studio, but it’s obviously a much bigger play that goes beyond the dance studio. So that was something that I immediately knew wouldn’t work just within one location. It was about literally ripping apart the model and figuring out, ‘Oh, if we just lean into the theatrical conventions of low-fi, low-tech ideas’, like a giant sun tracking on and then coming off or using curtains to create a different world, everything felt suddenly like we could understand that there were different worlds possible within this tiny space. So, yes, I enjoy when I get a play that feels impossible because then it’s like, ‘how do you make it possible?’. I enjoy that challenge as a designer.

A Strange Loop at Playwrights Horizons, NYC June 2019

Is there something that makes a design an Arnulfo Maldonado design?
I hope not. I don’t think so. Something that I was told when I was in undergrad—and it’s not something that I necessarily adhere to—but it’s something that I’ve always remembered is that you never want to have someone pick you out for a certain style, you never want someone to look at your work and be like, ‘Oh, that’s, an Arnulfo Maldonado design.’ It’s not a bad thing, but every play is different. This past season alone, I feel like I designed such a vast array of different worlds that it’s hard for me to think how I would design it so that they all fit within one aesthetic or look.It all depends on the piece. That said, anytime my work is reviewed, the descriptions of my work vary greatly—it’s like polar opposites, from show to show. It’s either super stripped down; I get ‘minimal’ or ‘austere’, or it’s the opposite of that, where it’s overtly detailed. I like creating a complete world no matter the approach. I ride both sides of that. I tend to gravitate towards a stripped away minimal approach or fully immersed, but there is always room for nuance and grey zones within that.

Model for A Strange Loop at Playwrights Horizons, NYC June 2019

What technologies, techniques, or materials developed over the course of your career have most affected your designs in terms of what you can now realize?
I think in terms of being in the studio and being able to turn out ideas and models, I feel like having access to a laser cutter has been huge just because so much of my time is spent in the model. I tend to sketch out a quick idea, but I immediately try to convert that into three dimensions. I’m also a designer that really tries to put as much detail into the model so that I can feel good about literally handing over the model to the painter or the scenic charge and say, ‘It should look like this’.

What or who have been some influences on your work?

Two of the big reasons I went to NYU were John Conklin and Paul Steinberg. In studying the history of design, I came across John’s designs and I felt enamored with them, with the dramaturgy of his work and the way he subverted the narrative. So, getting to be taught by him at NYU was a huge plus. I think being at NYU was also very influential with being taught by Paul. I really admired his take on dramaturgy and design. And that’s the thing that I still take with me whenever I’m working. So those two—for sure—are two designers that I looked to when I was much younger that I still think about as I work.

Is there a playwright that you’d love to do their work?
Yes, I’ve never done any Chekhov and I love Chekhov. I’d love to get a chance to design Chekov at some point.

I Was Most Alive with You at Playwrights Horizons, NYC 2018

Is there a piece of advice that you got at the start of your career that you still find applicable today?
I think the biggest piece of advice I got was—it’s a little predictable—but I was told to never stop trying. That was important as someone who came from a poor working family to be working in a profession, that felt slightly impossible to me as an end goal. Theater has always felt luxurious to me, that only people with trust funds could work in. That I could make a career out of this says a lot about never stopping, never not trying. Not allowing myself to be deterred, given all the hurdles that it takes to work in American theater. I’ve had many times where I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And I see that I’m not ever going to be a gazillionaire doing theater, but I love it. It’s something that I have worked hard enough that I’m able to feel I’m part of the conversation. That, for me, is enough in terms of just continuing that conversation. It’s very hard to not be dissuaded by all the difficulties of what it is to be a theater maker. You have to just keep asking yourself why you’re doing it and if your passion outweighs that, then I would say keep going, never stop trying.

Model for I Was Most Alive with You at Playwrights Horizons, NYC 2018

What advice would you give to someone in the early stage of their career in theater?
I think it’s important that—and I took this to heart when I was young—the only way that I got better was literally trying to see as much theater as possible. After a while I gravitated towards certain theaters, certain shows, I learned what it was that I was gravitating towards, and I sought out those people, I sought out those organizations that I really wanted to get to know more, work with.

I feel like it’s important to really not just see the work, but really witness the work. It’s important to really get an understanding of what all is out there. I find that with some younger designers, or people still in school, that when I ask them, ‘What is the latest thing you saw’ or ‘what’s the last show that really blew your mind?’ I find it surprising when they can’t answer that. I get it. Part of it is you’re working so hard within your field that you might find that you don’t have time, but I say always make time to try to see your colleagues work and find the things that excite you.

What do you enjoy most about your career?
I love what I do. I’m very lucky to say that, because I know a lot of people who don’t get to say that. I love that I get to take everything that I absorbed as a young adult and gather all my influences and turn it into a job. The fact that I get to be, not just a designer, but a dramaturg and a storyteller and combine all of these skills into one profession; it’s something that I really, really love about being a designer and don’t take it for granted.

Here is Maldonado accepting the 2020 Obie for Sustained Excellence in Set Design.



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