— A peek behind the curtain with the set designers for this year’s festival.
In early June, the area where Shepherdstown’s annual Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) takes place is calm—so calm, in fact, that if you were to sit at one of the tables in the “copper canyon”—the valley between Shepherd University’s two contemporary art buildings—you’d be surprised to learn just how much is actually going on around you amid the stillness.
Actors are studying their scripts between rehearsals. Set pieces are getting painted; costumes fitted and sewn. An old truck is being torn apart to turn into a prop. There is a sense that the bustling microcosm of chaos many regard the theater to be is just on the horizon.
“I should knock on wood before I say this,” began David Barber, the set designer for Everything Is Wonderful and Byhalia, Mississippi (the two plays that will show in the Frank Center), “but this season is pretty straightforward and relaxed so far.”
However, Barber added that at CATF, “we’ve never been that easy on ourselves.”
He’s right. A self-proclaimed “designer waiting to happen,” Barber got his start in the theater acting in high school productions, and even auditioned for television commercials before realizing it was the “spectacle” of the theater, the visual realm, that he had been interested in the whole time. Therefore, Barber knows that any position in the theater is going to be an exhausting one. But for set designers, the job requirement is especially ambitious: to create an entire universe from scratch.
For instance, as the set designer for last year’s production of The Wedding Gift, Barber was slated to create an “entirely imagined world” that exists 300 years in the future.
“It was almost operatic in scale,” he explained. “I had to design every single piece of furniture—every single prop.”
Strategic Planning is Key
This July’s lineup consists of six plays, more than has been performed in the nearly three decades since CATF’s inception. Each of the three theaters will house two plays—meaning that, in the few hours between performances, theaters will morph from one immersive environment into another.
Barber noted that he prepares for this process by brainstorming with the technical director on how to change the sets from one play to the next. They think about particulars such as when, where, and how certain set pieces will break apart.
Such devising is vital, as the changes between the two sets can be drastic. Which is the case for the two plays in Studio 112—The Niceties and Wild Horses—featuring sets designed by Jesse Dreikosen.
“The Niceties is really contained in the center of the stage,” said Dreikosen. The stage is set as a professor’s office, and its small size and claustrophobic clutter (books strewn about, crumpled-up papers on the ground) makes it considerably intimate. Dreikosen indicated that his goal is to make the audience feel “like a fly on the wall” during the action of the play. “It should feel almost like a pressure cooker in there,” he said.
Balancing Motivation with Inspiration
But sculpting a show’s setting is not always limited to the stage and what goes on it. Designers occasionally pull the audience even further into the action. For Wild Horses, one of the four seating banks that surround the stage will be taken out. To compensate, 24 seats will be set up directly onstage, putting the one-woman show “right in the laps” of the audience, described Dreikosen. And in the place of the seating bank will be, of all things, a food truck.
“It’s funny, because I usually go directly into researching architectural spaces and looking at architectural details,” he said.
Dreikosen has always been interested in architecture, and even considered studying at Taliesin—the Frank Lloyd Wright school of Architecture in Arizona—before deciding he preferred the design aspect of theater. His architecturally inclined research led him to create an industrial-style set for Wild Horses—inspired by both the play’s script and the architecture of Studio 112, as well as the contemporary art buildings. Part of that set, he decided, should feature a food truck.
“It was something I just kind of happened upon, and dug deeper into what it could be.”
An exhaustive search began, trailing from Craigslist ads through dead ends, and culminating when an old truck was donated by a local theater enthusiast. The truck now sits, engine-less, in the prop department, getting sanded down and cut apart in preparation for its stage debut.
“The audience will be really immersed in the story,” Dreikosen assured.
Digging in and Discovering
A set designer is always focusing on what will most effectively engross the viewers. While this might be true for any artist, Dreikosen noted the difference when it comes to the theater. The work of a painter or photographer might be seen in a museum or exhibit, he explained, but the artist “… doesn’t necessarily interact with their audiences. In theater, we are totally engaged with the audience.
The collaboration of the theater involves many parts—actors, directors, painters—but the audience is the last bit—the missing piece of the puzzle that makes the picture whole.”
Barber added that it doesn’t matter how extravagant a set may be if it doesn’t effectively tell the story to the audience. For instance, the set he developed for Everything Is Wonderful is an “… abstract, minimalistic open landscape,” while Byhalia, Mississippi features a “… hyper-realistic interior of a lower-income tract home,” detailed down to the cereal boxes on the counter. “The ultimate decision on our part is really what would be the best choice to tell that story.”
World premieres, such as those featured during CATF, afford designers the most control. While it can be tricky when problems arise, said Barber, because “ … you can’t look and see what anybody else did … you’re on your own to figure it out,” the challenge is ultimately thrilling. “It’s freeing in a way, because you can’t cheat,” he affirmed. “It’s very exciting to know that you’re the first person to ever attack that visual world.”
The feeling of being at the wheel is one the designers love—guiding the audience through a new life, a new body, another world—even just for a moment. “There’s no source to go to,” echoed Dreikosen. “We have to dig in and discover it … drive the audience through a particular story. It’s invigorating.”By Pandora Affemann