The Scenic Route
A new script's path from playwright's head to design shop is paved with a-ha (and uh-oh) moments
By Stuart Miller
When Lynn Nottage was writing Intimate Apparel, she didn't visualize a shower stall as part of the setmuch less a fully functioning one placed center stage.
Yet that play's much-heralded first production in 2003directed by Kate Whoriskey at CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore, Md., with set design by Walt Spanglerfeatured just such a costly contraption. "The director got very excited by the designer's very expensive set piece, even though it blew a good part of our budget," Nottage recalls, adding that Whoriskey kept urging her to incorporate Spangler's working shower into the action of the play, about a self-employed African-American seamstress in the early 20th century. "I kept saying I didn't think the shower was part of the play," Nottage says with good-humored hindsight. "They convinced me to put it there, but we never used it."
The shower wasn't a deal-breaker: Nottage has maintained a good relationship with Whoriskey and later worked with her on Fabulation (at New York City's Playwrights Horizons) and Ruined (at Manhattan Theatre Club, Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Los Angeles's Geffen Playhouse and Seattle's Intiman Theatre). For the latter worka breakthrough play about the plight of women in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, which earned Nottage the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for DramaNottage says Whoriskey and scenic designer Derek McLane were the ones who figured out the crucial mechanics of how to integrate two musicians into the show. "I couldn't imagine how to do itit didn't feel organic," Nottage remembers, "but they did it in a way that wasn't intrusive, and that allowed the musicians to become witnesses to what was going on and to become part of the storytelling."
Still, Nottage writes with a strong sense of place. She knew Ruined needed "a rural, rough-and-tumble bar that would look homemade from resources at hand, a space both inviting and warm but ramshackle and foreboding." She also knew her most recent piece, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (which premiered last season at New York's Second Stage Theatre) called for an opulent, stylish Art Deco apartment. But, in both cases, she says, "I don't know the color palette, and I don't see specific pieces of furniture. I leave that to the director and designer."
It's telling to note that Intimate Apparel's plumbing issues have entered Nottage and Whoriskey's vocabulary of collaboration. When they're working together and Nottage feels something frivolous is being added to the set, "I'll ask Kate, 'Is this the shower?'"
Theatre, unlike film, communicates largely through language. With a movie, we often remember the stunning visualsSonny Corleone getting gunned down in The Godfather, E.T. and Elliot saying goodbye in a windy field lit by a glowing spaceship, or the elaborate panoramas of Lord of the Rings and Avatarwhile a screenplay's text, beyond a few catchphrases, may fade in our minds. But in a play, it's the words, be they Shakespeare's or August Wilson's, we most often treasure. When the majority of playwrights sit down to write, they tend naturally to focus on story and characters, hearing their creations speaking dialogue.
Yet people never say they're going to "listen" to a playthey go to "see" one. A great set can profoundly enhance a play, just as a poor design can hinder even a good one. And the creative collision between the images the playwright conjured while writing and the ones brought to life by the designer produces varied results; Nottage's contrasting anecdotes from Intimate Apparel and Ruined are testimony to both the challenges and rewards of this element of collaboration on a new play.
The process differs greatly from playwright to playwright, in part because some think more visually than others, and in part because some are more actively engaged as the play moves from page to stage. Playwright David Henry Hwang belongs at one extremehe admits, "I never see anything in my mind and have no idea what a show I'm writing will look like. Usually when I see the set design I go, 'Wow, this world is coming to life.' It's startling and delightful." Indeed, according to David Korins, who recently designed the Goodman's production of Hwang's Chinglish that subsequently moved to Broadway, "The greatest compliment I can get from a playwright is 'You helped me see my play.'"
At the other end of the spectrum are playwrights like Edward Albee, whose writerly approach is as visual as it is literary: "You can't create people unless you know where they are," Albee says without equivocation. "From the very beginning, I have ideas about what the set of a play looks like." Jon Robin Baitz says that as a young playwright at the Padua Hills Playwright Festival in California, he spent so much time writing stage descriptions that Maria Irene Fornés, one of his teachers there, chastised him, saying, "You are too nervous to write the play!" But that turned into a pivotal moment for Baitz when he realized that Fornés's criticism wasn't applicablehis needs were in fact different than hers, "and I needed that description to invoke the spirit of the play."
Playwright Nicky Silverwhose mordant family comedy The Lyons ran recently on Broadway after a run at New York's Vineyard Theatertakes Baitz's assertion a step further. "I am not writing something just to be read, I am writing something to be seen," declares Silver, who studied painting in college. "I visualize every single element down to the minute detail, like the color of a dress or where the sofa goes." Silver says that while he tries to avoid being dictatorial with designers, he will specify in his script that a dress must be green or a park bench must be on a certain side of the stage. "If it's on the other side, I'll just find it jarring," he reasons.
Most playwrights fall into a middle ground somewhere between the visual permissiveness of Hwang and the prescriptive specificity of Silver. The prolific Neil LaBute says his mental image of a scene is "like looking at a room without my glasses." Tony Kushner says in everyday life he's a visual thinker who pays attention to décor, yet while writing, none of that remains. "It's almost like the whole world falls away," he avers. Still, sometimes, as with his most recent opusThe Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, first staged at Minneapolis's Guthrie TheaterKushner knew the setting so intimately he didn't need to contemplate it. "I spent 13 years living in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, and I've been in enough homes of old lefties, too, so I knew what this home would look like, what it would smell like."
Designers are well advised to attend to a playwright's "general sense of mood and atmosphere," figures David Auburn, whose The Columnist is finishing its run this month at Manhattan Theatre Club, where veteran scenic designer John Lee Beatty supervised the visuals. Beatty speaks for many of his colleagues when he suggests that a writer's summary impressions of design values can be not only sufficient but downright eloquent. "Lanford Wilson would just write a few beautiful words, like 'moonlight through broken shutters,' to create an ambience and get me started," Beatty testifies. In fact, he declares, designers find it "stultifying" when playwrights get too specific in their written descriptions of either visual details or staging solutions. (That said, Beatty is always open to suggestions from the playwrights. In the design for Baitz's hit play Other Desert Cities, set in a wealthy Republican home, the playwright wasn't happy with Beatty's wall sconces so he went shopping for replacements. "Yes, he found what he wanted, and yes they are authentic," allows Beatty, who was happy to incorporate Baitz's purchase. "But boy, does he have expensive taste!")
Beatty's reservations strike LaBute and Kushner as perfectly reasonableboth writers say they couldn't imagine indulging in the spell-it-all-out, Eugene O'Neill approach to stage directions. "If it's very important I'll put it on the page, but if not, I'll let it go," LaBute says. "I have trust in my collaborators."
That trust can be freeing. Many playwrights say they enjoy repeat work with designers because they develop a mutual shorthand. Auburnwhose Columnist examines the psychology of closeted syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop, played on Broadway by John Lithgowrefers to his new play as a far more elaborate construction than his breakthrough drama Proof, and confesses that in the writing process he "indulged myself, throwing caution to the windI'd say, 'I have no idea how you could do this, but John Lee [Beatty] will figure it out.'"
Of course, collaborations like that of Auburn and Beatty don't occur in isolationthe main relationship for both the playwright and the designer is really with the director. Thus, playwrights say, finding a director who's on the same page is the crucial first step. In the case of The Columnist, that collaborator was Daniel Sullivan; for Baitz's Other Desert Cities, a Lincoln Center Theater production now running on Broadway, it was Joe Mantello. "I've been lucky to have good partners like Joe and Daniel who are intellectually hungry for the mise-en-scène of a world," Baitz verifies.
Nottage says working well with the director once saved her from a designer's disastrous mistake at San Jose Repertory Theatre. The director imagined a bare stage with elaborate set pieces fluidly rolling on and off. "But the designer was not American, and there had been a misunderstanding in the sketch," Nottage says. "This was my Spinal Tap moment. On the first day of tech when they rolled it out, the whole landscape was tiny. The designer had done everything in inches instead of feet." Still, the director worked with Nottage to re-conceive the transitions so the storytelling would work.
When a director and playwright aren't in sync, it can put a designer in a tricky situation. For the production of his play Three Changes at Playwrights Horizons in 2008, Nicky Silver disliked director Wilson Milam's conceit of seeing characters through transparent walls in side roomseffectively creating scenes not written into the text that struck Silver as "too busy." But by the time he objected to the notion, it was too late.
"Wilson's directorial concept was enormously challenging to me," allows Neil Patel, the show's scenic designer. "And I heard plenty from Nicky; he's not shy about saying what he thinks." While Patel likes working with Silver and will go so far as to show him swatches for choosing curtain colors, the designer says there was nothing he could do in that situation. "Playwrights can be involved in the design process and even have veto power," Patel says, but adds, "Ultimately, I am answering to the director." (Silver says he takes "full responsibility" for the 2008 production's outcome; he says the problem was that the play itself was overly complicated.)
Kushner cites another common dynamicsome directors, he notes, prefer keeping the director-designer relationship "sealed off" from the playwright, developing and implementing their ideas in a united front and then hoping the playwright just goes along. But far more common are designerslike David Korinswho say they find collaborating with playwrights essential. "I try to be really inclusive and hold their hands so we can march forward together," Korins asserts. "The playwrights hold the keythey are often writing much more specifically about a location than they give themselves credit for."
Korins says this attitude took his frequent collaborator Hwang by surprise the first time the two worked together, on Yellow Face, directed by Leigh Silverman in 2007 at Los Angeles's Center Theatre Group and New York City's Public Theater. "I was asking all these questions and he was getting a little withdrawn, which I found strange, till he said he'd never had a conversation like this with a designer."
Korins's open approach has also worked well, the designer says, with writers Adam Rapp, whose descriptions of scenic elements are very specific, and Christopher Durang, who is very sensitive to tone. Korins recalls Durang unexpectedly insisting on adherence to realism within the world of one of his zany plays, asking: "Would you believe that this person has a yellow room?"
For his part, Patel says the dynamic of interaction depends on the playwright's bent. LaBute, he says, "is interested in design and has a great vocabulary," while Dinner with Friends playwright Donald Margulies, a former graphic designer, has specific ideas about "how people are defined by the things they own."
While many scribes love the nitty-gritty details of design collaborations, others prefer a more general consultation. "I want to see the overall plan and feel comfortable with it," Auburn says, "but I don't want to worry about the mechanics of it. I wouldn't pay attention to that level of detail in my own house, much less on a stage set. There are other things I should be worrying about."
Kushner agrees: "I worry about the weakening of my concentration on the tasks of the playwright," he reasons. There is, he confesses, also a pragmatic reason behind this separation of powers. "With the first production of Angels in America, I surprised myself at how little help I could actually be." In his early days he fantasized about writing, directing and designing his own plays, but he "let go of that impulse, especially as I came to understand that what scenic designers do is really much more difficult than what I naïvely thought."
One of the greatest tools a designer can bring to a new play is flexibility. Working on Hwang's Yellow Face in Los Angeles, Korins initially used a large light box to communicate how the show was shifting from one location to another. But when it became clear that the audience was able to follow the action easily and that the light box slowed the action down, Korins eliminated it.
Beatty says his own most unusual design adjustment came on the 1980 Broadway production of Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, about a gay paraplegic Vietnam veteran, which read like a drama but got so many laughs in the first preview "that it turned out he'd written a comedy. So we changed the wallpaper and the paint in the house to lighten things up."
Relative newcomer to the field Erika Sheffer says that while she could picture each room while writing her first play, Russian Transport, which ran in New York this past season under the auspices of the New Group, she did not impose those details on the production's set designer, Derek McLane. Of his own accord, McLane came up with the perfect ugly couch and wall units that seemed lifted from the Soviet immigrant Brooklyn homes the writer knew so well.
Sheffer wanted Russian Transport, which traces the destructive effects on a family from a relative's visit, to open with an air mattress popping out of a cupboard and filling up on its own. "It was really challenging for the designer, but I thought it would be creepy and set a tone," the playwright says, adding that while she wrote it into the script, she was prepared to ditch the ideaespecially when it worked only erratically during previews. A last-minute adjustment to the cupboard doors solved the problem.
Playwright Katori Hall pushed her design team even further with the ending for her Broadway success The Mountaintop, which shifts suddenly from the hyperrealistic setting of the motel room where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his last night, to a wildly theatrical and metaphoric journey both to "the mountaintop" and, using video, across the decades.
"I just wrote, 'The walls break apart and the room floats away,'" Hall says. She describes designer David Gallo's solution to that conundrum as "amazing and profoundit was exactly what I wanted to see."
However, Gallo's full-fledged concept could not be realized. "We wanted to lift King up to the mountaintop physically, but it would have cost up to $7,000 extra, so David figured out how to make the background shift so it would look symbolically like he was there," Hall reports. (And, having found in Gallo someone who could "get inside my mind with such clarity of understanding of my artistic intention," Hall was quick to work with him again on the 2012 staging at New York's Signature Theatre Company of her subsequent drama Hurt Village.)
Designer Korins says that expansive thinking is always the best way to try to fulfill a playwright's dream. "I don't design for budgets or parameters," he says. "I try to create in a bubble, doing the seminal versiona Spider-Man-sized setand then work my way backwards to reality."
The catch with thinking big, many playwrights say, is that sometimes designers and directors become enamored with their elaborate creationsas in Nottage's shower situation.
"It's very easy to get seduced by set models and not realize that design elements might obscure the work," Nottage cautions, adding that lavish creations that require long set changes and "interminable blackouts" can drain a play's energy. "I can be convinced to go along if something serves the narrative, but I don't want anything extraneous."
Albee, of course, is well known as a playwright who stands his ground. In one playhe won't name it or the designerhe wrote a line about "the ancestral manse," so when the designer showed him plans for a Bauhaus home, he rejected it. "It was beautiful, but it was not an ancestral manse. And I am not going to change my line. So he had to revise the whole thing."
Patel says Albee is "famously outspoken" about his sets but he's not being outrageous, merely trying to bring to life "the specific vision in his head."
Even playwrights not as tightly bound to their own ideas echo Albee's basic sentiments. "Plays can be weighed down by the sets," Baitz says, recalling fondly the low-budget, 2004 Center Theatre production of The Paris Letter, where director Michael Morris and designer Michael Brown created a set that was "a very long table and planes of light. That was a huge lesson for me about the theatre of essentials." By contrast, Baitz remembers a play of his (which he won't name) that had been done at Naked Angels in New York with a few bits of furniture, but when it received a bigger production, "there was so much stuff that a room had to be cleared out for the set and it had so many stagehands it felt like the Rose Bowl Parade. It was impressive, but with that much weight it is easier to sink. A designer has to know what is essential and what isn't."
LaBute says bigger budgets can often be a trap. "When a play transfers, people start asking, 'How do we "enhance" it? How many sirens or flashing lights do we need?'" he says. "Throwing money at something is the opposite of creativity."
Hall says the paring down can even be useful with props. For Hurt Village, director Patricia McGregor told her to clear out anything she thought unnecessary. Hall removed spoons and cups used for cooking food and, more significantly, for cooking drugs. "There are 13 scenes in the second act and I wanted the transitions to move faster. I didn't want the actors getting too busy with the measuring cups," Hall says, opting for a sharper version over a more realistic one.
Korins says most designers learn that less is usually better but must "fight that impulse to do what is 'cool'I can make the floor split open and light spill out, but the question is whether that is germane to that exact moment."
It is crucial for a playwright to say no if the designer goes too far, according to Albee. One change in recent years that alarms him is that "so many young playwrights are pushed into thinking they are a small part of a large wheel. That is terribly dangerous. We shouldn't have absolute authority, but it's our play."
Some playwrights are always willing to wrestle over the devilish details, even if it's not something spelled out in his script. Silver freely admits he has "pouted and whined" to get green chairs in a hospital room swapped out for something bluish (The Lyons); during Raised in Captivity (which debuted, in 1995, at the Vineyard) he "sulked so loudly" over a baseball cap that made one actor "look like Charlie Brown" that the director stopped rehearsal and removed the cap, asking Silver, "Are you happy now?" (Silver was, especially after the actor put on a do-rag instead.)
But Baitz says that for many playwrights, the process of coming to terms with a play's visual realization is evolutionary. "The longer you do it, the more you are able to say, 'I don't think so.'" Nottage agrees, saying that while she used to doubt her own visual sense and to automatically think that the designer or director was right, she has a much stronger personal aesthetic now: "It's a muscle I've developed over time."
Happily, for every story of a playwright feeling compelled to put her foot down, there are many more about how a design beautifully illuminated, or even improved, upon a writer's original work. Sometimes it's a small touchlike the traditional Western paintings Beatty added to the walls of the Palm Springs home Baitz had envisioned for the rich conservative family of Other Desert Cities. For his 2003 musical Caroline, or Change, Kushner had in mind "a sweet, fairy tale" house in Lake Charles, La., where he grew up. But for the play's New York premiere at the Public Theater, director George C. Wolfe and designer Riccardo Hernandez "created something more spare, something darker and more haunted," Kushner says. "And it worked."
Other times a set can have a broader impact on the text itself. Nottage found that the set for the debut of Ruined established such a strong sense of place that she could "strip away dialogue" that had served that role in her script. And Hwang remembers that his first professional play provided an a-ha moment: He wrote FOBwhich features a scene in which a Chinese restaurant splits apartto be performed in a lounge at his college dorm, but it ended up being staged at the Public in 1980. "It was my first chance to see what a set could do," he says, and he soon discovered that the stylized scenic design lessened the need for overly stylized language and blocking.
Sheffer also learned how design can influence her play in her rookie outing. She wrote Russian Transport under the assumption that it would be done on a minimal budget in a black box, but the play was scooped up by director Scott Elliott and the New Group, who gave it a much richer production. When she saw McLane's two-story design, Sheffer felt freed to speed the pace of the action, with activity on both floors that obviated the need for blackouts and maintained the play's intense momentum. Next time around she won't be so stingy. "Now I'm spoiled," she admits. "For my new play, I'm assuming I'll get lucky again, and I'm letting my imagination run away with itself."
Brooklyn-based arts reporter Stuart Miller is a frequent contributor to this magazine.