Building the World

Mon, 09/12/2011

Scenic and Lighting Designer, Thom Weaver, brings us the into planning and building the Green Sheep.

The oddity of the environment that Annie Baker describes for her play, The Aliens, was truly the biggest challenge of my task.  The back area of a Vermont coffee shop, complete with trash and recycling, seems an odd location for this beautiful play.  As someone who grew up in suburbia though, I knew full well why Jasper and KJ preferred this isolated location.  They are people who live comfortably on the margins, on the outside.  People who would never dream of going inside what I’m sure was a very nice cafe.  Instead they saw beauty in their surroundings, in the trash around them, and in the truth behind a facade of hipster coffee shops and bucolic New England life.  Most of all they saw beauty in their own isolation and quiet.

If there was a central image I began thinking about, it was the fences that surround this place.  I wanted an abundance of fences and “you can’t do this or that” signs.  I sensed a duality in the fence: at once attempting to keep them out, and also protecting them from what’s on the other side.  I also felt it needed to be vivid and rich.  We looked for props and scenic pieces that were rich in color and contrast.  I felt this wasn’t simply the drab back area of a commercial enterprise, but instead a place full of fancy and color.  Something about this place captured their imagination: it’s truth, it’s nature, it’s wear-and-tear perhaps. 

And of course there was the most basic challenge of all:  Studio X.  How do we design a setting so decidedly exterior in a room that is so decidedly interior?  The solution was to integrate the two so that there was some confusion as to where the space started and set ended.  By seamlessly blending the scenic space with the room, and through painting and trees and ivy, we were able to re-contextualize the room so that even the windows, heater, and cement floor could be believed as an exterior space.     

I spent a great deal of time researching the kind of environment I was looking for.  While I started online, I quickly grew frustrated with what I was finding and set out on foot in my neighborhood of South Philly.  I became very excited by the richness and diversity of locations there, and much of what you see is taken not from Vermont, but from right here in Philadelphia. 

The objects themselves, such as the picnic table or the stockade fence were of particular importance to me.  I felt strongly, and have always felt, that it’s always better to have the real thing rather than a facsimile of the real thing.  The stockade fence is from Joe Canuso’s house in Maryland.  The table and dumpster were purchased on Craigslist.  These objects have a history, and a lifetime.  Their distressing and age are not the product of scenic art, but instead the product of age and use, of weather and sun.  Not only is this an exciting design approach, it’s also an environmentally responsible one as well. I’m always happy when we can recycle materials and objects.

I was also the Lighting Designer of this project, which had it’s own challenges as well.  KJ talks about how abnormally hot it is, which was my way into creating what felt like a hard, high, revealing quality of sunlight.  For the evening scenes, the vague sense of moonlight was accompanied by the security lights of the cafe’s back door.  Party lights adorned the space for the July 4th celebration.  And then, of course, there were fireworks.  Never an easy challenge in a small space.

The director, Matt Pfeiffer, and I have had a long and productive relationship.  Our first show together was American Buffalo for Exile.  It’s a project I’ll never forget, not only because of it’s profound and intense beauty, but because it began a collaborative and personal relationship with Matt that is sustained and exciting.  Matt is one of my closest and best friends and equally close collaborators, and the result of that is our ability to push one another, to challenge and excite.  The other result is a kind of un-spoken language that defines our process often.  Matt and I tend to speak without speaking, speak in broken sentences.  His greatest quality, for me, is his inherent trust in the artists he hires.  I know he believes in what I can do, and more so he believes what the play can do.  That creative freedom is priceless.

I’ll invite you to look for the small details on the set that lend to it’s authenticity and truthfulness.  Natives of New England will even notice a few things that will feel like home.  Most of all I hope you find this place to be a beautiful one.  A space that, like the characters of this play, surprises you with hidden beauty and detail and thoughtfulness and heart.