Humble Pie in Design

Currently I’m taking an independent study with Jon Savage, that’s focused on creating a world for the play to live in. As an actress I am use to understanding characters within the world of play, but I am not so savvy at having a deep understanding of the practicalities of how to create the world.  I have been working on strengthen this muscle, and truth be told it’s a frustrating process. There is an extreme specificity in design that is hard for me to access.  I’d walk away every week feeling challenged.

One of the biggest lesson I learned was that, it is important to determine whether the reality of the event, or the reality of the fiction is more important.  This means deciding whether-or-not a piece needs to be historically accurate, or if you can take liberties and create a more abstract space. In my particular design project for August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, after weeks of floundering, I realized that reality of the event was most important. I had the epiphany that since the characters were going on a spiritual journey, that the set needed rooted in a singular location. Instead supporting the story, I became more interested in how to make the space exciting.  This is a pitfall for many young scenic designers, which became clear after having a conversation with Jim Noone.

While I was over at the Huntington Jim Noone showed me this incredible model that he created for Luck of The Irish, and it was this simple wooden set of a house. Everything from floor, to the windows was made of wood. In the case of Luck of the Irish he realized that because the story moves throughout times so actively, it becomes increasingly important for the location to stay the same.

After he explained how the set functions he said, “It is a designer’s job to create a world where the story can be told, and the actors can be heard. Too many designers forget this. They begin to fuss with the set, when it isn’t really about them—it’s about the actors being able to tell the story. Design requires humility.”

I know that this may seem like a simple concept, but I have never heard a scenic designer talk about how their craft demands humility. I then related the concept of humility back to my work as an actor, as an actor my job is simply tell the story. I have to give that story all the ingredients it needs to be heard, and that requires setting my pride aside.

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