I have often said that the reasons I like doing theatre are because it allows me to be part of something bigger than myself and the extra bonus of getting to wear a lot of hats. One hat that I take an extreme amount of pride in is as a set designer.
For me scenic design is a technical area of theatre that is just as important as acting or directing. Like lighting and sound, the set to a play is like an additional character in the play. It suggests an environment that the other characters will inhabit and creates a tone for the work that the audience is about to see. It also gives the audience their first impression of the characters that they will see on stage because Chicago Street Theatre is essentially a "Black Box" stage with no Act Curtain. The audience because of this, sees the set from the moment that they enter the auditorium.
As the designer for our current production of Rabbit Hole I wanted to design a location that looked like a contemporary suburban home in Upstate New York. We as the audience need to see a world where everything appears to be going right for the characters in the play. I designed the living room to be fresh and contemporary and wanted the kitchen to be an additional extension of the family's living space. The space had to suggest this is a new family that spends a lot of time in the open concept living room and kitchen. These are areas that they are comfortable in and where they gather quite frequently. We wanted the appliances and furnishings to be new and comfortable.
My plan all along was to use a couch and a chair from my own home for the living room. Both of these pieces are used a lot by my own kids. For the coffee table we used these beautiful footstool pieces loaned to us from our friends at Bargain Barn. Because Danny, the boy whose death is at the center of the play, would have been a toddler not that long ago, I chose to use footstools with soft corners rather than a traditional coffee table with hard edges. Being a parent myself, I know that when my first child was born how my wife and I got rid of quite a few hard edged furniture items when our daughter was learning to walk. As with directing, a set designer is at their best when they get inside the heads of all of the characters in the play.
To further add to the sense of style we were going for, Lighting Designer, Bob Cooley and I talked about the types of "practical lighting" that could be present in the space. Bob found some gorgeous lighting fixtures to use above the breakfast bar we had designed and some lovely paper lanterns for above the living room. Bob is brilliant to work with and totally nailed the modern look we were creating for the set. In addition to picking the perfect lighting fixtures, I suspect that Bob did the lights in groupings of three to represent Becca, Howie and Danny. The man's a genius!
I generally don't like to design traditional "Box Sets" that are excessively realistic. "Box Sets" are usually created for shows that stay permanently in one location. Rabbit Hole does stay within Becca and Howie's home the whole time with the exception of the character, Jason's letter/monologue to the family. Although some designers may have approached the script with the idea of making things very real and literal, I tend to treat set design much in the way I create paintings or illustrations. If I wanted it to look super real I wouldn't draw it, I'd take a picture of it. Because it's a play, things can be more interpretive and symbolic allowing the "real" moments to be with what the actors are doing with their performances.
While we wanted there to be a sense of realism with the two main areas of the house, we also wanted imply that something is missing. To convey this I wanted the set to be unfinished in the middle with the tangible walls vanishing. While it might seem like a little thing we wanted the absence of the wall in the center with just a free-floating window to represent a whole host of elements that are in the subtext of David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning script.
One aspect that we wanted to symbolize with the incomplete set was the idea that there is a lot of "unfinished business" within this family. Throughout the play the characters share feelings of being "incomplete" as they are learning to cope with the loss of Danny. Because each character is dealing with the loss in their own way, the space can also represent the "divides" they feel toward one another or the idea that each of them is a "work in progress" as they try to complete their home again. Another aspect that I wanted the incomplete area to represent was Howie's accusation that Becca is trying to erase the memory of Danny. Like a drawing the center of the home is missing or erased.
Once again "Brilliant Bob" comes to the rescue of taking the idea further by using projections of a child's drawings on our cyclorama curtain in the unfinished area. We intentionally use the space to be the character who is at the center of what this play is about. By having the ability to light the "cyke" and project on it we were able to establish mood and create a presence for the Danny character who never appears in the show. Had we gone the literal route with a completed "box set" we probably wouldn't have been able to create this more imaginative environment with such symbolic depth.
One of the best things about being a set designer at Chicago Street Theatre is this level of collaboration that goes into the art we produce. Hats off too for the volunteers like Matt, Jim, Kat Lutze, Mike Porter and Mike Strayer who put their talents into getting the design from the page to the stage. Their efforts certainly gave this incredible show a set deserving of the cast's outstanding performances. If you haven't seen Rabbit Hole please check out this amazing show and our awesome set that will be at CST through June 7.
-Eric Brant, Member
Eric Brant has been a member of CST for 35 years and is currently our Director of Marketing. He creates the painted images for our plays each season and will be directing this year's Shakespeare in the Park production of Romeo and Juliet. He is an award-winning set designer who designed the sets for this season's presentations of: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; The Beauty Queen of Leenane; Rabbit Hole; and Romeo and Juliet.