ON THE SET FOR RABBIT HOLE

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.

In terms of thinking like the characters, we also wanted the appliances to be new in Becca and Howie's eat-in kitchen. The characters do quite a bit of eating in the show as many of our audience members have pointed out. We knew there had to be a sense of convenience to the kitchen and wanted stainless steel for the stove and the refrigerator maintain the modern sense of style. Fortunately we work with Matt McCann whose company Green Appliance refurbishes refrigerators, stoves, washers and dryers. As luck would have it Matt had just what we were looking for. The same was true for the cabinets because Jim Drader in addition to being the Chairman of CST's Board, is also the Director of New Creation Men's Center and Resale Shop. They had lots of kitchen counters to give our kitchen the look we were going for. We wanted both areas to reflect a warmth and love expressed by the members of this family.

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.

 

Guest Review: "Truly remarkable"

 

Two days after seeing the performance of Rabbit Hole, I’m still thinking about it.  I did not expect to be so consumed by a play.  

It’s a testament to the talent of the five member cast and to director David Pera who assembled them. They have created a tightly knit family unit bound together by the same tragedy, each dealing with it as best he can. They are going through the motions of living their lives, but each simmers under the surface with unresolved grief.  That these five fine actors can relay the shattered emotions of each character is remarkable.

Mary DeBoer portrays a mother consumed by the overwhelming need to control everything she can while her life reels out of control.   Her performance is a strong contrast to Dean Perrine as the father who secretly controls his inner self, hiding his impotent rage.  Barbara Baker Malangoni, as the grandmother, is the rock for her daughter but is never given permission to grieve as she needs to.  Carly Smith, the aunt, and Jacob Barber, the teenage driver, personalize self-destruction, guilt, and a desperate need for forgiveness.  All characters represent different aspects of the grieving process, and none can either understand or help anyone else.

This performance is truly remarkable. The audience on opening night was mesmerized.  For anyone who has lived long enough to lose a family member, this play will hit home.  It’s personal.

-Jane Sanders, CST patron

Step by Step: Painting Rabbit Hole

 The third painting that reached the finishing stage in my series of images for next season was the illustration for David Lindsey-Abaire's Rabbit HoleThe play will be directed by my longtime friend and theatrical colleague David Pera and won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 

Actress Cynthia Nixon earned a Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Play in the Broadway production and in 2010, Lindsey-Abaire adapted his play for the screen starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhardt. Both productions received critical acclaim.
 
Rabbit Hole centers around a family's reaction to the untimely death of a four year old boy. At the center of the grieving process is the boy's mother, Becca who is trying to deal with it by erasing her memories of him. Her actions are troubling to her husband, sister, and mother. Also stepping forward during this time of trauma is the 17 year old student who accidently hit Danny with with his car causing the boy's death.
 
The title of the play comes from something the 17 year old says about writing stories about creating "rabbit holes" in Danny's memory. Since much of the play's core is focused on Danny's death and Becca's choices, I wanted the image to reflect sadness and loss. I felts the tone of the piece should be captured in cool tones like blues and grays. The other concepts I worked with in sketching ideas was depicting a "hole" to imply a type of emptiness, void or despair. Then ther were the ideas of a "ripple effect" emiting from the loss of this child and how the mother is trying to erase memories of him. One early sketch I did focused on the extreme close-up of a woman's eye with the pupil serving as the black void and the ripple being the blue color of her iris.
 
While I was referencing images to use I found these great somber images of Kate Winslet and Viggo Mortensen. I thought rather than do an extreme close-up, it might be better to show the sadness of the parents and connect them with this void falling between them. Within the void I wanted to place the image of a four year old boy.

 

 

STEP 1: In going from the sketch and idea process to starting the actual painting I usually begin by preparing the canvas. There's sometimes a bit of experimentation and then if it doesn't work out I follow my instincts in being improvisational. An effect that I wanted to use on this one was a chipped paint/ crackling effect that I've used before on some sets. The first part of this process is to use a gloss paint on the surface and then cover that surface with a glue. One those are dry a thinned flat latex is applied and since the paint doesn't have anything to absorb into, it shrinks and cracks when it dries. Well, that's the idea anyway. However, I had never tried this on canvas before so it didn't really work.  Because I had prepped the canvas with a deep blue and metallic black spray paint for the undercoat, I decided I would manipulate the white colors I had mixed for the top coat. To create a worn and erased looking effect for the surface to depict the parents on I used a toothed putty knife.  It's become one of my favorite uncoventional tools. As I use it, I shape the area that I want to use for the hole/void area.


 

STEP 2: Next I go for my reference photos of Kate, Viggo and a child from a catalogue to use for this suburban New York family. I sketch them in using graphite on the upper left and lower right corners of the canvas. I want to keep the tones muted and the lines sketchy so it gives them the look of being faded and somewhat "erased" themselves. I add blue washes to add dimension to them and white pastel chalk to work in some highlights.

 

  STEP 3: After the parents are sketched in I go to work on my image of Danny. I find a different catalogue image of a four year old with longer blonde hair. As I have doe a lot for this series, I sketch his image in charcoal pencil on a 12" x 12" piece of scrapbooking paper that has a warm tone with writing on it. The color of the paper with the writing work well for his skin tones and hair color. I add white to bring out his shirt and cool washes for shadows and his sweater vest. I go wish washes of a more tan/gold tone for his hair and khaki shorts.
 

 

STEP 4: I cut out the image of the boy and place it into the center of the void and collage it in place. To create the "ripple effect", I cut out ripple sections of the same paper that I drew him on and collage those into the image radiating from the hole. I notice that the ripple and void are kind of obscuring the image of the father and decide to paint over him. This focuses and simplifies the image to being more about the mother and son. In the lower right corner where I painted out Viggo, I create a continuation of the character Becca's body. The placement of the boy disappearing down the "rabbit hole" now seems to be over the mother's heart.



  STEP 5: Finally I add more details of shadow and light to bring out the two subjects. Every once and a while I drag my putty knife across the image to create a rubbed or scratched away effect to the illustration. Looks like all I have left to do is hide the exclamation mark, and this one is done. This one was a lot of fun because it involved some experimentation and some interesting changes of game plan. The beauty of art some times is that there's not really a right or wrong and as I often tell people "mistakes in art are fixable."
 
 

Well, stay tuned to our Chicago Street Theatre blog because I've got about six or so paintings to go and you'll never believe which one I got done next! See you Next Time.

 -Posted by Eric Brant, Illustrator