by Ellen E Jones, set designer of Lost Nation Theater’s production of Twelfth Night
The set design is a unique take on the script. No good design stands alone as a product or in its creation. The collaborative partnership of the scenic designer and director is usually the first step in the design development, but as the piece moves forward, more voices are added to reach the final design, ranging from the lighting designer to the artistic directors.
In my initial conversations with the director of Lost Nation Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Amanda Rafuse, she talked about the idea of a beach resort, perhaps like Brighton in England—the kind of place where the rich and the average rubbed shoulders on holiday and social class had less meaning. This made it more accessible to a contemporary audience because it was a recognizable type of location and the feeling of royalty morphed into a feeling a celebrity. Amanda was a fabulous director to work with, and as she laid her initial concepts for the show, we both started collecting imagery on Pinterest boards to share and discuss as visual metaphors for the world we wanted to create.
After we looked at imagery from Victorian Brighton Beach, we made the decision to move away from the more watercolor look of that imagery to something bolder, brighter, and more dynamic for this fast moving show.
We had talked about the idea of water and piers and beach changing huts as part of the locale. My first concern as a scene designer is the geography of the set—how to create a space that offers the director many options for staging pictures with multiple levels and movement patterns that accommodate the actors’ needs. At Lost Nation Theater there is the additional consideration of wanting to make sure that all sides of the audience get to see the same show and get the same feeling from the visual environment.
I was really enamored of the pier and the idea of a gazebo of some kind as well as the changing huts. Getting the feeling of those specific structures and accommodating the needs mandated by the script and action resulted in the layout of the setting which morphed through several different incarnations in the design process.
Striped cabanas or changing huts were and are in use internationally, so we moved toward that feeling, but I changed direction to give some variety to the visual environment. I also wanted the crispness and added dimension that a hard surface could provide instead of simply painting flat stripes or using striped fabric. I also wanted the pier to have a more realistic feel, and we were able to find weathered wood pots at ReSource, probably from a barn or similar structure, but perfect for the look I wanted.
Because the prologue centers on the storm at sea, I was always interested in the use of fabric that could create a sense of a sail in the opening and a weeding canopy in the rest of the show as well as having fabric pieces that the actors could move dynamically to help show the violence of the storm. I wanted all of the vertical fabric to have a sense of texture to give a more interesting surface than a flat cyclorama for the lighting designer, James McNamara, to paint with light.
Northern Stage in White River Junction loaned us a number of lovely practical lighting fixtures that helped define the setting as well as some properties and furniture that helped create the appropriate look. The director’s suggestion of adding the aerial fabrics and having performers use them took the look of the storm to a whole new level.
Everything is part of the design process until performance. No design is complete without the performers, musicians, technicians, and the audience that views the show. The moment of total fruition is ephemeral and has subtle differences every performance. But until everything comes together, the scenery is just a lot of material in a hopefully pleasing configuration. It takes all the participants to complete the design.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night plays Thursdays thru Sundays, July 12 thru July 29, at City Hall Arts Center, Montpelier. Actors include Courtney Wood (Silent Sky, Sylvia), Nick Wheeler, (Urinetown) Molly Walsh (Lyddie) Bob Nuner (Judevine) Kate Kenney (Miracle Worker, Eurydice,) and Christopher Scheer (Complete Works of Shakespeare-Abridged, 39 Steps).