Production Interview with AN OCTOROON Set Designers Christopher and Justin Swader

Set Designers for Company One Theatre's production of AN OCTOROON, Chris and Justin Swader.

Set Designers for Company One Theatre’s production of AN OCTOROON, Chris and Justin Swader.

When translating a play into a production, reading the first lines of the script’s stage directions is the literary equivalent of walking into a theatre and seeing the set. It is the job of the Set Designers on an artistic team to bring what is written on the page to what the audience will physically see on stage. For some productions, this might look like an incredibly detailed-oriented dining room, equipped with large oak dining table, a Swarovski crystal chandelier, and an antique buffet table. For others, two black blocks pushed together and a couple of chairs can represent the same dining room. Set designers are vital members of the artistic team. Like every other artistic collaborator on a project, it is their job to interpret the work of the playwright and transfer that interpretation to the stage.

The set designers for Company One Theatre’s (C1) production of AN OCTOROON—two brothers, Christopher and Justin Swader—have designed numerous productions, including projects in New York City where they are artistically based. Their last design project with C1 was on THE DISPLACED HINDU GODS TRILOGY by Aditi Brenen Kapil in 2014. C1 consistently strives to work with artists like Chris and Justin who enjoy collaborating with other designers, are deeply engaged in each project, and, perhaps most importantly, take risks with bold design choices.

Christopher and Justin expanded on their creative process as designers on AN OCTOROON and on other projects in an interview with Fran Da Silveira, an Education Associate at C1. The images included in the interview were researched and collected by Chris and Justin during their research of set designs for AN OCTOROON.

What is your “concept-to-production” process?

Justin and I don’t have a specific formula for how we take a script on the page and formulate that into a fully realized design. I wish it were easier to dissect exactly how that discovery transpires, but the mystery and adventure that each process brings is often what is most exciting. We always start with the text, reading it several times until we are at a place where we can clearly start responding to the kinds of imagery that it draws up.

The Set Designers for AN OCTOROON researched the fundamentals of performance spaces to create their design for Company One Theatre’s production.

The Set Designers for AN OCTOROON researched the fundamentals of performance spaces to create their design for Company One Theatre’s production.

We both usually have lots of questions, some of them very specific and others extremely open-ended. The subsequent reads of the script are where we really start to make some assumptions and let the wheels start turning. By that point, we have usually had some conversations with the director to discuss their vision for the play and any initial impulses they might have. It is always constructive when the initial discussions with the director are primarily focused on what excites them about the play, and then slowly start to let that excitement manifest into what the world might be. While it’s not always the case, having the other designers in the room early on is a real treat. It is always a thrilling experience when everyone is actively discovering and problem-solving as a group—those inspired moments of cross-collaboration, where perhaps a sound designer solves an issue that is affecting the set designer or the lighting designer and costume designer work hand-in-hand to make a particular moment come to life. That’s what makes creating art in theatre so rewarding. Fortunately, the process with C1 has been especially collaborative in how they involve the entire group in discussions and meetings.

We are both very visual, so we usually will create a model in 3D form during the process—even if it is first crudely mocked up with paper and tape—anything that helps communicate the design in miniature form before committing to it in full scale is important. Sketches and renderings are also useful tools in putting an idea to the test. Once designs begin to take more shape, we will translate it into technical drawings on the computer and hand them off to the technical team to begin construction. After this point in the process, our involvement varies – sometimes we are extremely hands-on, painting and dressing the set ourselves, and other times we are merely there to consult with more skilled and talented artists that will help see the vision through. In either scenario, it is always extremely satisfying when the set is complete, and the actors can inhabit and explore the world that has been created.

A classic image of a Southern plantation, where the action of AN OCTOROON takes place. The set designers used inspiration images like this to develop concepts for their final design.

A classic image of a Southern plantation, where the action of AN OCTOROON takes place. The set designers used inspiration images like this to develop concepts for their final design.

What resources are at the disposal of a set design team (artists, painters, research, production crew, space, etc.)?

It is always most informative for us to visit the space in person in advance of starting the design process. We are always inspired by the architecture of the room and how we can embrace (or in some instances, hide) the quirks and challenges that it presents. Research plays an integral role in shaping the world of the play, whether it be a piece of art or photograph or a passage from a book or article. Sometimes we will start a search on Google Images and that will lead us towards something completely unexpected. Or we will visit the Picture Collection at the Mid-Manhattan New York Public Library, where you can tangibly browse through folders and folders of categorized images. Websites like Flickr and Pinterest are also great resources. We tend to be inspired by the environment around us, so it seems like we are always pulling from various details that we pass on the street or throughout daily life. And it seems like anytime we peruse the aisles at Home Depot, we can be struck by a material or item that could be used effectively in a unique way.

What challenges does AN OCTOROON present that are different from other shows you’ve worked on?

The play operates on so many different levels and asks some bold questions about race and identity, and the real challenge is making sure that we are creating the right environment for all of these big ideas to live in. Sometimes a play has a very specific set of parameters that you need to stay within, but Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins leaves lots of room for interpretation within the text. Much more than you’d expect. From a design perspective, he doesn’t specify exactly how something should look, which gives the director and design team the kind of freedom to think outside the box. And especially since he has created a world where rules are broken and conventions are shattered, it’s a fun, challenging puzzle to solve.

A poster for the original stage play, The Octoroon, by Boucisoult, which Branden Jacobs-Jenkins uses as the basis for his play, AN OCTOROON.

A poster for the original stage play, The Octoroon, by Boucisoult, which Branden Jacobs-Jenkins uses as the basis for his play, AN OCTOROON.

What is unique about set design elements from 19th century melodrama era of theatre production? How are these incorporated into the set design for AN OCTOROON?

For this design, we wanted to nod to the techniques and characteristics of the 19th Century melodrama but not feel like we had to fully commit to anything too historical. We were inspired by photos and illustrations of real melodramas and let that research color our understanding of the innovations of the time. During the 19th Century, there were great developments in spectacle and technological innovations that helped pave the way for what could be realistically achieved onstage. Stock backdrops and flat, two-dimensional scenery were still used, but new pieces of technology were introduced. One such element was the moving panorama, which was a long piece of painted fabric that unrolled by turning spools to suggest a sense of movement and the illusion of shifting location.

How, if at all, do previous productions of the play influence your design?

In many cases, if it is a well-known work, we have usually seen how other productions have staged or solved a certain moment, and that can be both useful and informative. It is important for us, though, to make sure that we are focused on maintaining the director’s vision, as well as our own, throughout the process, so it can sometimes be distracting to have too much information at hand. In the case of AN OCTOROON, having seen the original production in New York, we wanted to approach the play with fresh eyes for this process. Of course, it’s hard to not feel somewhat influenced by strong choices that were made for a previous production, but our alliance to the text and the trust of the director is what ultimately keeps us on track to create something unique. 

What attracted both of you to the C1 production of AN OCTOROON? What excites you most?When we saw the production of AN OCTOROON in New York last year, we were so impressed by the event of the piece and the kinds of big questions it asked. The play stuck with us for quite some time. Several months later, C1 asked us to collaborate on this production, and we were very excited to be a part of the team that could help share this story with Boston audiences. Since this production is one of the first incarnations outside of the original, there are no preconceived notions of what it can and cannot be—the possibilities are ultimately endless.

How do you envision audiences engaging with the set?

The hope with our all of our designs is that they never pull focus away from the rest of the piece—that they are working in tandem with the rest of the elements onstage. If anything, we hope it helps illuminate the work of Summer L. Williams—Director of AN OCTOROON—and the rest of the team.

Set Designers present a scale model of their final design to the rest of the artistic team—director, costume and lighting designers, actors, and the production staff. The model in this image was presented by the Set Designers for AN OCTOROON weeks before the final dress rehearsal and opening night performance.

Set Designers present a scale model of their final design to the rest of the artistic team—director, costume and lighting designers, actors, and the production staff. The model in this image was presented by the Set Designers for AN OCTOROON weeks before the final dress rehearsal and opening night performance.

More information about the Chris and Justin Swader and their work can be found on their website: www.cjswaderdesign.com

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