The first thing I do when reading a script is to take note of the practical needs: how many settings are there and what are they; what action needs to take place in each, and what kind of furniture or other set pieces are needed. I also begin to envision possible circulation needs, such as entrances and exits and scene changes. These practical issues drive many of the ideas for the design, but the most creative part involves designing the environment(s) that will create emotional and visual support for the play’s story.
I much prefer to acknowledge the theatrical aspect of a play in my designs, by which I mean that I tend toward a more abstract or evocative design rather than trying to create a very realistic setting. In Small Mouth Sounds, I knew I wanted to evoke the majesty and beauty of an old-growth forest without trying to make the audience believe they are looking at real trees or landscape. I also wanted to visually emphasize the small scale of the characters versus the natural environment.
Theatre B has a rather small stage, which can present challenges when there is more than one setting. In addition, anything that needs to be moved for a set change has to be done manually, which can take a lot of time if there is very much involved, so I try to avoid big changes. In Small Mouth Sounds, there are four settings: the meeting room in the Center’s building; the forest; the sleeping cabins in the forest; and the lake where several characters take a swim. In order to avoid lengthy changes, the design is essentially one set in which changes are made with a few chairs and through lighting. The main elements of the set create a peaceful, hilly forest setting with old-growth trees and dappled sunlight. A walking trail disappears over a hillside into the imagined distance, and behind which the lake scene takes place out of sight. (This solves the problem of trying to create an effective lake effect onstage.) A scrim in the background allows for lighting effects to create the various moods and times of day for different scenes. The large meeting room, denoted by chairs, takes place on a wood floor in front of the forest, while the three cabins are created with pools of light against a night sky background.
~ Deborah Davy
Photos by Scott Thuen