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Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things.
Today's topic: jaw-dropping sets
Linda Buchwald: Hi Liz. I'm so glad to have someone to talk to about sets! I feel like when people see shows they always go on about the acting and the writing, but not the sets! And I've been thinking about sets a lot since seeing Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at the Vineyard. First of all, did you see it?
Liz Richards: Yes, I saw it a couple of weeks ago. I thought it was great.
Linda: OK good. It was a great play and production. Takeshi Kata designed the sets. It starts off in a magazine office that's really realistic looking. But the part that made my jaw drop was in Act II, when the curtain came up and the set was completely transformed into a Starbucks. And it looked exactly like a Starbucks!
Liz: Yes! We actually talked about it on the podcast. I said it was the most Starbucks-y Starbucks I'd ever seen.
Linda: Haha! That's a good description. Even the displays were spot-on. I used to work as a Starbucks barista, and the set gave me serious flashbacks.
Liz: Maybe this makes me a poseur or a hipster or whatever, but I like the stage Starbucks more than the generic "coffee shop" sets you sometimes get. There's such a specificity to it. We all recognize it as a Starbucks. Even though I don't think the logo even appeared anywhere.
Linda: It didn't? I thought they had the Starbucks cups, but maybe not. Maybe it just felt so much like a Starbucks that I assumed the logo was there when it wasn't.
Liz: I could be wrong. I just Googled but it wasn't any help. (Editor's note: They did use Starbucks cups.)
Linda: But I love that. In general, I love realistic sets that look and feel so much like the place that you forget it is a set.
Liz: And then the second scene of Act II in Gloria is another office that's almost the same as Act I, but not. I thought that was such a great reinforcement of the way tragedy comes back in different forms, which was also supported by the doubling of the actors.
Linda: Yes, I was also impressed that it was a similar office but with a different configuration.
Liz: When I started thinking about jaw-dropping sets, I realized that the two types I admire are ones that are so incredibly realistic, I am amazed, or ones that are so abstract, they surprise me. Speaking of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins plays, I think the set for An Octoroon had both of those attributes.
Linda: Yes, that's so true. But can you expand on that?
Liz: An Octoroon's set was incredible due to its sheer size, and the way it kept evolving. The way the wall fell down, the cotton balls everywhere, the giant projections. And then, at the end of the play, you get this incredibly authentic cabin on a swamp. It was realistic and representative, and the way those elements came together was just great. That was Mimi Lien, who also did Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.
Linda: Yes, I completely agree. You know what else I always geek out about when it comes to sets? A rotating set. I love a rotating set.
Liz: Agreed. Why is it so cool? I don't know. But I love it.
Linda: Did you see Christopher Durang's Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them at the Public or David Henry Hwang's Chinglish on Broadway?
Linda: Both of the sets were by David Korins, and they both rotated. You probably know more about how they work than I do, but I was amazed. The Why Torture is Wrong set had these different rooms and it would rotate, often with the actors still on the set, perfect for a farce. And then Chinglish was actually a double turntable so it was a constant surprise. Korins said in interviews that he thought of it like a Chinese puzzle.
Liz: I remember seeing the rotating set in Les Mis when I was a kid and I thought it was the most amazing thing. I spent half my "review" writing about that rotating bit.
Linda: You wrote reviews as a kid?
Liz: I did "kids'-eye-view reviews" for a local radio station when I was 7. They sent me to a lot of shows with my family. I was a radio geek as a kid. And now I'm on a podcast!
Linda: That's so cute. Anyway, the Chinglish set had a working elevator. I'm such a dork about that stuff. Wow! The elevator door opened!
Liz: I get really excited whenever there are working kitchen appliances onstage. In The River, when Hugh Jackman cleaned and washed the fish! And David Cromer's Our Town, when they pulled back the curtain on the kitchen and you could smell the bacon and eggs. So cool.
Linda: Or in Skylight when Carey Mulligan cooks spaghetti Bolognese. I was in the back and I could smell it! I also remember seeing Miss Saigon at LA's Ahmanson Theatre when I was 12 or 13. I had never seen anything on that scale before. They had a helicopter! And a car! Talk about jaw-dropping. John Napier did that set.
Liz: I saw the opera Nixon in China and they landed a plane onstage. It was amazing.
Linda: So are things like planes part of the set? Or are they props?
Liz: I'd say the plane and helicopter are set pieces. A car is probably a prop, but I've never worked on a show with the budget or space for a car, so I've never thought about how to classify it.
Linda: Props are such a big part of sets. Like the Starbucks set would not be as impressive without all those props that scream Starbucks.
Liz: I think little bits of set dressing can really take a set to the next level. Did you see Caryl Churchill's Love and Information?
Linda: No, I missed it.
Liz: Miriam Buether's set was a giant, bright-white gridded box. But with a few set pieces and dressing, they totally transformed the space for each scene. I was so excited every time the lights went up, and there were something like 70 plays in that show! Each play was so short, the designer had to get you into the world of it immediately. So the sets were simple but told you everything.
Linda: That sounds cool. Any other sets blow your mind?
Liz: The set for Annie Baker's The Flick is so realistic. It's perfect.
Linda: Oh my God, I love The Flick so much. And David Zinn's set! I was thinking about that one, too.
Liz: It is so incredibly exact. Right down to the awful colors and that weird velour that's in all the old movie theatres.
Linda: Again, when every detail is right, it feels so real. Even before the play starts, you know exactly where you are. I guess in The Flick's case, the title helps with that, too.
Liz: Definitely. But are there any nonrealistic sets that have wowed you?
Linda: I'm sure there are, but I'm having trouble thinking of any at the moment. There have been minimalist shows that I've loved, but then it's more about the production than the set. Or the choice to not have much of a set.
Liz: It's funny that seeing a set of a room that looks just like a real room can be so amazing, but it is.
Liz: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was gorgeous and totally nonrealistic in a way that made sense for the play.
Linda: Curious Incident is a good example of a nonrealistic set that I loved. It was by Bunny Christie and Finn Ross, and they won the Tony for their work.
Liz: It made me rethink my stance on acting cubes! (My stance usually being: shows, you are better than that.) The way they translated the world through the way he sees it, great work.
Linda: I guess it's all about what works for a particular production. Curious Incident is meant to show you what it's like inside Christopher's mind, so it shouldn't look real or regular.
Liz: Right. There are elements of realism in it, but other parts are totally fuzzed out. You learn more about him through the way the scenes come together. Which details are important to him, and which aren't. I think we covered all the sets I was thinking about.
Linda: Yes, but I'll probably think of 10 more tonight!
Liz: Totally! I like to geek out over good design.
Linda: Who doesn't? (All of my non-theatre friends.)
Liz: Ha! Those are the people saying, "So they made a movie theatre that looks like a movie theatre. So what?" But that is hard.
Now it's your turn! Which theatre sets totally made you go gaga? Geek out with us in the comments!
Top photo: The Starbucks scene in Gloria. Photo by Carole Rosegg. All other photos by Joan Marcus.