Scenic Designer Tom Burch met with Associate Director of Education Beatrice Bosco in mid-August, just around the time he and Director Amanda Dehnert entered into early discussions about the design of the play.
Burch's set for Short Shakespeare!
Romeo and Juliet
CST: What did you discuss at your first meeting with the director?
TOM BURCH: We talked about basic feelings and themes. At this point, it is about getting the ideas out there and dealing with the overall concepts first. Later, we can deal with the fact that the show has to tour, and what that means about the design, and how that affects some of the choices.
For any play, for the first meeting I have already read the script. Typically, Iíve also gone ahead and done some research, bringing images to the meeting so the director can see what Iím thinking about. I have a filing cabinet at home of just pictures—torn out of magazines, books, just anything I thought was interesting—and I go through that first and pull anything that I think applies to the story. I set them in front of a director and, by watching how they react to those images, I can understand a little bit about how they are feeling about the show visually. Theyíll typically be drawn to certain colors or shapes, a certain emotional feeling, or a texture. If Iíve done my job correctly, Iíll bring in 20 or 30 images, and there will be four or five that spark the directorís interest. Usually, something connects those images. I use that to base some of my early ideas.
CST: So how did your meeting with Amanda go?
TB: Amanda had sent me an email saying: ďI know that the court is about order and the forest is about chaos.Ē Her feeling at this point about the play is that we need a degree of structure in our lives, and thatís what the court represents, and we also need a degree of chaos in our lives, but we canít all live in the forest. The play is about finding that chaos and bringing it back into the court, so that weíre left with a sense of ďOkay, thereís a balance here.Ē She feels that at the beginning of the play weíre in an unbalanced world. You canít have the strict rules and the chaos separately—you have to have a symbiosis. With the research I brought, those are the images I noticed that she reacted to. Thatís going to spark our next round of thinking about the show.
CST: As youíve said, itís too early to start thinking about how all this needs to fit in a van, but youíve met that challenge before.
TB: Yes, this will be my fifth Short Shakespeare!, so Iíve learned about the fun and exciting strictures of a touring show! The venues that this show goes to are so vastly different. Sometimes it is performed in a bare-bones auditorium, and sometimes in a very nice performing arts theater. We have to make sure we can load a truck easily, and that weíre not above 12 or 14 feet in height for load-in through doors and tight places. Also, when it plays here at the theater on Navy Pier, our set is going to live on top of the Macbeth set. Do we try to mask that set and just deal with the floor in some way? Or do we work our design in such a way that it feeds into that world but then has enough of its own that it can tour separately and not lose something in that translation?
We were very lucky last year when we did the abridgment of Romeo and Juliet. The Othello set was somewhat visually neutral—there was a lot of darker wood, and a fairly simple wooden floor. We treated our deck the same as the Othello deck so that when Romeo and Juliet was playing here it would fit in, but, when it toured, it had that little bit of color that it could transfer.
I think that our hardest pairing was three years ago when we did Macbeth on top of the Much Ado About Nothing set, which was this absolutely gorgeous production, but it was all very light and bright, with all this beautiful greenery—and we were trying to do a dark, heavy play on top of it. Sometimes the pairings make things a little difficult. In that instance, we created a black surround that masked the upstage frivolity and allowed us to create a nook of a space that pretty much gave us a blank canvas to work from.
CST: Looking ahead to this yearís show, have you seen the Macbeth designs?
TB: I have seen pictures of the model. Some details will change but the general feeling is there and we know the basic layout of how the space is going to work. Itís all gray, a sort of middle gray. It has a really, really lovely modern, contemporary feel, and itís giving us a very interesting, very clean slate of a look that we can build from. In general, with many of Shakespeareís plays, the designs have to have a degree of flexibility because there are so many locations dictated by the text. Given the stage here, that deep thrust requires that there not be a huge amount of scenery in the downstage area because it would block audience views. So, more often than not, weíre able to use the other deck and set design as a really solid base to build from. And Macbeth will give us that very nicely.
CST: But Midsummer has, as you said, two different locations that are really diametrically opposed.
TB: Yes, it has two contrasting worlds—the order and the chaos. The challenge is that we go from the court to the forest and then back to the court, and we want the court at the end to be somehow changed but not completely. We will eventually figure out what this world is. Iím really excited about where weíre headed. Itís been a really interesting conversation thus far.