Creating the Look of Our Town: Q and A with Set Designer Brian Mallgrave
By Leslie Simon
Thornton Wilder's classic American play Our Town requires minimal sets and props to tell its universal story. With that said, how does a set designer begin to create something out of nothing? We spoke to Our Town Set Designer Brian Mallgrave about creating space for actors, and making finished products look unfinished.
Arvada Center: Our Town author Thornton Wilder made a radical decision to forgo theatre curtains and present a bare stage. Where does one even begin when designing “nothing?”
Brian Mallgrave: Designing a show like Our Town can be deceptively challenging in that - although it looks "undesigned" - we added theatrical textures to support the space creating an illusion that the overall look had existed prior. I began with several conceptual chats with the director, then sketched several ideas to capture his overall vision. Once I felt our paths were similar, I was able to further support this type of storytelling in a solid foundation and also with some creative problem-solving. My main goal was to elevate the "backstage feel" of this production and rely on the illusion of finishes and patinas that evoke memory and time passing.
AC: When you have few props and set pieces, the floor becomes extremely important. What influenced you to come up with the design that is essentially a stage-within-a-stage-within-a-stage?
BM: The strengths of this script involve allowing the audience to read between the lines and create their own backdrops. To support this idea, our wooden floor "slats" are evocative of empty lines on a page. In considering practical matters of the space, it became apparent that levels would work against us. To highlight and isolate a theatrical "stage space" in lighter tones- we were interested in a visual diagonal shift. In order to make it fit our parameters well, I framed it off with yet another "square" for composition. With darker tones surrounding, we are able to utilize the outside space in a way that is not necessarily disconnected, but not as focused as the "stage proper." This seemed to support ideas of fluidity, blocking, and transitions.
AC: What unique challenges do you face when you have so much freedom?
BM: I'd say our freedom was a bit more limited in this respect, as to veer too far off the path of Wilder's original intent would pull us far away from the rooted concept that makes this story work so well. Overall, the theatrical emptiness as a main character is what seems to guide the audience away from realistic backdrops - and subtly highlights a focus on character and relationship. I felt if I were too heavy-handed in design, we would potentially lose some of the play's important fragile nature. Considering that Our Town reps with The Book Club Play - this was an important problem to solve in that both directors are able to serve very different intentions and foundations scripturally - with a similar look.
Set rendering sketch by Brian Mallgrave
AC: In what ways do you hope the audience’s imagination fills in the blanks?
BM: Almost similar to reading a novel, with Our Town we are only given an outline or fragments in terms of place or location. I think it is part of the intrigue for audiences, even subconsciously, to watch these characters grow and emerge and create their own backdrops in how they see a wall, window, or door come to life in imagination. Great fun in that no one physical idea of "Grover's Corners" will be similar to another. In this manner, the audience is forced to take that responsibility, and perhaps, make the story even more personal.
AC: Our Town is a play about putting on a play. What metatheatrical elements did you enjoy getting to work with?
BM: One of the most clever and fun elements within this design is altering and refinishing furnishings to mimic how rehearsal furniture usually appears on an empty stage. Paint marks, tattered, overused, and mostly forgotten pieces actually work for us in this scenario as part of its design. In a manner, this breaks down walls and seems to encompass a bit more of the reality my colleagues and I regularly work with - and less of a "veneer of illusion" for audiences. Although it should appear subtle - great attention to detail is put into an opposite scope rather than the "perfect pieces" with "perfect finishes" onstage. Another fun element was enhancing the lighting grid and adding to what was already a part of our space. Being subtle, yet requiring a lot of work and thought, was a unique perspective from which to view this entire process.
AC: Are there any surprises audiences should pay attention for?
BM: It was great fun collaborating and creating with this team as a whole. I would definitely watch for not only how the natural progression of the script mesmerizes the spectator - but how we subtly enhance that element through staging, lighting, immersion, and other layers of the unexpected.