A Conversation with Set Designer: Beowulf Boritt
Ted Sod: Tell us about yourself. Where were you born? Where were you educated?
BB: I was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and I grew up all over the country. My father was an academic, and he had a lot of different jobs at a lot of different schools. So for the first ten years of my life, I didn't live in the same place more than a couple years at a time. But eventually, my parents settled in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and I spent my teenage years there. I went to college at Vassar, and graduate school for design at NYU.
TS: Did you try acting first? Or were you a child who drew a lot?
BB: I was a child who drew a lot. In junior high and high school, I acted in school plays, and in college a bit, too. At some point I realized that I could put the two things together and that stage design was a perfect complement of the two. I was an intern at a summer stock theatre in Pennsylvania when I was in high school, and that was the first time I was aware of set design as a job that someone could do. And I fairly quickly decided that was what I wanted to do, actually. I went to college planning to become a set designer.
TS: I'm very curious to hear what you made of the play when you first read it.
BB: What I loved about the play and what's been interesting about it, is that without being heavy-handed, it weaves the theme of global warming or environmentalism through it in a really subtle way. I don't think you could miss it when you see or read the play, and that's a hard trick to pull off. I love theatre with some amount of meaning to it. When you can write something that's making a statement, and not deal with it in a ham-handed, clumsy way, it's exciting and somewhat rare. That's really what appealed to me, and that Michael Longhurst, the director, wanted to go at it in a conceptual way.
TS: How much did the family relationships affect your design choices?
BB: In a funny way, it became not so important as we approached the design. I think you could tackle this play as a domestic drama. My job as a set designer sometimes becomes, I need to deliver a kitchen. I need to deliver a living room. I need to deliver a restaurant. It just becomes about the mechanics of getting scenery on- and off-stage, which frankly doesn't interest me very much. Sometimes it's fun and it's a mechanical challenge, but there's not much intellectual challenge in that. So, on some level, the domestic drama part of it was not so important to the set design. It relates a little bit, because we're trying to establish the socioeconomic level of the family and how they live. And because we're doing it in a very spare, conceptual way, we don't have a lot of set pieces. I would say the details of the set are telling us where we are from scene to scene, because it's a lot of locations.
TS: How does your design incorporate the play's global warming theme?
BB: The frame of the play is global warming and that we're approaching a tipping point. And science tells us, if we keep doing the things we're doing, the world's going to end essentially, or become unlivable. Obviously, there's this debate about whether it's true or not, but I think the large part of the intelligent community accepts that it's happening and yet we don't seem to be doing anything to stop it. And that's ultimately what the play's about, I think, with the family relationships as the metaphor for that. At the same time that these people are trying to be ecologically aware, they're letting their own family go to hell, and they're blissfully unaware of what's going on with their teenage daughter.
TS: The character of Anna is how I hooked into the play because George, who does the global warming aspect of the storytelling, is somewhat tongue-tied.
BB: Anna feels to me like she is the principal character. I think it's about four people, but she is the central character. I would say she's the global warming symbol in the play. She is the symbol of the living earth that goes over a tipping point. Suddenly something radical and awful happens. So that moment in the play happens, and then the set radically changes on a dime at that moment. But it's something that, when it happens, feels like, "Oh my god, I've seen this coming all along, and yet I didn't see it coming." Which is, dramatically, what I loved about the play.