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.
TS: Talk about collaborating with some of the other artists working on the piece. How did you work with Michael Longhurst?
BB: It was really great. It was a fairly quick process, because I got hired and we had maybe a month to pull the design together, which is relatively fast. I was in tech in Las Vegas the first couple weeks of that, and Mike was in London, so we sent images and ideas back and forth on email. And we would Skype with each other, and I'm old enough to still be amazed when I'm sitting in a hotel room in Vegas on a video phone with a guy in London and pulling up research on our computers and emailing it back and forth. So that's how we started. Then I came back to New York, and I put together a model, and Mike flew over from London. And we had about three days together, where we just sat in my studio. We sat down with the model, and almost immediately, we pulled it all apart and threw it away and over the course of three days, we just made this thing. We kicked around ideas and he would go back to where he was staying, and I would work on the model overnight, and by the next morning, we'd have something different to look at. We'd try to work through it and find problems and solutions, and do the same thing the next day. After three days of that, we had completed the design.
TS: Can you talk to me about collaborating with Natasha Katz, the lighting designer?
BB: When Mike and I were coming up with the design, Natasha joined us for an afternoon so that she could see what we were doing, and weigh in about whether she would be able to light it well. It was a very fruitful couple of days, and we actually added a ceiling to the set as part of that meeting, which is an odd thing to come out of a meeting with the lighting designer!
TS: Did you add the ceiling because you wanted the set to feel claustrophobic?
BB: Claustrophobic and boxed in, exactly. And that ceiling was something that Mike and I talked about, and I was worried it was just going to be too difficult for Natasha to light, but she was all for it. The other interesting thing we added was a lot of practical fixtures that fly in over the course of the play. Part of what we're trying to do with the scenery is provide every location with realistic things. I think we're doing it with as few things as you could possibly do it with and still tell the story, but it adds up to a big pile onstage. It's an interesting metaphor for how we live our lives - this sort of overconsumption we indulge in today. What feels like a clean space at the top of the play, with a pile of stuff in the middle of it, is a complete pig sty by the end.