Interview with Lauren Helpern
TS: Tell us a little about yourself. When did you decide to become a designer?
LH: I was born and educated here in Manhattan. I went to college at Brown University, where I was in the theatre department, and then grad school at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. I started going to theatre when I was very young. It was considered a special treat, and we would get all dressed up. We would go for my birthday or for other special occasions. I saw some amazing productions, mostly musicals. One of the reasons I fell in love with scene design was the first five minutes of the original production of Sunday in the Park with George - that was my "aha moment."
Set design model: Lauren Helpern.
My father is an architect so I've always been exposed to building design and, at one point, I considered following in his footsteps. I even did a summer program in architecture, but I realized I cared more about creating illusions than real spaces and how the plumbing and electricity worked behind the walls. I like telling stories and being able to explore different periods and styles.
I had lots of wonderful teachers along the way but two people who were particularly encouraging and helpful in grad school were Campbell Baird and Lee Rand. Mentors are also important. Robin Wagner, whom I worked for before I even went to grad school, has always been extremely supportive. And I rely on my production management friends for their technical advice.
TS: The set for Bad Jews presents very specific challenges. Can you talk about them?
LH: It's a very specific setting. The story I created for myself was that the apartment was purchased within the past year by Liam and Jonah's parents. They set it up to be a place for their kids and also a guest room, so the personality of the space is pretty neutral. I felt there was a certain level of investment - maybe not completely gut renovated, but significantly spruced up with a new, relatively high end, kitchen and bath - but not completely top of the line. I designed it as something they could easily flip if they wanted. We know the apartment has a view of the Hudson River that's from the bathroom so the question becomes about its orientation toward Riverside Drive and where the windows and doors are located. The biggest challenge in the show is the building hallway and how it relates to the apartment. We tried all different scenarios. Because the scenes that take place in the hallway are important, it ended up downstage. I kept it as narrow as possible so the apartment would not feel remote from the audience. Some atypical choices that Daniel pushed for, like the couch and front door facing upstage, help create the physical boundary between the acting areas. He was also very specific that he wanted the room to feel like an obstacle course, that people had to climb over things, like bouncy airbeds and sleeper sofa mattresses. He wanted to create a space that allowed for physical comedy while also having a sense of claustrophobia.
TS: How are you going to maintain that feeling of claustrophobia in the Pels, which is a larger space?
LH: Surprisingly, the Underground and the Pels have almost the same stage dimensions but the audience configuration and the sight lines are extremely different, so it's impossible to just pick up the set and move it upstairs. We knew we wanted to hold onto as much of what we had before as possible, but the longest discussions were definitely about the claustrophobic feel of the room and how to keep the intimacy when you have to reach a much larger audience. The Underground has a very low ceiling that closed in the set and the Pels has so much air. I changed some proportions, which might not be noticeable if you didn't know about them, raised the wall height so people in the balcony could see, and added in a ceiling beam to cap the space. I'm looking forward to seeing how it translates.