Interview with Set Designer Jeff Cowie
Ted Sod: What do you look for in a director when you are meeting to discuss a play you are designing?
Jeff Cowie: I've asked some directors to pull a magazine picture or to name an artist whose work they think embodies the spirit of the play. In the second meeting, I always bring pictures. The whole dynamic for the shows Michael Wilson, the director of Talley's Folly, and I do together is different-we are partners and have lived and worked together for 20 years. When we're walking down the street, one of us might say, "Hey, could the boathouse in Talley's Folly have that kind of blah, blah, blah?" So, it's a little less formal. We had a meeting last week with all the designers at our apartment-and it's a luxury to get everyone together so early in the design process. I believe that there's true collaboration going on, a lot of unspoken clues and hints and language. It's hard to describe, but it's collaboration at its deepest and most exciting.
TS: It seems that the boathouse, which is the setting for the play, is an additional character. Is that true from your point of view?
JC: I know that gets said a lot. I think the boathouse is the boathouse and it's the place where Sally goes to be alone. It probably has been that place for her whole life. I think of it more as her very private haven. Also, a year before the play's action, Matt and Sally made love there, so it has that very emotional history. For me it isn't really a character, it's a place.
TS: What type of research did you have to do to design the set for Talley's Folly?
JC: I researched a lot of Victoriana. The history of the boathouse is talked about in the play, so there's a narrative about the place in the text. I'm trying to get across that wonderful smell of dampness and musty-moldy wood. The descriptive narrative also applies to the props. I think that since Matt finds a pair of ice skates in a trunk in the boathouse, it implies a whole world of what else is stored there. Finding ice skates can't be a stand-alone event. So, that leads me to think about Sally Talley's family and what other things they've stored there. That's one of the joys of designing, to try to dig into the history of the characters and the place to find reasons for what's onstage.
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