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Interview with Set Designer, Allen Moyer

Interview with Set Designer, Allen Moyer

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When did you decide to design scenery for the theatre?

Allen Moyer: I was born in Schuylkill Haven. It is close to Reading, right before the coal region begins in Pennsylvania. I was the kid that always drew and painted and made puppets. I started out at Albright College, where I studied biochemistry-then I changed majors. I decided I wanted to study directing or design, but Albright had no theatre department, so I went to Penn State and ended up focusing on design. Then I went to graduate school at NYU.

TS: Will you talk about what you look for in a director when you are meeting to discuss a play?

AM: I like someone who is able to think about the big picture and understands what is important thematically in a piece, while being able to speak in specific terms about practical ideas and requirements. What I have enjoyed about working withPam MacKinnon is that she does those things really well. Pam is always clear about the things that are important to her, while at the same time giving me a sense of freedom to find a way to make an environment that can express our particular feelings or response to the piece.

TS: I love the coup de théâtre you designed for the set at the top of Act Two.

AM: Well, the whole design is based on that moment, really. I think this play is very cleverly structured. The beginning of Act Two really puts the whole play in focus. Often what interests me most when I am designing a piece is its structure.

TS: We don't want to give away too much, but you worked with an artist from Martha's Vineyard, where the top of Act Two takes place. How did you find her?

AM: I went onto Google and I typed "Martha's Vineyard Paintings," of course. There are hundreds of them, if not thousands. I picked a few that were in different styles and showed them to Pam. We kept being drawn to several paintings by a woman named Page Railsback, which were not realistic. We liked the idea of an image that was much more abstract. I think we were both drawn to the energy and enthusiasm of the piece and the way it appeared to be so quickly painted. The colors were also so right for the feel of the scene, when these characters were younger and their relationships were still being defined. I contacted the artist through her website, and I explained how I was hoping to have her permission to use the image. The painting had been sold, but Page suggested she paint a similar one and to the exact proportions I needed. The painting was used by the scenic artists to paint the very large version we needed, and we hope to use it onstage as well, on the wall behind the bed in the very last scene of the show. The character of Beth is a painter, so I suppose if someone thinks this might be something she painted that weekend years before, it wouldn't be a bad thing, right?

Interview with Set Designer, Allen Moyer

Set model for Dinner with Friends

Interview with Set Designer, Allen Moyer

Heather Burns and Darren Pettie in Dinner with Friends.

TS: When they did the original production, they used a turntable. Did you deliberately decide not to because they did it before?

AM: Not necessarily. I do think it is nice to do something different, but I don't think it valuable to just throw an idea out simply because it was done in another production. I don't think a turntable would work very well in the Laura Pels Theatre. Turntables can be predictable and limiting; you sit in the audience and the thing turns and you say, "Oh I get it." More importantly, we are able to surprise people at the beginning of Act Two in a way I wouldn't be able to do with a turntable. I wanted to figure out a way for the piece to move from scene to scene that could make for beautiful transitions to watch. In a way, the routine of changing the scenery for Dinner with Friends can mirror the routines of the characters' lives, but this way I am able to break it and to make the first scene in Act Two remarkably different. I like when the way we choose to get from one scene to another can add to the emotional event, no matter how subtle it may be.

TS: Do you remember your emotional response when you first read the play?

AM: I think for anybody in a long-term relationship, like I am lucky to be in, the play gives you something to think about. Is the routine of a long-term relationship a bad or a good thing? For Gabe and Karen, I think that is the point of the play. They learn that routine with the person that you love is a beautiful thing. Maybe Beth and Tom feel they need more excitement in their lives and that for them the routine is not a comfortable, warm, lovely sort of thing. I think Gabe and Karen-especially Gabe-realize that routine can be what defines a loving relationship and that it's a wonderful thing. I think I understand where Gabe is at emotionally and what his journey is. I have had that journey myself.

Interview with Set Designer, Allen Moyer

Darren Pettie, Heather Burns, Jeremy Shamos and Marin Hinkle in Dinner with Friends.

TS: Who or what inspires you as a set designer? Do you go see other productions?

AM: Sometimes, I am embarrassed how little theatre I see anymore. I have to say I usually go to events that involve music-so I tend to see more opera. I really enjoy going to dance events as well, but it all seems to go in cycles. In six months I might say I only go to see a few plays. Plus, there are only 24 hours in a day and when a good deal of my time is already spent sitting in a dark theatre, you get my point. Frankly, I'm not sure that, for a designer, looking to the theatre for inspiration is all that effective. Probably two hours in a museum, or a week in Rome, is likely to yield higher results. Or even a good conversation across the dinner table for that matter.

Dinner with Friends plays at the Laura Pels Theatre through April 13. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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