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Interview with Set Designer Jeff Cowie

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Set Designer Jeff Cowie about his design process and perspective on the play.

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.

Interview with Set Designer Jeff Cowie

Set Design Model (Image courtesy: Jeff Cowie & Walter McBride/Broadway World)

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.

Interview with Set Designer Jeff Cowie

Danny Burstein as Matt Friedman & Sarah Paulson as Sally Talley. Set design by Jeff Cowie. Photo by Joan Marcus

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.

Interview with Set Designer Jeff Cowie

Sarah Paulson as Sally Talley. Set design by Jeff Cowie. Photo by Joan Marcus

TS: Will your design for Talley's Folly spill into the audience?

JC: The play begins with Matt entering through the audience, breaking the fourth wall andoutlining his plans to charm Sally in the course of 90 or so minutes. He describes everything on the set. He tells us that Uncle Whistler, who built the boathouse, "must have broken a lot of jigsaws." He lists the attributes of this setting and says, "You people (the audience) are in the water." And then the dialogue between him and Sally begins. I had to make a list of everything the characters say about the boathouse and incorporate all those things into the design. It was really a lot of fun. Rui has designed a wonderful rippling water effect and Mark has a super 360 degree sound plot planned; so, yes, I think we're bringing the play out into the audience as much as possible.We were all in the theatre recently and it was a very open and collaborative discussion, working out the challenges before they become problems.

TS: What challenges did you face in creating the design of this show?

JC: I don't think you can draft the kind of damage caused when a building is falling into a river. I don't think you can draw it. It's even difficult in a model. I have a giant label on all my drawings that reads, "Consult with the designer for the level of destruction." It sounds like I'm going to head into the shop with a sledgehammer-which I'd love to do-and basically break the set down. I find it's difficult to design a set that really looks like it has aged naturally. That's a challenge.

TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?

JC: I still make paintings. I find it difficult to split time between making paintings and scenic design because the mindset is different, but I'll go through phases of working a lot on paintings. I think inspiration comes from one's everyday life. When I'm working on a show that takes place in a brownstone, I start looking at brownstones, and literally, all I see while I am working on that show is brownstones! They jump out at me. Whatever the thing is that I'm researching at the moment is the only thing I will see.

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