Stupid F*cking Bird is Aaron Posner’s riff on Chekhov’s The Seagull. Misha Kachman was scenic designer for the world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Colin K. Bills designed the lights for Shalwitz’s production, and Laree Lentz designed the costumes. Sound design and original music and lyrics were by James Sugg. The entire design will be moved when the Woolly production is remounted next season at the Syracuse Stage and the Portland Center Stage, adjusted only slightly to fit the different spaces. Read about the Woolly production in Part One.
SFB In Los Angeles
How do other designers meet the challenge of a play that changes styles? Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, scenic designer for the Circle X Theatre Company/Boston Court co-production, says Boston Court often “lets the theatre just be a theatre,” but in early conversations with director Michael Michetti, she decided an empty theatre didn’t support this play. Act One takes place in several locations and has many moods, she thought. They talked about art galleries, “spaces that are designed beautifully and hold different things.” What if the country house in Act One was an art installation that reflected them all? She researched the summerhouse that Chekhov would have imagined and translated that to the United States. There would be a lot of wood in it, she decided. Schwartz says she loves old barns with light coming through the flats. A barn, “not too on the nose but elevated” made of OSD (plywood all made of chips) would serve. “We wanted to respect the wood and yet be modern,” she says. If they covered the back and sidewalls in OSD, too, there would be no masking and separation between the audience and the playing space.
Projection design against moving platforms, involving vague allusions to Russia, helped create the fluidity of Act One. “The projection designer, Sean Cawelti, unleashed a panorama of color and storytelling on the moving space,” she says. “The projection ripples out on their toes during the play within play, against a neutral background. In the text of the play and in our sense of the play, Act Two had to feel so true that it laid bare the rawness of love and loss. Coming out of this fluid and whimsical space, we wanted to punch you in the gut with the realism of the kitchen. It was so real that it was surreal.”
Schwartz gave lighting designer Elizabeth Harper many practicals but says as the act progressed, the lighting became more surreal. “It was heartbreaking,” she says. “In the scene change that Michael [Michetti] choreographed, there was no hint that boxes would turn around and become a kitchen. Robert Oriol [sound designer] provided the earth-shattering sound as they broke the kitchen in half.” In Act Three, she says, the play becomes less specific. “We wanted the audience to have a surprise in every act,” she says.
“Most contemporary plays are one act long with no stopping,” Schwartz reflects, adding that it was a treat to work on this play with three acts and different moods. They used salvage cabinets. The refrigerator hummed and lit up. As the production segues into Act Three, the kitchen goes back into the walls, where it was tucked earlier. In the third act, the back wall breaks open to reveal a door, where Nina enters to a blast of light. “There were no projections in Act Three, just traditional gobos. I put real trees on stage, not poetic or metaphoric trees,” she says. She painted branches silver. The idea was to connect reality and romance.
Schwartz felt this riff on Chekhov gave one generation a chance to talk to another. “We all need to feel love in our lives and purposeful and respected whether we are holding an iPhone or a stick in the sand or a pad of paper. We’re all looking to see if we’re part of each other’s lives.”
Mallory Kay Nelson was the costume designer in Los Angeles, Sean Cawelti, the video designer, and Jenny Smith, props designer.
SFB In Chicago
Joe Schermoly, scenic designer for the Sideshow Theatre production at Victory Gardens, says the team worked its way through a brief history of Western theatre in the three acts. “We started with this very traditional backdrop of Russian lakeside manner but painted it on the walls,” he says. “We knew it was a painting. The actors walked through it. The walls turned around to create a real kitchen with appliances. Nothing remained in the third act, which was the most abstract in the Sideshow production. “The walls were lowered down on the ground and formed this raked platform, so the walls of the kitchen faced down and the backdrop from Act One was now the floor. Actors walked all over the painting. We tried to go from naturalism to this postmodern idea. Who cares about a naturalistic representation anymore? What can we do to destroy this institutionalized view of what it is to put on a play?”
Schermoly says Kimberly Morris’s costumes were modern and didn’t change much throughout. William Kirkham’s lights shifted with the changing styles, moving from old-fashioned footlights, with a footlight board for Nina’s play, to architectural downlights, and practicals in Act Two, and sidelight in Act Three.
Schermoly adds that the initial concern was that the design would upstage the play, but the play held its own. “There’s a lot of great dialogue. The play is funny when you’re reading it,” he reflects, “but it actually is moving.” Christopher M. LaPorte did the sound design in Chicago and Cassy Schillo, the props.
SFB In Ann Arbor
Daniel Cantor, who directed a production at the University of Michigan, participated in an early reading of a draft that adhered more closely to the narrative of The Seagull. He says the radical style changes that evolved later were brilliant, altering the form of an established play while maintaining its theme and highlighting the rich juxtapositions in Chekhov that prevent superficiality and sentimentality. “Aaron is thumbing his nose at Chekhov but honoring him at the same time. He brings to the surface things that are exciting,” Cantor says.
Lucy Briggs, scenic designer of the Michigan production, says she and Cantor talked about an open space with a history, an old theatre. Ladders, a moon recalling one that Chekhov references, and a portrait of Chekhov were part of the scene. “We tried to keep Chekhov in every act,” she says. A small portrait sits on a shelf next to bottles of liquor in the realistic room.
“In our initial production meeting, Dan and I talked about things we could add to make the kitchen be real, a fridge that worked, running water,” says Briggs. “We talked about how the kitchen would have to be present-day but in the family for generations. They updated things as they broke, so we had an old fridge, a new stove, a mish mash of the history and the new,” says Briggs, who researched high-end kitchens and decided on a “distinctive turquoise-y sea green” for the cabinets, which the shop painted on unfinished oak. “Set dressing was important in Act Two. We were very conscious of what that family would have in the kitchen,” she says, adding that it was cluttered but everything was purposeful.
Avery DiUbaldo, who appeared in the Michigan production, recalls an unscripted scene opening night. An audience member shouted out, just as the character Con raises a gun to his head. ‘“Don’t kill yourself!’ the man had said. ‘You wrote a beautiful play!’” DiUbaldo reports. Whether this resulted from the theatricality of the work which encouraged audience participation initially, or from the way spectators were drawn deeply into the drama in Act Two, is anybody’s f*cking guess.