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Starting from Scratch: An Interview with Scenic Designer Lauren Helpern

LAUREN HELPERN’S EXPERIENCES AS A DESIGNER RANGE FROM PLAYS AND MUSICALS TO OPERA AND DANCE. THE ENVIRONMENTS SHE HAS CREATED ONSTAGE SPAN FROM REALISTIC INTERIORS TO FANTASY LANDSCAPES. IN AN INTERVIEW WITH HUNTINGTON LITERARY APPRENTICE PHAEDRA SCOTT, HELPERN TALKS ABOUT THE EXCITEMENT SHE FINDS IN COLLABORATION AND HER THOUGHTS ON DESIGNING THE WORLD OF CAN YOU FORGIVE HER?

Set

Phaedra Scott: What do you look forward to designing in a world premiere play?

Lauren Helpern: I love designing new plays because you get to work with the director and playwright on defining the world, and aren’t starting with any preconceived notions of what it should be. This set is conceptually based on a house where [playwright] Gina [Gionfriddo] stayed once. Our version is an old home that was renovated in the 1970s, but hasn’t been touched since then, except for some cheap contemporary replacement furnishings. The house could potentially be valuable, but would require a huge investment of time and money. I pulled a lot of images from the 1970s; the colors and the weirdness of that period really lend themselves to the dark humor in the play. It is a hybrid of bungalow and Brady Bunch. It has a really fun vibe.

"You never know what’s going to come up in rehearsal or what furnishings you are going to find; one item can lead you down a totally different path and then all the pieces need to fit together."

What would you say is your overall approach as a designer?

When I do a show with a realistic setting, I first look at what the script calls for and anything special the director wants. Then I immerse myself in images of what the place would be in real life. For this production, I looked at a lot of real estate and Airbnb ads to get a sense of beach houses in that community, as well as period research. My goal is that when the audience walks through the door, they have an immediate jolt, whether they have experienced someplace similar to the setting or not, that they know exactly where they are.

While I have a pretty clear vision of what the set will look like, it constantly evolves through the process of getting it up on stage. You never know what’s going to come up in rehearsal or what furnishings you are going to find; one item can lead you down a totally different path and then all the pieces need to fit together. The more we work on the show, the more we finesse, and the more props we gather, the more the design develops its character. For this design, we are extremely excited about avocado colored appliances. What does that color mean to people? It immediately puts you in a very specific time period.

The mood of the play is also important to consider. [Director] Peter [DuBois] was very interested in having a lot of windows, so we could have the sense of the characters being exposed in some way and that they don’t feel completely safe. Since most of the show takes place at night, the space wants to feel a little shadowy and eerie. I really enjoy collaborating with other designers — Philip Rosenberg is doing the lighting design for this play — to capture the overall essence.

You mentioned how the set becomes a character itself. What do you think the house tells us?

The house in some ways represents [the character of] Graham’s mother: both who she was when she was younger and happier, which is seen in the interior decoration, and her deterioration, shown by how little of the house she has maintained and what she has left behind. It brings Graham back to a time when he was younger. It is a house imbued with memories, though the design also has to tell the story that it is not Graham’s home any more as it had become a vacation rental. There are a lot of layers.

In some ways, you get to be the Mother character in the show and determine what she’s left behind.

There’s no actress representing that character so the scenery gets to tell part of her story. Gina was pretty evocative in her description of the house. What is exciting when you get a playwright involved during the design process is that they bring their references and research to the table. The best realistic sets I have done were when the playwright contributed background information; you get more insight into where the story is coming from and get to bring that to the stage.


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