Designer Cameron Anderson on Creating a Visual Story

Designer Cameron Anderson’s work will appear on the Wimberly stage twice this season, both with The Niceties and Melinda Lopez’s Yerma. Last month, Anderson spoke with Director of New Work Charles Haugland about her process and how she brings a play into three dimensions.

Charles Haugland: When you first read a play, what are the range of questions you ask?
Cameron Anderson: There are a few paths of inquiry happening concurrently. First, I am letting the expressive, emotional arc of the piece wash over me. What are the themes? Is this a play about “innocence lost?” Is this a play about an irresolvable conflict? Through this process, images will begin to form in my mind. I might start thinking about the shape the set might take, or a dominant color – is the piece feeling angular, claustrophobic, or open? Then, I am also asking myself, "What is the space?" Is it a home? Is it an abstract space? Indoor/outdoor? When is it taking place? What is the season? All of these questions — emotional, practical, and dramaturgical — happen together. I combine these initial impulses with research to begin forming an idea for the design. I may develop a visual metaphor to express the ideas of the play; this metaphor may be a strong visual statement like enclosing the set in glass to express the characters’ lack of freedom, or a more subtle metaphor that the audience may not notice immediately. I come to design from an interdisciplinary background. I was an English major at Wesleyan University, before studying set design at a conservatory, and I always begin with a focus on literary analysis — whether I am working on a play or an opera, where I am listening to the story of the music.

What leapt out at you about The Niceties?
What struck me with The Niceties is that the play is an extended conversation between two women. How could we contain, support, and enhance this conversation? How could the world onstage reflect this conversation, tell the realistic story of an elite university professor’s office, yet also reflect the importance and tension of what is being discussed? I saw two challenges: how to create a space appropriately intimate for these two women, and one that can reflect the rift that is forming in our country and our inability to see and hear one another. What kind of space can support this important conversation about race and gender in our country?

As a creative team we discussed the importance of finding a balance of power between the two women, so the audience will remain open to both of their perspectives. The office is Janine’s space, she is Zoe’s professor, and Zoe is coming into her world and that naturally gives Janine power. Yet, Janine has also had her own struggle up the ladder in a patriarchal university in the northeast. An immediate idea that came to me was to design her office as an attic space. Janine does not have a flashy corner office. The angles of an attic interested me for their ability to express the tension and the widening gap between women of different generations and experiences. It is at once a realistic place for the play to take place, and a space infused with expressive meaning; its sharp angles can feel like a reflection of both women feeling that the world is crushing them into an ever increasingly narrow space.

What part of the design process interests you most?
I love the very beginning and the very end of the process. I love the moments of discovery when I come up with an idea that reflects the ideas of the play, or, collaboratively as a team, we land on one together. I love researching the period of the play and learning about different cultures. I usually gather hundreds of images to share with the team: some are reference images for what a space might look like and others are expressive metaphorical investigations. Then I love the satisfaction of then seeing the actors, the costumes, the sets, the lights, the sound come together, and the feeling of us all being in the room together, because much of our work is done separately.

My work tends to be on new plays or very old operas. The majority of opera that is produced in the United States is hundreds of years old. In opera, we're trying to find new ways to tell old stories — and to tell the stories from new perspectives that comment on the racism, sexism, or classism that is written into many of them. I really enjoy working on new plays like this one that are making important contributions to a national discussion of race and gender in the United States. It is a privilege to be a part of a premiere of this kind, and to be a part of the first team bringing this important story to life and to Boston.

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