Stuart: What were some of the unique challenges of designing FLIGHT? Can you give us some insight into your design process with director Liesl Tommy?
Tony: I think the biggest challenge of the scenic design for FLIGHT was to design a space that could be quickly transformed in a kind of magical way. If the set were totally realistic, with a real tree and grass etc, it would be very difficult to transform the space into the other places we are taken to through the stories being told.
As the play begins we find these characters in a clearing in the woods under this huge pecan tree where this group of slaves likely gather, hidden from their masters. But we then need to be transported, almost instantaneously, to all the places that are brought to life in the many stories that are told in the course of the play. I also felt that the place we find them needed to be a bit of a scary place. We find them in the woods in the middle of the night and as the play and the stories unfold we are brought from that scary dark place into a place of light and of hope.
We also wanted to have a more neutral palette in the scenic design in order to allow the Lighting Designer, Marcus Doshi, to “paint” this neutral canvas with color, texture, and light.
So, initially I did a lot visual research which actually started out with a very realistic approach to the set and through looking at that research Liesl and I came to the conclusion that a realistic set was not the best way to go. We agreed that a more abstract set would allow us to more readily change our location and better draw the audience into the stories than a literal set. So my task was to find a way to still have a tree and a clearing but abstracted. So I again did further visual research but this time looking for images of abstracted trees and there was one image to which both Liesl and I were drawn. It had a sense of both the reality and of the magical that we were looking for. And that one image was the catalyst of my approach to the design.
Stuart: When we were chatting the other day you mentioned a desire to create a fairly subdued color palette for the scenic design. Why are you leaning in this direction? What does this do for the overall design?
Tony: This ties into my ideas of a scary, dark, secret place transforming into a bright place that is full of light and hope. All the vertical elements of the set will be constructed of a transparent material called Plasticor, which is a semi-transparent corrugated plastic–similar to corrugated cardboard. The Plasticor material will then be layered with layers of tissue paper and a poly vinyl acrylic coating, which is basically like the process used in decoupage. Then those scenic elements will be painted with a series of very watery glazes of neutral colors. This translucent material will allow the surfaces to be lit from the front to appear solid or to be lit from behind or from within to appear transparent, glowing, or even have a life of their own.
Tony: Well I will, of course, first read the play several times. I read first for content. What is the “story” of the play? What is the playwright trying to tell us or trying to say? I then will read it strictly for scenic requirements, what does the playwright require be a part of the physical environment of the play; for example, a door here, a window there, etc. Then I will read it strictly for prop and furniture requirements, what things do the characters use or handle, for example a stump or a walking stick.
Next, I like to have a meeting with the director just to talk with them and see what their thoughts and ideas are about the play and the setting. Then, hopefully, we are both on the same page! If so, I then like for the director and me to both go away and do a bit of research. This research could range from practical or historical research. An example for FLIGHT was “What does a pecan tree look like?” Or that research could consist solely of images that in some way speak to us about the play. This could pertain only to line or color or feel and not be rooted in anything realistic. I think images are the best reference point for design because an image will evoke an emotion or a feeling usually universally across the boards and that is basically what the set design needs to do for the audience. After the initial steps of reading the play and research are through, then it comes time to actually work on the design. So taking the needs of the play and the feeling we wish to evoke, I will then begin. I like to begin with the ground plan, a bird’s eye view of the physical space of the set. I firmly feel that if you have a good solid workable ground plan you have won ninety percent of the battle. The rest is icing on the cake. Or as a carpenter recently said about my attention to details……….”it’s like throwing salt into the ocean.” So you start with a good foundation then build the house. Then it’s just a matter of fine tuning and clarifying all the details.
Stuart: Anything else you’d like to share with our blog readers?
Tony: I would just like to say that I’m very excited to be designing and working on Flight. I think it is a piece with heart and an exploration into the resilience of the human condition. I guess I’m an old softy but I like the plays with heart!
Stuart: Finally, what’s on your ipod?
Tony: As far as music, well it has been either the musical score from THOU SHALT NOT or I’m listening to my usual radio station, WJAS 1320 AM, which plays basically “old standards.” I’ve been told by several people I am an “old soul”? I haven’t decided whether this is a good or bad thing.