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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Interview | Antje Ellerman Six Degrees of Separation Scenic Designer

Kristin Idaszak: You mentioned during your design presentation that you and Anne Kauffman [Six Degrees of Separation Director] started off talking about a blank stage, an empty void. But the set is actually quite elaborate. How did you get to the design we have now?

Antje Ellerman: We didn’t linger very long in the void. I know this play has been done in a more minimal or abstract way, but we wanted to do something different. We wanted to create a more specific environment for the characters, which could then be fragmented.

I looked at the architecture of the Upper East Side—these apartment buildings and mansions—to get a sense of layout—where the front hall is, how the living room is situated in relationship to the rest of the apartment. I wanted to understand the logic of it so I could come up with our own version. I started with a very traditional theatre ground plan of a box set, and played around with different ways to fracture that and move it. I felt that the way it moves is equally important to where it lands. We didn’t want for pieces just to slide off or to fly, but to break apart the set in a more three dimensional way.

Once I figured that out and showed Anne, it really became about adjusting the ground plan—making it more intimate, figuring out the spacing of the entrances. A lot of the work happened in our heads. We didn’t slog through a whole lot of models; it was more about thinking about it carefully and then trying to put it together.

KI: That’s fascinating. One of the things that struck me about your design is what a striking manifestation it is of the psychological reality of the play, that there is this sense of fracture.

AE: What I wanted to do was start with something that seemed simple and then open that up. One thing that informed the design was that John [Guare] said he was interested in the way Ouisa’s and Flan’s lives cracked open when Ouisa discovers the hustler in her house. It’s something she doesn’t expect, this horrible thing that’s happened in the sanctity of her home. This couple is very well-established and comfortable with themselves until this event unsettles her and changes her life. So we wanted there to be a fissure in the set. Also, the play at times feels farcical with all these entrances and exits, everyone constantly coming and going, so I wanted to create a way for people to enter the space that might not be through a door or in a conventional way.

KI: Absolutely. Something else that John said in rehearsal was that this play is about discovering that unknown country within ourselves, and the set really reflects that.

AE: Thank you. There’s a line in the play—Ouisa says that every person is a door into a new world, and I wanted to create these different views and different openings for people to appear.

KI: What about the artists mentioned in the play—of course there’s the large Kandinsky onstage, but otherwise, did they enter into your process at all?

AE: I knew I needed to create an environment in which the Kandinsky could exist, but I didn’t feel it was about the particular artwork so much as the emotions behind it. I think it provides a context for the environment and the characters. I felt like it was unnecessary to comment on that with the set. With the costumes, the people themselves onstage will be the focal point, and the set will really be a canvas for them. For this design, I was more influenced by architecture than the modern art in the play. I did research, because I was curious, the double-sided Kandinsky, and whether that was a real piece of art [which it’s not]. I discovered that Kandinsky’s work is very colorful, but I decided to just let that be what it is.

KI: This is your first time at Williamstown, right?

AE: Yes, and my first time working with Anne. It’s going to be an adventure! I met Anne a few years ago when I was working with Les Waters. He recommended that I get in touch with her, and we had a really wonderful first meeting about nothing in particular. So I was thrilled when the opportunity to work with her came about!

KI: Well thank you so much. I can’t wait to see what the set looks like when it’s actually built and loaded into the theatre!

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