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by Scenic Designer Jeffrey Petersen
The play is driven by Emma, our protagonist, who has constructed a fragile identity around her ability as an actress to mask her true self. Her actions throughout the play reveal a deep dysfunction in her psychology and in her capacity to face the reality of addiction and chemical dependency. Emma’s story of self-medication won’t be entirely unfamiliar to many in our audience and so our task was to make this journey towards recovery uniquely her own. Duncan Macmillan has crafted an intelligent script that moves at breakneck speed; among the many challenges presented to the creative team is simply keeping pace amid this vortex.
Early in our conceptual explorations of the play, director David R. Gammons and I knew that we couldn’t take a literal approach to the designs of the environments our characters would inhabit. This is partly because the audience is constantly asked to question truth and reality; we understood that we mustn’t tip the scales in any one particular direction. Our set then became quite intentionally abstract. It was less about telegraphing naturalism and more about expressing a state of potentiality and mood.
The design contains a few key scenic gestures. The first our audience will encounter is a rather banal wall to wall floor treatment. The objective here is to telegraph a heightened awareness of the container of the theatre itself. The boundless beige expanse is meant to draw the eyes towards the corners of the room; to reveal every object, every performer, every bit of theatrical machinery. We wanted to subvert the centuries-long convention of masking the wings from view. In this play what isn’t presented front and center becomes just as revealing as the reality happening just out of view, behind the curtain, behind the mask, or under the skin.
In keeping with the concept of a forward-facing facade and a backward-facing reality, we’ve added in a bit of meta-theatricality in the shape of a large roving scenic flat. The back side of this gesture is replete with conventional trappings of stagecraft. Visible are the stencils commonly writ by scenery supply studios, various cords and attachments, jacks, casters, and counterweight. At the top of the show, by positioning the wall back facing and near to the periphery of the room, we imply an awareness to the conceit of an implied backstage. This is juxtaposed with a traditional Chekhov scene playing adjacent at center stage. Eventually the play takes us from the little theatre presenting The Seagull to a recovery center reception area. The circuitous path our Emma takes to this new location is underscored by the very movement of the large wall unit and its rotation, which ultimately reveals an onstage face and a new understanding of place and reality.
Another avenue of dramaturgical exploration was the effect of chemical interaction with the blood brain barrier. I became interested in the notion of permeability at the cellular level and how a representation of that might somehow manifest in our designed environment. This concept would ultimately evolve into the floating plastic volume positioned above the playing area. The physical materiality of these walls was an important consideration as they needed to telegraph several dialectical ideas; transparent and opaque, grounded and weightless, permanent and transitory. Throughout the play these plastic walls exist in four unique configurations; each correspond to the journey of our protagonist.
The configuration in our clinical environment establishes a datum and provides an interesting compositional counterpoint between the chaos and whirling movement beneath the horizon and a calm ordered arrangement above. Our company, props, and furniture move freely beneath the datum until the walls literally close in on Emma, which forces her to confront her truth. Once the volume lowers and confines her she is no longer capable of bending her own reality. This space is her most dangerous. Ultimately, the compression imposed by the barrier is released and Emma is free to try and reenter society. One day at a time.