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By Teddy Rodger, Associate Director of Audience Development
Building the visual elements of Harold Pinter’s laconic prose makes for a special kind of design process. Just as context is judiciously doled out in the writing, the sets and costumes for The Lover and The Collection also paradoxically inform and challenge an audience’s understanding of the action. Fortunately, we have two master designers, Debra Booth (Scenic Design) and Jane Greenwood (Costume Design), who have built a world worthy of these two comedies of menace. Just before rehearsal began, we spoke with them to learn more about their process.
Debra Booth, Scenic Designer
A nationally renowned designer, D.C. audiences will be particularly familiar with Booth’s work at Studio Theatre, where she serves as the Director of Design. She’s also designed productions for the Humana Festival, the Berkshire Theatre Festival and around the country.
STC: How do you translate what is written in the stage directions into your final designs?
Debra Booth: I don’t usually pay much attention to the stage directions in a play. Obviously they can become very useful, especially if it is the playwright writing them—Pinter is writing these—but they take up a lot of real estate on the page in the script. It was a little overwhelming, as if Pinter was directing from the grave. At first, I just couldn’t “hear” the play, so I taped the stage directions out so I couldn’t see them. The unencumbered dialogue helped tremendously with the flow and understanding of the piece, and gave me the kind of space I really needed. I did get back to those stage directions, but it helped to separate them for a time from the language of the play. On the other hand, the script is fairly explicit—a British phone box, the collection of Chinese porcelains, the record player. They all help in the story of course, but they also help place it as a period piece in England in the 1960’s.
STC: In these two plays, the sets are used to signal the social standings and interior lives of the characters. How did you build the characters’ home lives through your designs?
DB: While we are not naturalistic in the design, I would say we are very specific in detail. For example, in The Collection there are two households that seem to exist in the same space and yet, the details differentiate them. Bill and Harry live in what we imagined was a Georgian row house, so the door and transom are very specific with all the proper hardware, as is their stairway and their furniture, but it exists within this slightly abstracted container. Harry is a high-end antiques dealer, so the furniture is specific to that world. Stella and James live in a Victorian flat and the door to their place is Victorian. Their furniture is a little different: they are younger, probably more hip. Building the character through their houses was important, because, again, they all live in this theatrical container of the action.
STC: You’ve worked extensively in D.C. as the Resident Designer at Studio. What were the differences and similarities between designing Studio’s (typically) more contemporary sets and this period piece?
DB: In many ways, it’s just the same, you read the script and the set grows up around the action. I suppose Studio’s spaces are smaller and the audience is always close, whereas the Lansburgh is larger and you need to take care that people at the back of the auditorium are getting as much of the show as those up close. In both types, you need to pay attention to that audience member and see what they see, and also pay attention to the performer, so it feels right, looks right.
STC: What, if anything, from your designs would you steal for your own home?
DB: I think the one thing I adore is the British phone box. The prop shop found it. It is real and it is stunning. I don’t think they will let me take it home, but it is a cracker—so beautiful.
Jane Greenwood, Costume Designer
Greenwood is a living legend in theatre design, with over 125 Broadway and Off-Broadway credits and a record 21 Tony Award nominations. Most recently, she was awarded the 2017 Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for her work on The Little Foxes starring Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon. Greenwood last visited STC with Michael Kahn’s production of Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill.
STC: How did you start work on these productions?
Jane Greenwood: I read the plays! We talked about the plays and we talked about the characters and who we thought they were, what they might look like and what would be good for them to wear. It’s difficult… I find it’s always a help to know the actors playing the roles. So you get an idea of the physical look of a person, which begins to make your imagination grow. And so I was pleased to see the photographs of the people who are playing the roles.
STC: What were your inspirations for the design?
JG: I think a lot of it develops when you actually start shopping and you see what’s available. And of course, I remember the Sixties. I grew up and was very much influenced by what was worn in those days. I was very friendly with the people who were starting off all the clothes for Carnaby Street. And that was the influence that sparked my interest in clothes at that time.
STC: Are you choosing vintage pieces?
JG: What I like to do when I’m working on a production like this is to actually look at clothes of the period. If we can use things that we find, it’s terrific. Sometimes, though, they’re an inspiration to the people in the costume shop if we’re making something—to actually see how clothes were put together in the Sixties, the difference in manufacturing and so on.
STC: Are there spaces where you will purposely break from what was happening in fashion back then?
JG: The scripts call for certain things that make you really need to look back at the Sixties. But I also think we need to distill it a little bit. I don’t think we want it to look jokey-Sixties, which people tend to do these days—the gimmicky looks and those short clothes. In fact, when Pinter wrote these plays in the early Sixties, that’s really growing out of the Fifties. What you think of as “the Sixties” happened later.
STC: Last question: Cat hair. How do you feel about it?
JG: I hadn’t really thought about it. I suppose the trick is to have light colors if it is a white cat—and a very good wardrobe supervisor.