Interview with Set Designer Matt Saunders - Part 1

Matt Saunders first became known to Philadelphia audiences as an actor and designer for New Paradise Laboratories, which he co-founded. He’s worked on numerous stages around town as both performer and designer, including set designs at the Wilma for Age of Arousal, My Children, My Africa!, Rock’n’Roll, and now Angels in America. In this first installment, he speaks with Wilma Theater Dramaturg Walter Bilderback about the design process and how his design concept came about.

Walter Bilderback: For Angels in America, you and Blanka Zizka met frequently, and you’ve come up with a strikingly bold scenic design. Can you tell us a little about the process, and how the set design evolved?

Matt Saunders: We started by just reading the play aloud as a group – your Roy Cohn was really good, actually – we traded roles, and we basically had no idea where we were gonna go with it, design-wise. And as usual working with Blanka the focus – whether it’s design, acting,… – the work was just about the play for a long long long long long time. I think there were certain things that we sort of agreed on early, especially in terms of how the play moves, and the givens, the fact that there are split scenes and there are scenes that overlap and all these different locations, and we knew that we wanted to create a scenic environment that allowed for the play to move the way it’s designed to move. And there’s that epic nature that we knew we had to sort of embody, and acknowledge. But for me, the epic nature of it – it isn’t so much about the set needs to be epic. I feel like the epic nature of the play is found within the idea – the scope of the idea is in the overlapping narratives and stuff.

WB:  What do you mean when you talk about the meetings being “all about the play”?

MS: A lot of times, in regional theater, and theater in general, the director-designer relationship – often you jump right to the visual world, and you jump right to the design process. Sketching and research, all of that stuff happens right in the beginning. Well, for this play, and often when I work here at the Wilma and with Blanka, that stuff is kind of delayed a little bit. And you sort of – we sit in the room as theater people, and you’re with us, and we talk about the play, and we talk about the characters, and what things mean, and we’re talking about the sort of dramaturgical and philosophical context for everything, and it’s very much like a – script analysis sounds dry, because it’s not just that, but we just talk about everything, except design, you know. It’s like we try not to design it for the first couple of meetings, and just hang out with the play.

WB: And when did the visual idea start to come to you?

MS: There was an image in Part One [Millennium Approaches], that kind of unlocked the design process for me anyway – that’s the image of when Joe and Harper - I think it’s Act 1 Scene 5, maybe there – Joe is chastising her for not having finished painting the bedroom. She’s been working on the bedroom for over a year and she still hasn’t finished painting it. So I began to think about, “Well, what if we had a set that was unfinished, and what would that mean, and what would the sort of fanatic reverberations of that be…” And it began to sort of make me think about the meaning of Part Two’s title, Perestroika, as Gorbachev intended it – as a restructuring of one’s life, a rebuilding. And then all these themes in the play of democracy, and racial politics, and gender politics, and our work as a people being unfinished, which it is. So that’s how the idea of the unfinished paint job on the set kind of came into focus. So then the question was, do we create a set that’s unfinished? With walls, and all this sort of standard scenic architecture that we see? And I was also reading some Tony Kushner stuff, and I found this reference to him saying that he thought one of the most successful productions of the play had used a rehearsal room setting. This was also right around the time that Jiri passed, and that was on my mind a lot, and I began to think, “Well, what if we just kind of didn’t have a set? Like a traditional set?” What if the setting for our Angels in America was the Wilma? Then I began to explore backstage and look at the Wilma as a space in and of herself. And it became really interesting to me, and so we just sort of went down that road, and I began to take the Wilma as a space and sort of channel her, but also kind of make little embellishments to her architecture but still try to preserve the Wilma as she is, and just not finishing painting at the top. That was sort of the big sort of “Aha” moment on the set, and from there it became about just storyboarding the hell out of it. I did wonder at times, Are we gonna somehow rob our audiences of the illusionistic nature of set design? by being so simple, are we somehow taking away from what set design can do? But I don’t think we are. I was always taught to design the show that you want to see, and I’m not sure that I’m interested in seeing an Angels in America where, there’s a lot of scenery that says to the audience, “Well, now we’re in Central Park,” and then that scenery changes, and there’s a new piece of scenery that comes in, and it’s like, “Oh now we’re in the hospital room, and now we’re in the coffee shop, and now we’re in Salt Lake City.” it’s such an actor-driven play, and the words are so beautiful, that I feel like that’s what carries it.

COMING SOON: INTERVIEW WITH MATT SAUNDERS PART 2

Picture: Matt Saunders, Picture property of Swathrmore College.

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