Interview with Set Designer Matt Saunders - Part 3

In the final installment of his interview, Matt Saunders describes the impact of the Yale School of Drama on his development as a designer, why he returned to Philadelphia, looking forward to Perestroika, and the impact Angels in America had on him as a high school student.

Walter Bilderback: Many of our audiences have seen your previous work at the Wilma as well as at other Philadelphia theaters, especially New Paradise Laboratories and Theater Exile, may also have seen you act in the past, too – a couple of years ago you left Philadelphia to earn an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, but you moved back here. What additional tools did Yale give you as a designer, and then second,

Matt Saunders: The bulk of my experience before grad school was in the arena of devised work, being a co-founding member of New Paradise and having designed shows for Pig Iron and Headlong Dance Company – so I had deep roots in that devised work kind of methodology. I began designing more and more and more over the last six or seven years, and designing felt like it just fit me. It fit my sensibilities, and the way I think about theater. Not that acting doesn’t fit – and I miss acting – but design seems to be a better fit. It’s both easier – design is easier for me, and also more difficult, than acting. But what I felt like I lacked, in my training, and my experience as a designer, was exposure to the classics, you know, like the Western canon, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht, ... I really had no exposure to that in the decade that I was a professional theater maker. I also began teaching at Drexel six or seven years ago, almost accidentally, and I fell in love with teaching right away, and I knew that it was something that I really wanted to do as a significant part of my career. And the reality of that situation is that you need an MFA to do that. That, coupled with the sort of void that I felt like my design work had, prompted the decision to go to grad school. And that’s why I picked Yale, over NYU or Cal Arts, because Cal Arts’ pedagogy, for example,  is more centered on devised work and experimental methodologies and stuff. So I chose Yale because of its sort of classic-based kind of rigor, and of course, Ming Cho Lee, who’s been an idol of mine for years and years and years. And it was everything that I could have hoped for and more – I feel like I read plays differently now, I come at them – I see them as sort of like action now. It’s kind of difficult to explain, but I used to read plays I think more as literary events, and now I read them more as theatrical events – I think about how they move and unfold.

WB: That’s a big difference.

MS: I also I totally refined my whole process, my model making skills, the way ideas come into my head, even, seems different now. It’s hard to explain.

WB: what made you decide that you wanted to come back to Philadelphia as a place to make theater?

MS: Honestly, there was never any question in my mind whether or not I was going to come back to Philly. Lots of classmates at school, and alumni, and so forth asked me, “You moving to New York? You moving to New York?” “Uh, no? I’m going back to Philadelphia.” I love Philly, I actually have a very sentimental attachment to Philadelphia. It’s been very good to me. I feel like I am the theater artist that I am today, because of Philadelphia, the community here, the people like Blanka and Whit [McLaughlin], that have me the opportunities and imparted their wisdom on me. So, yeah.

WB: We storyboarded through Perestroika before rehearsal began for Millennium Approaches, and we’ve already had another design meeting since Millennium opened. Based on that, what are the challenges you see looking forward to Perestroika, the second half of the play in the fall?

MS: Well, I think that Millennium is tighter and in some ways easier to wrap your mind around, in spite of all the sort of magical moments. Perestroika is even more fantastical, you know, it’s more metaphysical. And then, there’s more flying, the choreography and the rigging and flying of the angel is much more complicated in Perestroika. So the challenge is to figure out how to up our game, in that respect, but still stay true to our original concept of the stripped-down, raw space, unfinished rehearsal room. So that’s a big challenge.

WB: You told me that Angels was very important for you when you first got involved in theater.

MS: Yeah, yeah. I went to high school in southern Virginia, the middle of nowhere, basically, the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the woods, and we had a drama club in high school that did one big play a year. We did like Robin Hood, and You Can’t Take It With You, and a staged version of Tony Randall’s movie Pillow Talk, just total fluffy stuff, you know? But I fell in love with theater in high school, and the summer of my junior year, I saw Angels in a bookstore. And thought the title was really cool. And I just grabbed it, just on impulse. I wasn’t the kind of kid who like read plays, but I grabbed it and I read it and it totally changed my life. I had no idea that theater could be this way. Had no idea at all. And it also had a profound effect on me just as a person, because growing  up in such a secluded area of the country, both geographically and culturally, I had no experience with gay culture, with African-American culture, with Mormon culture, with Jewish culture. I knew nothing of it, you know? It had a real profound effect on me. And so it’s a real honor to be able to work on it again. And the design for Angels was my thesis for my MFA at Yale, so opening night was a very weepy moment for me. It was sort of all coming together. But I’m a sentimentalist anyway.

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