Designing the Boom: notes on scenic design by Andrew Hungerford

In two years as resident designer for Know theatre, I’ve gotten to work on some amazing scripts.

But beyond the basic element of overall quality, on occasion a script comes along that appeals to me on a number of levels other than standard literary stuff and design potential.  It’s got things that connect with me personally, moments where I go, “wow, I am that guy.”

I’m speaking, of course, of Noah Haidle’s ‘Vigils,’ because I have a fiery building collapse on me five times each day.

Not really.

‘Boom’ was one of those scripts.  As an undergrad, I spent a fair amount of time in university labs; in physics classrooms with my graphing calculator.  On computers processing data, trying to get information off of ancient magnetic tapes (from the eighties!).  Counting globular clusters in NGC 1487.  Watching Star Trek.  So I could totally relate to biology graduate student Jules, the instigator of the events of Boom, and the idea that he’s retrofitted his lab to be some sort of living space.

Throw in some post-apocalyptic wackiness and this script had me very excited for the process as a whole.

So here are some things about my general approach when designing at the Know (and elsewhere):

After I first read a script, I just think about it for a while.  Maybe I’ll jot down some notes about elements that really caught my attention, but mostly I’ll just think about it.  And then I’ll read it again.  This time around, I’ll make notes of images of significance, some compelling metaphor.  And it’s on the third read that I’ll do a more detailed list of all of the things that are actually required for the action of the play.

Then I’ll do a metric tonne (1000 kg) of visual research. If I’m in one place for long enough, I’ll camp out in the photography section of a library.  If I’m traveling, as is often the case, I’ll do research on-line.  All of this is to crystallize aspects of the play in my head and, in the case of realistic details, to make sure my brain isn’t making things up.  To verify that, say, the sinks in labs still look like I remember them.

Either before, after, or simultaneous with the research, I’ll do some thumbnail sketches of different ways of using space.  Sometimes they’re just lines or light and shadow, sometimes they’re more detailed.  (I’m in Detroit as I’m writing this, and my notebook from Boom is in Cincinnati…  I’ll upload my initial sketch for Boom on Wednesday).

And I generally do all this before I even talk with the director about the show in a concrete fashion.  This is to make sure that I understand the show on my own terms before the true collaboration begins; it’s always exciting when everyone can bring their own perspective to the table.

Often that initial conversation will lead me to revisit of a number of the above steps as I refine my interpretation of the play based on the director’s approach: more readings, more notes, more research, more sketches.  Which can feed into another conversation.  And this may repeat several times before the more formal process of drafting the set begins.

Drew and I first talked about the show at the beginning of August.  At a larger theatre, this would be considered really late – they would already have their final designs done by that point. But at Know Theatre with smaller staff and smaller budgets, 6 weeks out is totally reasonable.

In that first conversation, it became clear that there were some big things that we instantly agreed on.  Here are a few of them:

1) Two of the really crucial elements in the playing space are Jules’ fish tank and the door to the outside world.  Both of these needed to have really strong stage positions.

2) Barbara’s control console needed a peculiar retro-sci-fi look that was pretty sweet but didn’t entirely draw focus

3) The lab shouldn’t look too clinical.  After all, Jules has been living here on and off for a number of years.  And at one point Jo remarks, “What is this, a lab?”  So it definitely needs to be a lab, but it also needs to have sufficient alteration to feel homey enough that the automatic response to Jo’s question isn’t “duh.”

4) This show was going to be a lot of fun.

We also talked about technical requirements of the blocking, some features of the set that had the potential to be great (if we could find a way to do them), and a little bit about the lighting, since I would be responsible for that as well.

And then I started drafting.

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