2009 Season Designer Profile: Private Lives’Annie Smart

In the months leading up to our 2009 Main Stage season, we’ll be profiling the creative minds behind the season’s productions—Romeo and Juliet, Private Lives, Happy Days, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream—in our e-newsletters. For the second installment, we profiled scenic artist Annie Smart, known to our audiences as the inventive hand behind An Ideal Husband, Man and Superman, Othello, and The Tempest. What follows is the full transcript of my email interview with Ms. Smart. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.

What have you been working on since An Ideal Husband? I know that you did Yellowjackets at Berkeley Rep; anything else since last summer? And what do you have coming up in 2009, besides Private Lives?

Danny Hoch’s show Taking Over opened in NY for an extended run this November and December. We rebuilt the BRT set with some refinements and reproduced the BRT costumes. That now goes on to LA this Jan so I’ll be down there for a few days.

Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room has taken most of my time since Yellowjackets opened, designing the set and props. A lot of design work for this one as it’s high Victorian period—1889-ish. It goes into rehearsal Dec 30th and opens early Feb at BRT. Les (Waters, Annie’s husband) directing. It will be great fun, a very witty piece, but it’s a lot of work.

Then comes sets for the Tiny Kushners for the Guthrie in Minneapolis. This is a collection of 5 very short plays that are being grouped together for a festival of Kushner’s work. Tony Taccone is directing this. I think it opens in May.

If you could have designed sets (or costumes, for that matter) for any theatrical production in history, what would it be?

No idea. But I’ve never designed a Chekhov and I just love all his plays. He’s the best. I didn’t get to see Timothy (Near)’s Vanya unfortunately though I heard some very good things about it. And Eric Flatmo’s designs always impress me so I’d have liked to see that.

I also love opera (I did my equivalent MFA at the English National Opera Design Course, back in the day) and don’t get to do that much.

I’ve been told that you’ve acted in Private Lives. When and where was this, and which role did you play?

No. This is me being sloppy and muddling my Coward titles. Which are all I think designed for publicists with deadlines to meet. (With a title like) “Hay Fever,” for example, the content really could be almost anything funny! I bet he hadn’t even written them when the posters had to be printed. I was in Present Laughter playing Joanna, who has to wear extravagant hats. It was fun pretending to be stylish and a sophisticate. I’m so not either.

But the following is a famous story in my family. First time I ever went on stage I was 3-1/2. My parents were involved in a production of Coward’s Blithe Spirit, which features Madame Arkadina, a medium, who has as her spirit guide a little blonde-haired girl. Unfortunately you are not supposed to see this child, but I was in the wings, saw my Mum across the way and crossed the stage, causing a sensation I’m told!
How do you think that experience will inform (or how is it already informing) your plans for the Cal Shakes Private Lives set?

No idea but Coward is meant to be lighthearted. If a Coward farce doesn’t at some point make you absolutely choke with laughter then you’ve failed. And then the really bitter, real-life, hard stuff is embraced with the frivolous and the artificial. I think you have to have a truly camp sensibility. (Tho I shudder to say that out loud in the Bay Area, it becomes a way more complex statement than it looks! A minefield of a statement for a designer!)

Your previous work at the Bruns Amphitheater has showcased your skill with creating interiors for an outdoor space. Do you have any early thoughts on what the specific challenges for Private Lives might be, and how you’ll overcome them? (I’m thinking the problems of destroying the Paris apartment in the latter acts, and making an effective balcony in the first—but then again I haven’t created so much as a shoebox diorama since elementary school.)

All things comedic and interior at the Bruns are predicated on the control of the scale. The stage is 80′ across. That’s as big as a very large opera house. And they put dozens of people on those stages. And they sing very, very loudly. And Jonathan and Mark have chosen this. The dramatic equivalent of a spun sugar dessert.

I have no idea how it will be made to work. None at all. But then I never do when I start working on something. And I haven’t yet talked with Mark R. So that will be the first little baby step.

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