Designing For A Split House

Martin Andrew designs sets for Afterlife premiere for Southern Rep's two-audience venue

December 6, 2010

You might think the big challenge for a New York-based scenic designer when working on a show at Southern Rep in New Orleans would be resisting the temptation to spend all of his time in the French Quarter, just steps from the venue. 

But Martin Andrew found that designing for a house that has the audience split between spaces on two sides of the stage was the big issue. “It’s almost like designing two plays, and really, every seat in the house gives a different view of the action,” he says.

Southern Rep has been coping with this challenging space for 14 years. It is in a storefront in an up-scale shopping mall on Canal Street, the border of the French Quarter. The venue has an 83-seat audience section on house left and 61 on house right with the stage thrusting into the space between, creating an angled view.

“It is an exciting and tricky space—kind of both a round and a thrust,” says Andrew. “I call it a ‘diamond thrust’ because the centerline is occupied by concrete.” That concrete offers a hidden vom for entrances and exits, and has a window for the booth but no seating in what, from a design standpoint, is essentially house center. Andrew says, “It seems that the view is different from every seat in the house. I use 3D visualization software [AutoCAD on a PC], which allows me to pan through the space to see exactly what each set is going to look like from each seat. Then I use [Google] SketchUp and [Adobe] Photoshop to prepare visuals.”

For Southern Rep’s world premiere of Steve Yockey’s Play Afterlife: A Ghost Story, Andrew found he need two very different designs for two very different acts. The first act is a two-character piece about a couple returning to their beach house for the first time since their young son drowned in the ocean. It is a very realistic piece calling for a substantial, representational setting. The second act, however, is a six-character fantasy piece that takes place in an “afterlife” with multiple locations where memories interact.

“I felt very strongly that the set pieces in the ‘afterlife’ scenes should come from the first act world: things that were brought into the second act setting in the memory of the man and the woman,” Andrew explains. One feature he used to accomplish this was to place exposed joists at an angle over the living room of the Act I beach house which then were hung vertically as a backdrop for a portion of the Act II scene. The joists were of birch, so they hinted at a birch forest for the second act.

The birch joists and the basic design of the beach house were also helpful in the effort to make sure the New Orleans audience didn’t interpret Yockey’s play as a reference to New Orleans’ experience during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. “I did extensive research into modern beach houses,” Andrew says, adding that he “went for an Atlantic Coast look with the big open window spaces and exposed joists of cathedral ceiling-type great rooms.”

Act I ends with a catastrophic event. Andrew says that he, sound designer Mike Harkins, and lighting designer Joan Long worked with Southern Rep’s artistic director Aimée Hayes, who directed the premiere, to find the right way to handle the event. Yockey’s script builds tension as a deadly storm threatens the couple but ends the act with what Andrew calls a touch of ambiguity. “We wanted to not interfere with that with our visuals,” he says. “In essence, we wanted to let it be an actor’s moment, not a designer’s.”

Andrew says they went through quite a few different concepts for the end of Act I. “I started with a ‘big gesture’ with the set shifting and separating into different segments which would move away from each other and from the man and woman,” he says. “In fact, the set was built on a slide plate, but it felt too heavy-handed, and Aimée wanted to leave the audience unsure of just what had happened for the intermission.”

The set did separate, however. The separation came during intermission, in full view of the audience because the mainstage does not have a proscenium or a curtain. The wall of the living room became the backing for “the interior of a small weathered cottage.” Its floor became “an intimate teahouse.” Finally, the joists became “a group of bare birch trees” behind a clearing where the man, played by Michael Aaron Santos, is tormented by a blackbird that was created by puppet master Pandora Gastelum for actor John Neisler to both wear and manipulate.

“We worked through many of the design issues in the rehearsal process, and I think I must have sat in almost every seat in the house to see how the designs were working,” says Andrew. Having met the challenge of the design, however, he admits that he did manage to spend some time in the neighboring French Quarter.