Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog


Interview with Tranced Scenic Designer Campbell Baird

Tech week for Tranced begins today, which provides a great opportunity to highlight the contributions of Scenic Designer Campbell Baird. Tranced is Campbell’s first show at MRT. He has also worked on One Mo’ Time on Broadway, on numerous Off-Boardway New York productions, and the international tours of West Side Story and The Nutcracker.

Not only was Campbell nice enough to answer my email questions, he has provided his design notes, which will take you through the process of creating the set for Tranced.  

1) Is there a specific theme or motif that you’ve tried to express in the set design for Tranced. What did you incorporate into the design to express this idea?

There is not so much a theme in the set as in the shape of the set, which alludes to a circular form, a non-angular world that has two separate but adjacent islands of furniture.  the visual references are are derived from modern office buildings with their large windows and selected “important” works of art displayed to the visitor. The top of the set is tied together with a header of African styled woodwork, and small items also carry this through as well.

2) What was behind your choice for the African masks? Do they represent certain tribes or have a specific meaning?

They allude to the tribes in the river basin that will be either lost completely or displaced from their original villages and homes and tribal grounds with the building and completion of the dam. They are only seen at specific moments in the text.

3) From a technical perspective, what was your biggest challenge in designing the set of Tranced, and how did you resolve this issue?

The space at Merrimack Repertory is challenging and the need for characters to literally turn their heads or bodies and be in a different location was fun to deal with. The two office spaces are indicated by the furniture groupings, and this was made easier by the comparatively tight space of this stage. The challenge is having the surround look large around it, and the semicircular form and curved lines help accomplish that idea, I feel.

4) This is your first time as the Scenic Designer for a show at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Did MRT’s stage present you with any unique problems?

See #3 above- every performing space is a challenge. The idea is to let the space and the script tell you how to solve it. This is a complex script, but it holds many, many clues. You should see all the lines and words I have underlined in red in my copy.

5) For you, what is the single most important element to consider when designing a set?

Making it work for THIS script, with THIS director and cast, for THIS space and for THIS audience, for THIS production. This is always easier for a play (less moving parts to technically resolve) than a musical theatre piece or ballet, both of which forms I design a lot. I was fortunate in having a master teacher and mentor in Oliver Smith, who always emphasized these points to us and used them in his own career, spanning over fifty years on Broadway, in film and and in dance and opera.

Below are Campbell’s design notes.

TRANCED

A new play by Robert Clyman

Directed by Kyle Fabel for Merrimack Repertory

Artistic Director Charles Towers

Production Manager Justin Rowland

Scenic Designer Campbell Baird

TRANCED is a complex show to design, even though there are only two literal locations- a psychiatrist’s office and consulting room, and a higher level government official’s office, both with minimal but appropriate furniture. The playwright has left the disposition of the space to the production team, and with it the ability to incorporate the themes of the play into the design. A big clue is Philip’s opening speech, with the theatrical license we need to allow a nonrealistic, split stage environment.

But the challenge is to use the intimate space of this theatre to support both locations in such a way that people can move easily and immediately from one space to the other. Subtle changes in the lighting also help to define the shifting spatial boundaries and times of day.

Kyle and I have talked at length about the atmosphere of the dialogue and how to reflect the undercurrents of the African world that are discussed in the play. We agreed that we needed a carpeted floor surface, so that footsteps were not noticeable when people walked around. The sound of the tape recorder is very central to the effect of the story, and we want to minimize secondary noise to the voices, both actual and recorded.

Philip’s furniture reflects a person with no specific cultural ties, but a man with a strong appreciation for warm wooden surfaces that have the patina of age and care. We want to bring in some subtle Middle Eastern and African fabric patterns on the chair and bench where Azmera sits.
In contrast Logan’s office has very impersonal furniture, all in chrome, steel and glass, with plain upholstery. The one object that lends some personality to Logan’s space is a large piece of African sculpture, in a glass case at stage left. In contrast, Philip’s space has an overscaled piece of African woodwork that seems to make a window-like space against the fabric surround. It is where it can be toughed and leaned against, not sealed away from human hands.

Its carved top piece disappears against the wooden header that encircles the top of the space. Behind the center opening is a panel of gauze in an African tie dyed pattern, making a sort of sky at upstage center and silhouetting Philip’s table and chair. Behind the gauze is a wall made up of African face masks from the Congo- these serve as an emblem of the people in the river valley, a silent population, displaced in the final moment by the waters rising behind the dam, with the sound of the water rising at the same time.

The set is contained with a curved portal with a deep reveal, and this architectural idea is echoed in the center opening and the wooden beams that also curve to the floor. We agreed that we wanted soft edges and curves to make the spaces overlap and flow together, with the lighting used to make more definition as needed during the play. We discussed the image of ripples from pebbles dropped into water, and how they overlap and merge.

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