In revisiting a past success the question becomes how can we make it lively for patrons who’ve seen the production before? We can’t touch the script, but we do have a great deal of creative freedom when it comes to set design. Resident Scenic Designer Samantha Reno worked on the original production of The Ladies Foursome in 2014. She can relate to what patrons are going through, which is why she embraced the challenge by making 18 watercolor paintings that correspond to each hole of golf in the play. The following is an interview with Samantha as she offers insight into process as a scenic designer.
You worked on the set for the 2014 production of The Ladies Foursome. What were some of the limitations you had to overcome with that set design?
Oh, where to begin? In The Ladies Foursome the audience is invited to peek into the lives of four women over 18 holes of golf, and the playwright more or less structured the play as one scene per hole, or eighteen separate scenes. In the old space this meant we had no choice but to the strip the production down to the bare basics of storytelling because it simply wasn’t possible to do any sort of scene transitions— or more than one original look— without wing space, a fly system, a tall grid, or even experiment too much with the platform composition.
So what could we look at as an audience member under those circumstances? Well, I wanted to make sure that whatever I designed was pleasing to the eye, and that the space was at least dynamic enough to move four actors around the stage in a way that suggested they were moving through a golf course in a 23-foot deep by 16-foot wide space— not an easy task. We ended up installing artificial grass and cannibalizing some leftover green carpet to sculpt a fairway. To offset the green, I designed some stylized tree flats with blues and violets. Along with a cheerful backdrop, it was a successful look as it blended elements of realism with my own style of painting.
The result was a very clean design for the old Mainstage, which everyone was happy with, myself included. I just always felt it was unfortunate that we couldn’t do more with it.
In designing on the 2018 production what changes did you want to make given that you had more space to work with?
Lots of changes! What is fun about working with The Sofia’s new thrust is that I was able to do more with the platforming and still create an intimate space that is B Street Theatre’s brand. I could sculpt organically shaped platforms that took on the circular flow of a real golf course, and that way we could keep the actors moving and interacting with their environment. We were able to experiment with different shades of grasses, as you’ll see, to punch up the saturated colors anyone can experience on a bright day in the summertime.
I was also able to add more personal touches to this set with greenery, tall grasses, plants, and trees. This really softened the platforms’ hard edges and grounded the set. Best of all, using full stage projections, we really could suggest eighteen holes of golf through a series of original watercolors that echoed the backdrop from the 2014 production.
Did more space to design the set in The Sofia cause any issues that you had to resolve?
I don’t think the audience will have any trouble engaging with this set, but keeping it contained was the main challenge. An aspect of the new Sofia that we are all learning to evolve with is the stage’s sheer size. Of course we thank our lucky stars everyday for the extra wing space, but when you only have four actors on stage it becomes your mission as a designer to keep the set from sprawling and dwarfing those four characters.
To do this, I purposefully limited the design to just the thrust portion of the stage and drew an invisible line for myself that I wouldn’t let my pencil cross. Other techniques I have used include painting the surrounding space black to make the platforms feel like they’re on a visual island, and creating a “picture frame” around the projection paintings rather than let the images span the entire stage. I hope the audience feels that this supports the story being told on stage by centering focus on the thrust. Of course, I could talk about the nuts and bolts of design all day.
Tell us about the paintings you did that correspond to each hole in the course.
I have to admit, I am still catching my breath from the marathon that is doing 18 paintings in a two-week period. Next time I do a project like this I’ll need an oxygen tank! Obviously, I wanted to capitalize on our abilities to change the scenery without building a lot of physical elements, so from early on the production team knew we wanted to flex our muscles with our new projector. My background is primarily in the fine arts so whatever we did I wanted the evidence of my hand in the backdrops like we did in the 2014 production.
However, there are practical considerations to doing 18 paintings in a two-week period, so I had to set parameters for myself. First, I would do them in watercolor. It’s a medium in which the artist is supposed to embrace its spontaneity and flow, and while it requires the same careful study as oil painting, its roots are in eighteenth century journaling and sketch work, which I felt was appropriate for this show. They were never meant to be masterpieces individually, just to capture a golf course these characters have played many times before in an impressionistic manner. They are definitely a lot of fun to look at altogether.
Second, probably more crucial than my choice of medium, I could only spend no more than three hours apiece on each painting. Well, that already adds up to a 54-hour work week on landscapes alone! With my other responsibilities to mounting this design, it meant that my brushwork had to be fresh, precise, and bright. Under these circumstances you learn to embrace every little imperfection and “happy accident” (to quote the legendary Bob Ross), and introduce unexpected colors such as rose or violet to make the greens pop.
The scenes themselves are cobbled together from various golf courses— to make it interesting for me, a non-golfer, I would add and remove elements at a whim, play with lighting and long tree shadows, and sneak in a mountain or two. Most of the landscapes are a nod to Canadian golf courses, as the playwright is from Canada, so you’ll see lots of pines and blue mountains.
It’s a project that took a lot of discipline from me, but I’m really glad I was able to do it this way. I hope the audience gets a kick out it too!
See The Ladies Foursome on the Mainstage through July 22. Tickets are available through the Box Office.