On Designing "From Up Here" - October Blog 2014
by Joe Varga

The most significant thing about stage design, at least from my point of view, is that it is a collaborative process. One thing that makes the process exciting is that it's always different each time because of the personnel involved and the specific script, not to mention a host of other variables. Of course we designers all collaborate with each other, depending on our specialty be it scenery, costumes, lighting, projection, sound, or another specialty. But we all work with the script and the director, which is the prime relationship among us.

Jen Gray and I have worked together before – on last year's Sons of the Prophet and previously on The Dairy of Anne Frank, so we've established a record of mutual trust and artistic success. We first met to discuss this script several months ago. This time we found ourselves literally taking notes off of each other. Part of collaboration involves an effort at revealing our own impressions and trading them back and forth until they start to coalesce into a viable way of staging the show. At one of our early meetings I brought in a photo from a NY Times article showing the aftermath of a devastating storm in a suburban neighborhood. Ordinary items such as a door and tree branches were strewn about in the picture, against a bluish sky. I can't say precisely why, but the image resonated for me, perhaps because the family in the play undergoes some sort of social and emotional storm that has upset the normal course of their lives... the script mentions that the family plans on selling their home because of it. These characters are under unusual stress and some exhibit a steady breakdown. But then there is also the title of the play which suggests a point of view, perhaps a remote aerial one; it is also one that offers a redeeming perspective contributed by the character of the roving aunt.

If all goes well, designer and director sooner or later make a creative leap to arrive at an image that provides a foundation for the dramatic storytelling in the script. Jen suggested sky...what if the set were mapped in its entirety with the sky image. Hey, I know a visual idea that 'rings' when I hear it. So I ran with this one. Let actors, dialogue, plot and props establish the specific physical 'where' of the play. Let the design offer a metaphorical context that encompasses the emotional point of view. Besides, this particular design also leaves room for projections that can augment the visualization for each scene.

In terms of tasks involved, the design process is variable according to the nature of the production. I knew there had to be a scale model built to explain what I was seeing in my head, but more often than not my scenic models are 'white' i.e. colorless and only showing proportion and placement of scenic items. This time I sensed the model absolutely had to be in color ...basically, only two colors predominantly: the blue of sky and the white of clouds. Looking again at the photo that I found inspirational, I decided to try floating ordinary objects and furniture against the sky map to symbolize upheaval in the lives of the characters. Halfway through building the model it occurred to me that there's a famous painter whose work supports the direction in which the design was going: Rene Magritte. Unlike phantasmagorical surrealists like Dali, Magritte was a surrealist of the "quotidian" who typically presented everyday objects and people in odd juxtapositions. To a large extent that is the context of this play: ordinary people caught in a maelstrom all their own... yet it's recognizably a situation that can speak to a contemporary audience. If the play has a resolution, it is best summed up in the final moments of the script, in which a change of perspective lends a note of hope.