An Interview with CATF’s Scenic Designer David M. Barber by Mike Spain

David M. Barber.
David M. Barber.

David M. Barber is the Scenic Designer of H2O, Scott and Hem In the Garden of Allah, and Modern Terrorism Or They Who Want To Kill Us And How We Learn To love Them, at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, which ends tomorrow. I had the honor of interviewing David about his set design for this year’s Festival.

Mike: I remember last year going to the CATF and being amazed at how the Frank Center stages would completely change for Captors and In a Forest Dark and Deep from one day to another. This year you do the same thing with Modern Terrorism and Scott and Hem in a smaller theater. What kind of challenges does that present to you when you have to change them so quickly?

David: It’s territory that I was already really familiar with because my first real professional design experience was with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. We would do three shows in repertory in an outdoor amphitheater, so we had to do big changeovers. We would have about an hour to load in those shows. So, when Ed first talked to me about coming here that was one of the things in particular that grabbed his attention. I had years and years of experience in exactly this – trying to orchestrate a major change in scenic looks from one show to the next in a short period of time.

I put some consideration into it. However, you can do all kinds of different tricks so it doesn’t vastly change the design that much. Something I chose to do last year (and I actually repeated again this year) was using one floor for both shows. We didn’t have to spend time putting down entirely new floors. Last year In a Forest shared a wooden floor with Captors but for Captors we took a big portion of it away and just left Eichmann’s cell. This year I am lucky in that Modern Terrorism takes place in a Brooklyn apartment in a pre-war building and Scott and Hem takes place in a 1937 apartment. It made perfect sense to have both of them feature warm colored hardwood floors. In the case of Modern Terrorism you get to see less of it. We come in and cover much of  it up so that it is a smaller playing area than in Scott and Hem.

Then beyond that it’s just a matter of dividing the sets into multiple components that can be put on air casters and rolled right out of the theater. The technical directors basically orchestrate ways to break the units apart into manageable pieces which can be hauled out of the theatre in a short amount of time.

You work with three different directors: Jon Jory, Ed Herendeen. and Mark St. Germain at this year’s Festival. Tell us about their styles of directing and what you admire most about working with them?

They all have been great. Let me see if I can sum it up! In the case of Jon, it has just been really fun to be exposed to someone that has such a rich history in the theater. He’s something of an actual legend in American Theater. He basically created the Humana Festival at The Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. He has so much experience that he knows how to work technical and dress rehearsals down to a very relaxed system. He knows what will work; he knows what won’t work; he knows what to worry about and what to let go. It was hard at first just due to a geographic divide between us (since he is in New Mexico) and we literally didn’t get a chance to ever meet face to face. It all had to happen over the phone or over e-mail. I had a little bit of that disconnect, where, until you literally can look at someone in the eye and really talk in person you never feel like you’re really, really fully collaborating. I wanted so badly to have a face to face conversation with him. But once we were here and rolling, it was fantastic getting to spend time with him and work together.

Ed Herendeen.
Ed Herendeen.

Ed is always great, because he gets so much excitement and enthusiasm about the projects. He a weird mix of the Pied Piper, a football coach and this amazing consummate artist.  I remember our very first meeting.  We met at a café in New York to talk about Captors and In a Forest last year. He sat down at the table and he described what he saw as the opening sequence for Captors. “Then a car, a car thrusts through the back of the theater and comes out on stage.” I was like, “Whoa! we are doing a car on stage? Alright, let’s do it!” He makes you so excited about doing a good job you just feel like you have to do right by him. You want desperately not to let him down.

Mark and I have developed a relationship over the last couple of years. I did his last play Best of Enemies at Barrington Stage, then it moved to another theater, and we are hoping it will have some additional life. It could be complicated to work with a playwright who is also directing his own work. However, he’s very relaxed, easy going, methodical, thoughtful, and kind and there’s never that tension of him being so fiercely protective of the writing that the directing process could suffer. He is very easy going about all of it. He does a lot of re-writes. The great thing about him as a playwright is that every single re-write always makes the play better. He never makes it muddy, or bogged down by second guessing himself. He always makes the play crisper, cleaner, clearer and more playable as he goes. So I love working on his plays, and now I have had the chance to get to know him as a director as well.

What was their vision for your set design for each of their shows and how do you feel your design has brought their vision to the stage?

For Scot and Hem it is pretty straight forward, in that it is 1937 and we’re in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s apartment in The Garden of Allah hotel complex in Los Angeles. There’s not a great wealth of historical documentation of what the interiors of all of those apartments looked like but there are many pictures of the complex itself and the pool outside the complex. It was a notorious hangout for all of these great personalities of that period: Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein, Picasso…everyone at some point had attended a party or two there.  So, I looked at the exterior of the apartment complex and I knew that the entire place was decorated in Spanish Colonial Revival. That was a very popular decorating scheme of the period in Hollywood. One of the interiors that I looked at was Edward Norton’s house.  I think Douglas Fairbanks originally owned that mansion. A lot of these big Hollywood mansions to this day are still decorated in that very Spanish traditional style.

So, I just did lots and lots and lots of research on what those interiors looked like. It was all about creating an authentic feeling room from that period and in that architectural style. The twist on it is that in the Marinoff – when you first walk in the room itself – it has so much presence. It’s got this architectural treatment on the walls. It’s got these exposed grids and catwalks. Traci Klainer Polimeni, the lighting designer, and I really wanted to sort of play up the room itself and give the entire room a feeling of enveloping you in the Garden of Allah and the world of the play as soon as you walk in. So we are doing a recreation of the original sign from the Garden of Allah and palm trees and party lights, so the feeling you have when you walk in this space is that you walked into the pool party that’s happening in the play, and then you step into the interior of the actual apartment.

Modern Terrorism is basically a present day Brooklyn apartment and that’s where I live. I did a lot of research literally from my own apartment and my boyfriend’s apartment. There are very specific details in that room that are stolen right out of my boyfriend’s apartment.  The space is extremely spare, as the three Jihadists only recently moved in and they aren’t planning on staying…so the apartment only features the bare minimum of furniture and housewares that they need to get by.  We also made the assumption that a piece or two came from someplace like Ikea…but then the rest was likely found on the street and picked up.  This show takes the opportunity to show off the vertical space of the Marinoff.  We made it look as if the apartment is cut out of a larger, looming apartment building…and you have the sense of the various residents of the building- living their lives totally unaware of what is transpiring in this apartment below.

Then H20 is much more of an abstracted, psychologically motivated space. Jane Martin has written exactly how those transitions will work. The rolling doors, furniture, the six scene shifters that are helping do costume changes and scene stages – are all written into the play. So, what it really became about for me was creating sort of an envelope that contained all those ingredients, and gave the play a psychological tone that was right for the piece.  We went through several incarnations of the set.  I originally had tiles that were based on pages from the First Folio of Hamlet and the Bible.  We decided that it was too literal, and kind of gave the audience too much information.  That’s when we decided on the much larger gesture of the single line from Hamlet, “To be…”

What was it like for you to create the sets for two world premiere productions like Scott and Hem and H20?

It’s exciting. It’s great to be the person on the ground floor doing it for the first time. There is no reference for what’s gone before. To know you are the very first person attacking the script and the very first person making these decisions on what the show is going to look like, well it’s very, very fun. When I am doing a show I don’t typically run to the internet to see what other designers have done with the show. I try to avoid that. You don’t even have that out when you do it this way. You are the first one breaking this new ground. It’s doubly exciting that this team was the very first team to use this theater and get a feel for what the future could hold for this space – what was working, what might need to still be worked on, and to make future shows work better in the space. It has all been like striking out and being explorers basically embarking on this new journey from scratch…and that is so rare and truly gratifying.

What type of challenges does a sparse set create?

Not necessarily challenging. To some extent it’s a little bit freeing in that you get to make decisions about a larger pallet. You’re not bogged down by the details of exactly what the interior has to look like. Where do I put the kitchen sink? Where do I put the door to the bathroom? You get to make decisions that are more artistically based. I do a lot of Shakespeare and I love that about Shakespeare in that it is an open field in terms of what you’re going to do with the show. Opera is very much like that too. You get to make bolder strokes. H2O ended up being a piece where I got to have that kind of approach. The basic rules like “there will be doors but the doors will be on wheels” and all those other things were set for me but I got to make a bigger pass at it as an artist. So in a sense it is not so much a challenge as it is another opportunity that opens up for you.

How much of the sets are interchangeable and how long does it takes to change from one set to another?

In the Marinoff shows, we are literally only just reusing the floor and the masking walls.  Everything else changes over. I think going in, the longest it’s taken us is just over two hours but that gets whittled down. As soon as the crews have been through it and learned the shortcuts and get used to doing it, it can whittle down to an hour to an hour and a half.

How many people are used to change the sets?

Something in the neighborhood of about eight I think, between the deck crew, stage managers, light crews,and costume assistants.

What are your favorite sets from all the CATF shows you have worked on and why?

These are so fresh in my head it is hard to think of them as memories yet. We are still finishing them up this afternoon!  We are still finishing up Scott and Hem before we open tonight, but, I’ve liked them all.

Captors was interesting, because there were elements in Captors that were so much a result of collaboration. When I think back on shows that are my favorites, they usually are the ones where the lines are foggy between what I dreamt up and the lighting designer contributed; what the costume designer fed me and contributed, and the director suggested. They tend to be my favorites.

The whole reason I do this is because it’s something you build with other people, and it’s a collaborative art and Captors is a good example of that.

The lighting designer, D.M. (Wood), steered me to change little elements of the set like color palettes etcetera to work with the lighting. The opening video sequence of the train tracks leading to Birkenau – when I first dreamt it up, was more or less a static image. Then Mallory Ortega, my video programmer, realized she could actually animate it to make it sort of look like it was coming toward you and then D.M. had an idea about how that could work dynamically in that sequence. As we developed the whole show together, the final look of it was so much a product of Ed and all of us scheming together, and not just me sitting at a desk by myself.

Was there a set that was more challenging to design?

H20 this year- for as simple as it looks when you walk into that theater and see a basic blue room- its pretty extraordinarily challenging because it’s a classroom turned into a rehearsal studio and then turned into a theater once the festival opens. We have maximized every square inch of that space down to taking the doors off the closets. Sometimes when you go backstage at a Broadway show its sort of daunting because scenery will come off stage and then fly, and they use every square inch of those Broadway houses because the wing space is actually quite tiny. In this I had to play that game of saying, “how much stage could I even allow Jon to have because I had to create off stage space to house a hospital bed, a bathtub, doors, tables, chairs, six people getting ready to do all these moves, quick change areas, space for the sound operators…all that stuff had to be built in. The entire seating bank had to be loaded into the space in basically 48 hours. Just the sheer logistics of packing a real theater into that tiny, tiny room was pretty challenging.

You have one several awards. Which ones mean the most to you?

'The Orphan's Home Cycle' set.
‘The Orphan’s Home Cycle’ set.

The more significant things that I’ve won were all associated with this one production, The Orphans Home Cycle which was a nine-hour cycle by Horton Foote that we created at Hartford Stage, then moved to New York Off-Broadway at The Signature Theatre. We came very close to a Broadway run of it as well. We were picked up by a Broadway producer. I literally had reworked all of the drawings for the Neil Simon Theatre, and at the very last minute when we were going into the shop with it – they decided to postpone. We all kind of knew when they postponed – it probably was not going to happen. That production was just so amazing. It was such a long time in the making and when you’re doing tech rehearsals and dress rehearsals for three evenings at three hours a piece with a cast of 27 people we were in over a month and a half of tech rehearsals. Then we had to do it all again when we moved to New York. The group of actors and group of designers became such close friends. It was an amazing, unique experience. These are people I still keep in regular contact with. The leading man and leading lady in that show (I know it’s so cliché!), but they ended up getting together and got married by the end of the process. They just had their first baby a couple of months ago, so we were all sending them congratulations on Facebook. That production was a little bit of a breakout for me and my career. I picked up an agent as a result of it and received a couple of awards for it… and developed all these amazing relationships- so it really stands out for me.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) runs through tomorrow, July 28, 2013. Performance tickets to the Contemporary America Theater Festival can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, or by visiting their website.


David M. Barber’s website.

ARTISTIC SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with the Founder and Producing Director of the CATF by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

100 Plays Produced as CATF Kicks off Ambitious 23rd Season by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

Review of Heartless. 
Review of Modern Terrorism: Laugh and Laugh and Tremble
Review of H20.
Review of Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah.
Review of A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World.




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