In the Moment: Interview with Theatrical Designer Deb Sivigny Part II

Continuing the conversation we started in Part I of this interview with costume and scenic designer Deb Sivigny, we delve a bit more into Deb’s work as a designer. Maybe even with some reveals and surprises.

David: What are your secrets for working on disparate productions in nearly the same time frame?

Deb Sivigny. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Deb: The balance of doing multiple productions at a time is a major part of the designer’s skill-set. I work hard to really get into the heads of the writers to get the best sense of their intentions. If I’m successful, keeping shows in their organized “boxes” isn’t that hard for me. I seem to have no control over when they pop up and want my attention (often invading my dreams), but the juggling act is just part of the process.

Forgotten Kingdoms was a deep labor of love for me – I’ve been married to Randy Baker, the playwright and co-Artistic Director of Rorschach Theatre for 11 years, and he’s been working on this play for about half of that time. I’ve traveled to Indonesia a few times and met the members of Randy’s family that inspired his play. I was very sad to see that set get struck.

Ma Rainey was my first August Wilson play, and I’m hoping it won’t be my last. Wilson creates remarkable, deep, complicated characters and it was such a joy to dress the actors in clothes that represented the 1920s, but more importantly, their impressions on the world. Working with Deidre LaWan Starnes was wonderful. We have collaborated in the past as actor and designer and her move to directing was a natural fit because we were still able to discuss character in such an intuitive and open way.

Happiest Place on Earth is a fantastic romp in to the mind of Philip Dawkins through the smart interpretation of Matt Bassett and lead actor, Tia Shearer. I have worked with both Matt and Tia separately in the past, and it’s great to join forces with them on this project. (The Hub Theatre production of The Happiest Place on Earth opens on July 7).

Forgotten Kingdoms scenic design sketch by Deb Sivigny.

You have written about a vision for a design element theater collaboration. Please tell us more.

I guess I have! I am striving for a paradigm shift in production and theatre leadership. Designers are often placed in a secondary, reactive position when they work on a production. The director develops a production approach from the script (or with a playwright) and then shares their thoughts with the team. The team then reacts to that approach, and follows suit. There is a pre-determined order of events, hierarchical and organized.

While I definitely understand where the advantages lie in this kind of process, I also long for processes where the artistic leadership is shared in a more lateral fashion. What happens when designers create the conceptual approach, or actors are involved in the design process? What happens when designers write, and playwrights direct? Some of this already happens, but it tends to be outside the standard regional theatre norm.

I’m interested in design-driven work, where the visual composition and setting does the heavy narrative lifting versus the verbal. This means that the visual exploration of the world is what leads the storytelling. Plot manifests from the connections we make from object to object, location to location. Actors enhance context and act as agents of narrative – telling the audience where to focus and providing guidance.

My work on Hello, My Name Is… has been created this way. The “script” consists of space descriptions, lists and suggestions of actions and conversation, and we’ll spend the rehearsal process fleshing out dialogue with actors. I have researched the visual dramaturgy of the world I need and this specificity has allowed me to frame each scene’s narrative. A space is never just a room – it’s an invitation to imagine what’s beyond it.

What would you like to be doing in 2-3 years?

I used to set five year goals for myself but my career has taken so many strange twists and turns I’m just going with the flow. I already have ideas for another play in the mix about North Korean refugees recalling their journey across the border while the audience hikes besides them. I would love to be commissioned to create another immersive work somewhere, but until I complete Hello, My Name Is… I’m willing to wait.

Forgotten Kingdoms scenic design, by Deb Sivigny, in action.

Is there a question I did not ask, or that you are usually not asked?

I will include one more Question/Answer here though that skims the edge of my design work. People who haven’t met me in person tend to do a double take when we meet. I get it. It’s culturally ingrained that we make assumptions about who someone is by their name. It’s why I named my play Hello, My Name Is… I hope that people will reconsider their assumptions in a new way after they’ve met me and seen my work.

“Q. Hey Deb, where is the last name Sivigny from? How do you pronounce it?

A: Sivigny is French in origin, originally Sevigny (like Chloë). My father’s side is French Canadian, and apparently the mail got mixed up a lot in Canada (where the name is more popular) so the E was changed to I. It’s pronounced SIH-van-ee. The G is silent. I was adopted from Korea, and my name was originally Kim, Joo Hee. My parents decided to make my last name my middle name, hence Debra Kim Sivigny is my official name and the one I use professionally. Most people call me Deb though, and it’s what I prefer.”


In the Moment: Interview with Theatrical Designer Deb Sivigny Part I, by David Siegel

John Stoltenberg’s review of Forgotten Kingdoms.

William Powell’s review of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.



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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.


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