McCarter Theatre Blog

Spotlight on the Set

Posted by McCarter Theatre Center on February 23rd, 2011

Coming up next at McCarter is a production of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Crimes of the Heart. In an interview with Artistic Programs Associate Erica Nagel, Set Designer Andromache Chalfant offers insight into creating the physical world of this American Classic.

Andromache Chalfant has been designing whole houses lately, even though the play takes place in just one room. “It might seem odd to do so much thinking about rooms of a house that you won’t see on stage,” she says, “but you can look at hundreds of layouts for old homes before you find one that really lets you get inside the logic of the house.”

Setting the whole play in a kitchen is great because it’s a central recognizable element,” Chalfant says. “But it creates a challenge to fill the stage believably. One way to address that is to think about the rest of the house. How do you make the house live in the transitions — the thresholds between the kitchen and the rest of the house or the rest of the town? What do we see when we look through those doors?”

“I don’t know if this is part of the quintessential Southernness of the play, but there is an utter lack of privacy in this kitchen. There are all these entrances that disrupt private conversations or actions. In this house, people can enter your space without warning. So that’s interesting to consider thematically, of course, but it also necessitates practical consideration of things like, where do we put the doors? How many ways in and out are there? How do windows figure into the public and private spaces in the MaGrath sisters’ world?”

Although the term “Kitchen sink drama” has taken on a slightly old-fashioned, or even disparaging valence, Chalfant is quick to point out that the term was actually coined to describe a revolutionary form of theater, which depicted working class people, and stood in stark contrast to the popular plays of the day set in parlors and drawing rooms.”A kitchen is like the backstage of the house,” Chalfant says. “It’s the least formal room. It’s where things are prepared.”

When asked about how it feels to take on a modern American classic as a set designer, Chalfant thinks for a moment. “What is the definition of a classic? Something that lasts, I guess. Something that holds up. A classic takes on new layers of meaning over time.”

When audiences experience McCarter’s production of Crimes of the Heart, the creative team wants the audience to feel not only the presence of the rest of the MaGrath house, but also the history within its walls. “The MaGrath kitchen has layers of history from the 1940s through the 1970s,” says Chalfant. “So I’ve been thinking about what the bottom layer of history is in the MaGrath kitchen. Under any updates, like new appliances or remodeled floors, what is the underlying structure? What has this family been building on for the last 30 years?”

By Erica Nagel

Crimes of the Heart runs from March 8-27 in the Matthews Theatre.

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