This Playhouse Perspective blog is written by David L. Arsenault, the scenic designer for Native Gardens.
Every script is a scavenger hunt. A playwright might give you a general idea of what the set is or needs to feature, but more often than not, it’s the designer’s job to hunt that information down in the text. This generally comes in a few varieties: characters may say something about the environment outright (IE “close that door”) or they may imply things about the space based on what they say.
Karen Zacarías, the playwright of NATIVE GARDENS, gave a lot of detailed information through what her characters say that helped inform the design. We know from reading the play that it takes place on K Street in Washington DC in September. She even tells us the exact year the homes were built! All of this information is critical and also formed the basis for me to start my visual research. Fortunately for me, I have spent some time in DC, so I already had a basic idea of the architectural style of this neighborhood.
It was clear to me from the text that the verisimilitude of the environment was going to be critical. With the environment itself inciting the primary action of the play my job was even more detail-oriented than usual. One of the primary challenges was that the play takes place in two neighboring backyards. Not to mention the fact that recreating nature onstage is one of the most difficult tasks in stage design.
In the era of Google and the internet, my research work on a play like this is significantly easier than it used to be, but since the playwright is so specific about the location, I wanted to make sure the images I was looking at and sharing with the director were correct and authentic. I used Google Maps aerial views to understand the shapes and orientations of backyards in the K Street neighborhood and photos from active real estate listings to find architectural details that would fuel the authentic feeling I knew the set needed.
As I mentioned before, nature is intrinsically difficult to replicate onstage – not to mention expensive! The playwright was very specific about the types of plants and flowers onstage. In working with the props master, Andrew Carney, who was responsible for most of the greenery on the set (not to mention the furniture and hand props used by actors), I made sure we were always considering how real living plants grow to help our garden feel as real as possible. Looking at images of actual gardens, real plants, and even thinking about where the sun might be in our synthetic environment helped us to style our greenery. There’s a risk with silk flowers to make everything look like a floral arrangement. It was critical to me to also have enough green to balance and support – literally and figuratively – the bright pops or color that the flowers supplied.
Bizarrely, naturalistic backyards have been a theme of my design career. From ALL MY SONS here at Gulfshore Playhouse to this popular new play, I’ve spent plenty of time making sure that synthetic grass feels real and cardboard trees seem sturdy and full. I’m always at home in a plastic backyard.