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Interview with A Month in the Country Scenic Designer Mark Wendland
Scott Ebersold: You fit comfortably in the world of landmark Shakespeare productions, like Cymbeline in the Park and Merchant of Venice. You seem to be equally at home with new plays. Do you have a preference as to which type of theatre you like to design for?
Mark Wendland: The preference is not so much about the kind of play as the way of working. For me, every play, whether it’s old or new or a musical, you’re telling a story, so the job is the same. It’s more about finding the collaborator who understands that and who’s interested in trying to get to the beginning, middle, and end of the story visually, who realizes that there is a correlation between what the playwright is trying to say and how you visually go about telling that story. There are some processes where that’s not the agenda and then there’s processes where you have to do that to make the piece alive. I think that the kinds of new plays that I’ve worked on most are the kinds of new plays that when you first read it you’re like, “How can you possibly bring that to the stage?” You need the visual life to tell it. I think musicals and Shakespeare are the same thing. When you read a musical, you’re like, “Oh my god, that’s so sprawling. How do you bring that to the confines of the stage?” And when you read Shakespeare, it’s the same thing. He takes you all over the map and you need to really be clever how you get from the beginning, to the middle, to the end. Even though they seem very different, the job is the same thing.
Scott: If you could only live doing one of those three, which would it be?
Mark: That’s hard to answer. I don’t know that I could. It’s hard to only be in one. I find that when I’m doing a lot of one, I’m always craving the other. I just had a great experience with a living, breathing playwright and while I was doing it I was like, “Oh this is so great! I’m really enjoying this living, breathing playwright”. When I’m doing a classic, the things that the classic is asking of you to make it more accessible is fun and different too, so that’s hard to answer. I guess I’d have to say the living, breathing playwrights because they’re alive and that collaboration is so exciting.
Scott: Does your methodology change when you approach a classic versus a new play versus a musical?
Mark: No, it’s always the same, it really is. People always think that the designer is like a Barney’s window, like you’re filling an empty space with stuff, and I guess that’s what makes Barney’s windows so great is they try to send that. They don’t just fill the window with stuff, they really are telling a story depending on what season it is. The playwright is giving you a story that you have to figure out how the people are moving in space and telling that story. The job is always the same: you’re visually telling a story and I think I always go about it in the same way. I think that because I did a lot of Shakespeare for a while, then when you do something else and you move to a contemporary play, everything you learned about the rigors of trying to tell something as sprawling as Shakespeare, you can take to that contemporary play. Then, what you learn from a contemporary vocabulary, you take to doing a musical, but I think the process for me is always the same.
Scott: You’ve worked with Erica Schmidt in the past on Uncle Vanya and certainly, Uncle Vanya shares some similarities with A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY. Can you talk about what that means to you as you bring them both to life visually?
Mark: I think, to me, I’ve only worked on Uncle Vanya once. I’m not sure if it’s what’s in the play or if it’s what Erica and I found in the play, but to me, out of all the Chekhov’s, it’s the least elliptical and the most driving and straight ahead, and in a way, the most unrelenting. I think that what Erica and I found in Uncle Vanya was a very simple way of framing that very immediate, straight-ahead narrative drive in a way that was simultaneously abstract and contemporary, but grounded the play in a kind of reality so that you didn’t, as an audience member, waste any time wondering, “What is this? Where am I?” It was very grounded and I think that when Erica worked on the adaptation of A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, that was the similarity. She was looking for something that was very lucid and straight-ahead and had a contemporary resonance even though it’s set in a period. Interestingly, we ended up arriving at a similar environment for the story. When we did Uncle Vanya, it was in a proscenium theatre and this is in three quarters, but I think the idea of a way of framing the environment ended up being similar because we were looking for similar things. I think our experience of doing Uncle Vanya clearly informed where we thought we could go with this play.
Scott: This will be your seventh production at Classic Stage Company. Can you talk about the challenges of working in our space and how that impacts your thinking?
Mark: It’s very funny. I knew David Esbjornson from living in L.A. when he was the Artistic Director. When I was still living in L.A. I sent him an email…or maybe a letter…and was like, “I know that you’re here now, remember me from L.A., if anything comes up I hope you keep me in mind.” And he said, “I don’t know Mark, it’s very competitive here.” I think I was asking his advice about moving to New York. It seems like not that long ago, but I guess it was a long time ago. It’s a funny question because to me, every time you go into a theatre, it is inherently environmental. Even if it’s a traditional Broadway house with a balcony and a proscenium, there is still an environment where you’re bringing the audience together with the actors and you’re trying to figure out how to make that the most immediate connection for the audience and the actors. Every show I think of as environmental. The thing that CSC gives you is that no matter what you put in there, the audience and the actors are immediately connected in an incredibly intimate way, and so there is always an interesting tension between trying to figure out how to subvert that and how to embrace it. If you just throw it in the audience’s lap is that too much? You always want there to be some tension to the experience and it’s figuring out for each piece what the right amount of visual and special tension is.