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Author: Emma St. Lawrence

Behind the Scenes: Building a Shakespearean World

Milan in the swinging 60’s, the charm of 50’s Florence, and…a tumultuous ancient Rome?

The first two Shakespeare productions we staged this season are iconic examples of Shakespeare’s comedies. Their characters and capers lend themselves well to transposition into different ages–in this case, an idyllic mid-century Italy.

Our third production, however, is a tragedy, and one of four distinctly Roman plays by the Bard.

Like “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Titus Andronicus” and “Julius Caesar,” “Coriolanus” is an adaptation from Greek biographer Plutarch. The play takes its inspiration from the eponymous Caius Marcius Coriolanus, a real-life Roman general who lived and died in 5th century BC. Because of this, it is a story deeply bound in the time and place of ancient Rome.

As such, it presented an interesting challenge for designers; should they attempt to emulate exactly the styles of the era? Bring it into the modern age? Or perhaps find a balance between the two, merging history and imagination?

These are the questions that Scenic Designer Kevin Nelson and Costume Designer Janice Benning Lacek grappled with while constructing the world of CSF’s “Coriolanus.”

This is the first CSF season for Nelson, who also helmed the scenic design of “All’s Well That Ends Well.” He holds a MFA in scenic design and joins us from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts design department. With credits including “Antigone,” “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “The Tempest,” Nelson is no stranger to creatively reimagining historical material.

Benning Lacek is similarly skilled in creating lush and striking designs across historical periods. “Coriolanus” will be Benning Lacek’s fourth production with CSF since 1999. She boasts a wealth of additional credits across the country–including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Utah Shakespeare Festival, Great River Shakespeare Festival, and Tennessee Shakespeare Company.

Though this season’s festival came to a close on August 7th, to celebrate the incredible work by our artists behind the stage that made so much magic possible, we spoke to Nelson and Benning Lacek about designing for CSF, their creative process, and how to bring a play to life.

How did you each come to design as a profession?

Kevin Nelson: I have always been interested in the arts, but theatre really captivated me, because it combined all the arts into one medium. I joined theatre in high school, since sports were not for me, and I have loved it ever since. Scenic design was a discovery that happened in my early collegiate experience. I realized that creating worlds for storytellers to inhabit and bring to life was one of the most exciting aspects of theatre.

Janice Benning Lacek: After college, I worked in all areas of technical theatre, with an interest in possibly being a director. It turned out that costume suited me the best–I had done a lot of costuming in undergraduate school, then spent a few years out of school doing everything but.  Out of a freelancer’s financial necessity, I came back to it as an assistant and had one of those V-8 moments: “Oh yeah this is what I want to be doing, duh!” That’s when I decided to get my MFA,  and have been working and then teaching it ever since.

Describe your process when you first approach a project. What kind of collaboration do you typically have with a director and/or other designers?

JBL: It depends a great deal on the group and the time frame…I like to have some  ‘gestation’ time to read and reread the text, and noodle around with images and ideas, then compare notes and ideas with the rest of the team.

KN: My process with a new project involves quite a bit of reading. I need to understand the story, how it might break down into scenes, and what elements are needed in each scene to tell that story. This usually means I will read a script 4 or 5 times before sitting down with a production team.

At our initial team meeting the director will share their artistic vision for the show overall – which could include specifics like time period and locations, but mostly establishes the major thematic tone we are pursuing. Then we establish the givens of each production, like which venue we are using and what kind of budget we have. At which point everyone will go about their own research process before meeting back up to ensure we are headed in the same direction.

My research can be anything from reading source materials to a Google image search, dependent on the needs of the production. Once we have determined we are on the same page I will begin designing the show using not only my research, but the compiled research of the whole team. I start with sketches that can be refined and transformed into the final design throughout the rest of the process. A production team will meet many times over the course of a creative process. Collaboration with other designers happens during these meetings and continues through the opening of a production.

When conflicting design opinions arise, how do you navigate them?

KN: In my experience conflicting design opinions happen most when communication is not clear. I have found the best way to navigate this is by going back to the script and the artistic vision for the production. Open collaborative discussions with the team and the director allow us to focus on how we elevate the text and serve our thematic points. Sometimes ideas can be visually stunning and very exciting, but they don’t serve our version of the text or what we are trying to convey to the audience.

JBL: My experience has been in a functional and communicative team situation there tend not to be “conflicts” so much but, rather, variable ways to tell a story. We find ways to sort out the ideas that serve the play the best; it helps if the director is skilled at understanding design. It’s important to remember that not every design area need to “sing the same note;” they should work together. Nor does one aspect have to do all the work of communicating all the ideas about the world of the play at once. And to remember there’s going to be acting happening–the designed environment is the container for the play, but it’s not complete without the action.

What unique challenges do historical plays like “Coriolanus” pose from a design perspective?

KN: What makes designing a historical play unique is that we know we can pull source material from any given period. Historical documents and images provide a realistic foundation on which to world-build. Directors help us focus our efforts by establishing the period and location of each production. In that way designing historical pieces is almost the same as anything else. Additionally, not all directors envision a text happening in a period or location that is historically accurate. In fact, I think that is one of the most delightful things about this production of “Coriolanus” in particular.

JBL: Contemporary tastes and aesthetics always play a role…you have to acknowledge what your audience walks in with, and what will resonate (or what they don’t expect…how many people today know much about the historical aspects of pre-Republic Rome?). I love clothing history but, most importantly, they want to get immersed in the story versus viewing a museum exhibition on stage.

We love to design Shakespeare because his plays zero in on human nature, and what’s recognizable to us–regardless of  the time and place of the setting. Design and style choices can underline ideas, can interrogate, reframe  and can transcend–audiences can hold a lot of contradictions in their brains, that’s part of the fun of live performance design.

Tell us a bit about your goals in designing for this play; what did you seek to communicate in your work? 

JBL: The history-based Shakespeare plays, like this one, tend to be full of armies and multiple characters and a fundamental function of the costume design is often to help the audience  simply keep track of who is who in the story…that’s extra challenging when the production uses ensemble casting, with at least some cast members might play as many as 7 or 8 characters and you might have a very small handful of folks representing an entire army, or mob. So, for this production, we wanted to clearly show the different military camps and also differing classes of characters–I used not only color but also texture and pattern in fabrications to create distinctions/highlight those conflicts and certain character’s machinations. I really wanted to support the action and energy behind those awesome fights and scenes, and along with the scenic environment, give lights the right kind of ‘canvas’ on which to play.

KN: I wanted to provide a neutral backdrop for our team to tell this story. I wanted it to complement the text as opposed to being the main focal point. The set needed to be large and unforgiving, representing the Roman empire itself, a space for senate meetings and intense fight sequences. But we also needed it to function as a private space for intimate moments between characters who scheme, spy, and share their visions for the future. It was important that we blend the modern with the ancient to allow the audience to see how things have or have not changed within a relatively young democracy.

Kevin, you also were the scenic designer for “All’s Well That Ends Well”–did your approach to the two plays and your collaboration with the directors differ?

KN: While the texts, tone, and locations of these pieces differ just like their directors – my process remains the same. I approach every show looking to support the text and director’s vision through my design. I worked with both Wendy and Anthony individually to create very different worlds that can exist within the same venue. I consider myself fortunate to have worked with these directors as they each have incredible passion and unique visions for their own production, while still understanding the obstacles that we face performing these two pieces in rep.

Janice, this is your fourth production with CSF since 1999. How has designing for the festival changed over the past 23 years?

JBL: A lot and also not that much! It’s still pretty magical to see the crowds gather before a  show–even though all the sidewalk construction outside seems to still be there as it was in the early 2000’s…

There’s a lot of enthusiastic younger artists and more students involved in the shops these days, and the environment really encourages them to do great work; it’s a challenging timeline with a leaner company for sure. Navigating COVID of course was definitely a big change from the last time I designed for CSF, let’s hope that change is short-lived!

Finally, what is your favorite design element in “Coriolanus?”

JBL: It’s hard to pick one favorite thing–I’ll say that I am really pleased to see that so many things look even better in execution and in context than I would have imagined…and getting things to opening night was a heavy lift that so many talented people contributed to.

The process of designing this show for me was, on paper, sometimes quite solitary over a long series of weeks/months just drawing things (even longer for lights and scenery who started this journey in 2020!). To get off the page and into the fitting room and rehearsal hall and have immediate, present ideas to respond to really made it what it is. Working with Anthony and this acting company was a real joy–to a person they are wonderful collaborators.

And, yes, I’m pretty happy with the way that red dress for Volumnia turned out…I tip my hat to the draper Becky, the whole costume team and especially Kathleen, who really knows how to wear a costume!

KN: It would be a disservice to the production if I did not take the time to highlight the work of our entire team. Every person who worked on this production very much embraced the idea that we are an ensemble, much like the theme of a city being its people, and we created a beautiful backdrop for our performers to bring this important text to life.

Though, if forced to choose an element I designed, I would have to say it’s the main portal. It exemplifies the blend between ancient and modern through its modern clean lines broken up by ancient tools of war, as well as a modern color pallet enhanced with ancient stone carvings. We originally started this process pre-COVID, so this design has lived in my mind for over two years.

Seeing this piece come to life served as a tangible reminder to me of how ancient the art of storytelling is and it gave me a renewed sense of hope, after a few years of uncertainty, that this art form will continue to be around for a very long time.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival will return Summer 2023. Be the first to hear about season tickets, show announcements and more at https://cupresents.org/coshakes.