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Sense & Sensibility Set Designer John McDermott – Part 2

Sense & Sensibility set designer John McDermott designed Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility in New York and has designed over 100 productions in theaters around the country. Check out the first part of his reflections on the Folger’s Sense & Sensibility and read on to learn about about why designing this production made him feel like “a glittery vagabond”!


FT: Where did you find the all the pieces you needed for the Sense & Sensibility set: chandeliers, mirrors, branches, ect? There is a beautiful print on the back wall of the set that we’re curious about..

I drove about 10,000 miles this summer designing 12 shows in New York, Vermont and Massachusetts. Along the way I bought sconces and mirrors and other props for the show I thought might be hard to find in DC. I wanted everything to have a slightly worn look, sort of period, but not specifically of the regency period. Right before I came down here my small Buick was filled with chandeliers and sconces and mirrors. I looked like a very glittery vagabond.

I found that one print of three girls and their mother (which I think is from the early 20th century, but depicts an early 19th century scene) at a store called Camelot Antiques in Bennington Vermont. The print looked very much like the Dashwood sisters in their new cottage, though it was not labeled as such. I want the stage dressing area to have the look of a well used dressing room with notes and photos and prints and lamps, some of the period, but mostly just evoking it. All of this in the New York production came from my apartment which is like a well stocked prop warehouse with more than 150 lamps and drawers full of prints and all kinds of stuff like that.

Because we were on a very tight budget in the first productions, we used furniture originally from Ikea, though I found much of it already used on craigslist. I built some of the set in the shop at the school where I worked and some was built in a friend’s shop in Brooklyn, both after hours, secretly, don’t tell. I found some of the furniture on the street. The branches were driven down from Andrus Nichols’ house in upstate New York, the chandeliers were borrowed from our costume designer.

FT: How did you decide that the set would roll?

The rolling idea was mutual. I told Eric Tucker I felt S & S felt like a rolling play and The Seagull was less of one, in that Chekhov way of life succumbing to inertia. Eric had worked with rolling furniture in the past, I had used it for just some props, and once very happily for the central kitchen table in a production of Miss Julie in the Berkshires. Though my problem with rolling furniture is directors always want to put brakes on the back of it thereby limiting the object’s joy. I love that there are no brakes in this production. The script Kate Hamill wrote was akin to a movie script and knowing Eric’s work, there would be no stopping for elaborate scenic changes. The scenery on casters helps to make the play feel like life is rushing by and opportunity must be seized (carefully, gracefully, with full propriety), as the Dashwood sisters also feel.

FT: You’ve spoken about wanting to keep the physical space of the Folger Theater visible in your design. Why is that important to you? 

Some directors, and plays, require the theater to visually go away so that the concentration of the audience is on the performer. This idea started to develop in the 18th century with the rise of the proscenium theater. I have always been drawn to the whole theater as a playing space.

I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island seeing the designs of Eugene Lee at Trinity Repertory Theater where going to a play was a very live event and anything could be anything and the set was all around the audience and the audience was in the play. Eugene would take whole chunks of buildings and put them on stage, as he did for the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, or set the whole play in a physically appropriate place, as in a production of The Visit in the decaying early 20th century train station in downtown Providence.

This to me makes the people in the play not just actors, but people whose lives I am witnessing as they are telling a story. The scenery is REAL, the acting is real, we are really in the room with these people, not in some illusion of reality. The lack of the necessity to “make it pretty” frees the audience to let the actors be the most important visual element. This is how live theater can be so thrilling and uncommon. juxtaposing our expectations with surprising life.


200x200Thank you to John McDermott for sitting down with us! Don’t miss the chance to see his stunning work onstage at the Folger Theatre. Performances of Sense & Sensibility begin September 13 with a Pay-What-You-Can performance. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box at 202.544.7077.

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