Sense & Sensibility is set designer John McDermott’s first Folger production. He designed Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility in New York and has designed over 100 productions in theaters around the country. You can learn more about John’s work and see photos of his previous designs on his website. Read on for his reflections on the Folger, “period-ish” design, and the world of Jane Austen.
FT: What was your inspiration for the design of Sense?
JMD: Our first production of this play was in repertory with a modern adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull by Anya Reiss set in the present “on the Isle of Man or wherever you will” and so I knew the setting for Sense & Sensibility must have both a modern and a period feel so the two plays could play on the same stage with many common scenic elements.
I love historical settings, but I knew that both some of the furniture and the setting must be “period-ish”, and not tied to any one specific time period. I was drawn to images of the landscape as both the Chekhov and Austen works take notice of landscape. My decision to use a photo rather than a more pastoral scene-painted version helped provide the feeling of modernism I feel is in both plays and especially keeps the visual part of the experience NOW and not nostalgic. I felt getting too sentimental and pretty with the design would soften its often acerbic edges.
FT: How has the space of the Folger Theatre affected your design for the production?
The Folger is the most gorgeous envelope for this play, as there is no building I can think of which feels more English. I certainly did not want to hide any of this “free” scenery, merely to enhance it a little bit, thus the landscape being cut up and inserted into the spaces over the plaster between the timbers. All the Shakespearean openings of the theater space play well into the style of this production with actors appearing from everywhere in constant motion.
FT: Have you ever worked on an adaptation of Jane Austen before or a play set in the Regency period?
I had designed Arcadia as a school project, that is the closest I got to Jane Austen’s world. I love that the period style conveys an air of relaxing from the formality of the previous decades, even though that was a bit of a disguise; there were still strict guidelines as to what was appropriate and acceptable and what was not, but there was a lessening of the piling on of architectural and ornamental detail. Clothing for women was a little more flowing, the relief on decoration was less dimensional and more refined, and there was in the air a feeling that there could be social change, though as we see in S & S, change was not galloping in at a frantic pace.
FT: When did you decide that set would include a dressing room onstage?
I think Eric mentioned putting the actors onstage when we moved from doing the two plays in rep at the earlier theater to just performing S & S in a converted gym near Washington Square Park. There also was not that much room in the earlier theater.
This also supports the style of work Eric has been directing with his company Bedlam in which there is a dissolving of the “fourth wall” which helps keeps the audience aware that this is a play and that the actors are people acting as a vehicle for the play and lovingly passing it on to you the audience.
There is no backstage and onstage and actor and role and one defined role for one actor and male and female and young and old, all is fluid, like life (sometimes). We were both probably drawn to the lively dressing room action where all the actors were having so much fun dressing up and taking instagram and facebook photos during the rehearsal and run of the first production. Having some of that very human vividness and spontaneity onstage is the essence of the production.
Stay tuned for more with John McDermott next week! Performances of Sense & Sensibility start September 13 and the Folger exhibition Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity is now view through November 6.