With lights by Andrew F. Griffin, costumes by Mariah Hale, and projections by Francesca Talenti, Tony Cisek‘s striking scenic design for Timon of Athens has been wowing audiences since performances began on May 9. Folger Spotlight spoke to Cisek to find out more about his process and inspirations for creating Timon’s stunning look.
How did you see the set design evolve throughout the production process?
We were really fortunate to have the ability to rehearse on the set for half of the process, which is a luxury, especially since the architecture of this set creates staging opportunities that you can’t easily simulate in the rehearsal room across the street. [Director] Robert Richmond was able utilize some of the dynamic physical relationships the set provided.
What kinds of discoveries about the set did you make through rehearsal?
We decided early that, rather than Timon exiling himself out in the wilderness, he would impose a self-exile on himself in his own complex. Act two is basically Timon talking to a bunch of people who come in and out: what is he going to do doing those conversations? Knowing Ian, knowing that he has a lot of physical ability, and not knowing where his psychological state might develop by the time we get to act two when he’s sort of raging against the world, we thought, “Let’s give him places to climb, to get really wild.” We thought that would be a huge contrast between that and the very controlled, buttoned up person that we see in act one. That was the plan, and Ian took to it. We added a couple of extra bars around the pillar for him to get all the way up and all the way back down.
Did you anticipate bringing actors to the second level in that way?
To be honest, I don’t really know if it was Robert looking at sketches and going, “Hey why don’t we climb,” or me thinking “Someone’s going to want to be able to go up there.” Part of the character of the theater is it’s 18ft tall–I think there is a little bit of a challenge to have the event be as present, or nearly as present, for the audience in the gallery as it is for the people in the orchestra. The inner above, as it’s designed in this sort of play theater, is not a very strong position for actors. It’s out of sight lines for a lot of people, it’s kind of distant, so augmenting it with this second level as many designers (including myself) do very often is a way to explore the vertical space and engage the upper level of audience more immediately.
How else did you consider the character of the Folger Theatre in your design?
I think my approach to designing in the space has evolved over the twenty years I’ve been working here and I no longer come in trying to hide it. I come in trying to embrace it, use its strengths, and bend it. In this particular instance, one of our ways of describing Timon was kind of like Bruce Wayne—he was born into old money with this long aristocratic line. What would that mean for his home? Perhaps he’s taken his Wayne Manor and he’s retrofitted it with more modern technology. I used the old dark wood heaviness of the Folger as the aristocratic, old world wealth and history and wrapped it in something that feels more modern. [Robert and I] came across this great piece of research that he gravitated to, an image of the Batcave which had all the modern parts against concrete. We fused some of those elements with Wayne Manor’s upstairs and came up with this. Again, we’re not consciously hiding anything, it’s all right there when you look, but hopefully we’ve bent it and allowed our structure to take the lead.
Finally, do you find there’s much of a difference between working on a play such as Timon, that’s relatively unknown, and a play that people are familiar with?
I would say no. Our challenges have not to do with the fact that it’s performed so rarely, but why it’s performed so rarely. There are productions of Timon you can find and watch—it was Robert and [Director of Public Programs] Janet Griffin seeing a production with Simon Russell Beale that started them thinking about it (though nothing that we are doing here has anything to do with that production). I don’t tend to research other productions to inform what I do. However, I’m not a purist. If there are things that we as a group just can’t figure out, I have no problem going to my peers and saying, “Hey, how did you solve this? Help us crack this open.” Not to copy a solution but to understand better what the problem is and find our own solution.
Timon of Athens
Directed by Robert Richmond; scenic design by Tony Cisek; costume design by Mariah Hale; lighting design by Andrew F. Griffin; sound design by Matt Otto, projection design by Francesca Talenti; production photos by Teresa Wood.
Thanks so much to Tony for speaking with us! Come see his designs in Timon of Athens, on stage until June 11. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.