Louisa Thompson is the scenic designer for Soho Rep.’s production of Samara by Richard Maxwell. She has had many collaborations with Soho Rep. including Obie Award winning [sic], Blasted, and Washeteria. Samara has been in development with this creative team for a few years now and Louisa has found that the team’s work in the rehearsal room has directly informed her abstracted, temporal design for the play. Louisa took time with our Literary Intern, Anna Woodruff, to discuss more about her process.
What draws you to Richard Maxwell’s work? Specifically what about the play Samara interested you most?
LT: My experience of Rich’s work has always made me intrigued with the way that actors, text, and space all seem to be having a dialogue. With his past work, I always experienced this heightened awareness of spatial, textual, and physical relationships. Certainly with Samara, there is a lot that is not explained, giving opportunity to explore what this world is, who these people are.
Specifically with Samara, I have always been intrigued with the journey story, the feeling of a parable. I also feel like when we’re told that people are on the outside of the known realities of communal life, taking themselves off the map– it makes us question where we are and where are we going. It has been a beautiful thing to figure out how to make a space that doesn’t necessarily illustrate that so didactically. And there is a lot of realism that seems to surface, lots of details and familiarity. Putting that realism with something that feels more abstract and big is really exciting. We’ve been exploring these ideas for very long time.
How long have you been working on the play?
LT: I have been going in and out of rehearsals at least for three years. We did do one workshop that was specifically designed to create set ideas for Sarah to play with and work against. That became the original thumbprint for where we are now.
You mentioned that there is not a lot of explanation in the text. Does that leave room for you to bring in more ideas, as opposed to working on a more classic text?
LT: I guess so. I still feel like this is a play that you want to get out of the way of; I don’t feel this is suddenly an opportunity to go push into all sorts of visual information. It has more to do with rehearsal, because there’s so much for the actors to figure out with the rhythm and the untold experience in this play that it forces me, as a designer, to be more dependent on the rehearsal process to understand the play wholly. Whereas a text heavy play has so much going on that I can just respond to the text. Being in the space with the actors was so informative; I began to see it as an exploration of performing the text. There is this language of actors, performers, storytellers, and characters that influenced my understanding of Rich’s work as being very much about the theatre. I didn’t want the set to take us away from that.
You’ve worked with (Director and Soho Rep. Artistic Director) Sarah Benson a number of times. Can you talk a little bit about your process for collaborating on this show?
LT: Once we understood how much of this was going to come through rehearsing and working with actors, we decided to stay in an exploratory phase for longer than usual. We’re in an ongoing conversation, almost like a call-and-response dialogue. We went through a lot of different ideas of the stage configuration. We wanted the audience to have a communal experience, and decided on theatre in the round. We had to shift our conversations around how to make the space serve the play. Let the play exist in that choice but also let that inform the play. I had to keep testing in a way, because the stage configuration shapes the storytelling. We’re still adjusting and evolving. It’s been a really nice opportunity for Sarah and me to have this much dialogue.
Samara has an eternal quality to it, almost as if eternity is in the room with us. But a journey story exists in the play that has this temporality to it, a beginning and an end. How do these conflicting ideas manifest themselves in the design?
LT: There are a number of ways that we have been talking about this. The fog is an element that comes through and leaves, opening us up to a bigger space or landscape than before. The pallets feel like something temporary, like we created a space to bring people together in and we can see how the thing was constructed. To me, it’s a little like going to see theatre in a tent. In a short time the tent will be taken down and it will disappear. The pallets are shipping things. We know weirdly what they are, but their configuration makes them feel like they are being transformed. There are moments when I forget what they are. But the way they are stacked up in the middle of the space and the idea that this is how goods are moved around this planet. It’s meant as a response to the text.
Do you have any personal thoughts on the story that the play is telling?
LT: I think I’m really close to it now. I think that the idea of one act leading to another, leading to another, and trying to find the completion of that is very a basic yet profound part of our humanity that we often don’t have a way to put a shape around. For me, the play connects why we make so many of our choices. Then you kind of realize the play is not trying to teach you a lesson, it’s trying to help you connect to something you already know.