Colin McGurk

A Conversation with Heartbreak House Set Designer Colin McGurk

By Theresa M. MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate

“Discordianism is literally to embrace chaos while laughing.”

What first interested you in pursuing set design as a career?

 I’ve always liked making things. That’s why I thought I wanted to be an engineer when I graduated high school. I decided to add theatre as a double major when my engineering coursework was starting to get painfully boring to me, and I was figuring that maybe I could do some stage machinery design or something along those lines. I really liked the shop work in theatre, and that’s what I felt was missing from my engineering education. While I was pursuing this, I had an incredible professor named Drew Francis, who ultimately became much more of a mentor than a professor to me. He guided me towards scenic design as I worked in the shops, and he got me a job at a summer stock theatre. By the time I was looking at quitting my engineering degree, he gave me reason to believe that I could actually have a career in theatre and that I just had to work hard to get it – that it was mine for the taking. 

When did you begin your collaborative partnership with Darko Tresnjak? 

I met Darko while I had been working for Alexander Dodge as his associate, starting in 2011. Through their frequent collaborations, I got to know Darko – first casually and then fairly well – throughout the process for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. He saw the work that I was doing for Alexander and how Alexander trusted me to make certain decisions in his stead. It was about a year or so after that when Darko, wanting to design his own set for Hamlet, asked if I could assist him in communicating his ideas to the shop. We had a great time working together; and over the next several shows, he gave me more and more free rein to take his original concept and develop the functionality of the set as I think it best. I think that’s one of the things I like about working with Darko: he trusts the other artists he works with. But I think that the thing I enjoy most is that he has the most shockingly clear vision of any director I’ve ever met. He knows what he wants, and he can see how things work on stage in his mind’s eye – especially spatial relationships – in ways that I continue to be amazed by.

Two sets you’ve worked on with Darko, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Anastasia, have gone on to Broadway. Can you describe any modifications that happen when a set design transfers to a larger venue?

Sightlines, structure, and sparkle are the major elements that we have to address when transferring. The larger Broadway houses have a drastically different audience configuration than Hartford does – especially considering the mezzanine – and we have to make sure that everyone can see the show. Structurally, we also need to consider what sort of changes need to be made so that a set and the props can survive many times longer than the 4-7 weeks required at Hartford Stage. Then we need to add extra sparkle, more luxurious finishes, extra levels of detail, and richer fabrics as Broadway audiences expect to see that.

Can you take us through your set design process? 

I always start with visual research after I read the play. I find all sorts of images that relate to different ideas in the play. Some will be things that I would want to incorporate into the set; other things will just have the right feeling I’m trying to convey or it will set the right tone. I take all of those ideas and mix them up for a while in my cocktail shaker of a brain and see what pours out. Sometimes, there is a metaphor for how the play works that I can visualize literally on the stage. My next move is designing the set in the 3D modeling program Sketchup, where I start working with plain white shapes and make sure that we’re happy with sight lines, general composition, entrances and exits. I talk with the director about how the actors will move around the space and how they will compose scenes visually.  Then, I skin the digital model with textures to give some life and some vibrancy, and then we are able to start talking about mood and feeling. Along the way, I get stuck and unstuck plenty of times and have to figure out problems that I set for myself. It’s all part of the process. I find inspiration in all sorts of random places. Some of the visual research that I did at the beginning I can look at under a different light – seeing new ways that it can be used. My favorite thing in the world is figuring things out and the “Aha!” moment that comes with it.

You mention on your website that you are equally fascinated by the golden ratio and Discordianism. Can you explain how this manifests itself in your work?

The golden ratio is a mathematical ratio that presents itself in many patterns throughout the natural world and has been used to great effect throughout art and design since the ancient Greeks. It suggests that there is a natural order to the universe. I use this when I can proportionally, but I also just absolutely love the natural order to geometry. I love sitting around playing with shapes all day long. Discordianism is literally to embrace chaos while laughing. This is the other side of that natural order that I obsess over. Chaos and order on their own are boring, but the interplay between them is a source of endless fascination to me.

What intrigued you about the design concept for Heartbreak House, and what key elements from the play influenced your design?

In the case of Heartbreak House, George Bernard Shaw actually gives us a visual metaphor right at the top of the stage directions – “The house is a ship.” Darko and I had talked about how the ship is England, and England is an island, and how this metaphor wraps things up so neatly. All of these wildly different characters are trapped together in this ship, with very different ideas about where it should go and how they should get there. We decided to take the “house is a ship” at face value, and that this idea is Shaw creating, rather than justifying, it as Shotover’s obsession with the sea and sailing led him to build a house that looks like a ship. I worked back and forth between bringing elements of sailing ships into the house and back again bringing elements of Victorian and Edwardian manor homes into the ship. It was a really rewarding way to work, as I enjoy making hybrids of things. 

That is the other major element that I’m working with – the “bohemian” nature of the Shotover house and family. They’re iconoclasts, so it’s easy to justify that their taste is a little eccentric. When I started pulling nautical details from various ships, I found The Galleon Neptune, which had a replica built in the 1980s. This ship is full of rich, borderline absurd, carved details which are almost too elaborate to be believed. You get the same feeling looking at the pictures of this ship as you might imagine a “proper” Englishman like Boss Mangan would have after being introduced to this world of chaos. We also wanted Act III to feel like the house breathes a little bit, and there’s some air as we move from being trapped in the house and fighting against the way the family functions to relaxing and just sort of going with the chaotic flow towards the end. 

The cast of The Comedy of Errors. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The cast of The Comedy of Errors. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Of the sets you’ve worked on at Hartford Stage, which is your favorite from a design standpoint?

It’s funny, just the other night I was talking with someone else on Heartbreak House, and I actually counted out all the shows that I’ve done at Hartford Stage assisting Darko or Alexander Dodge, and it far exceeded my estimate of “nine or ten.” It turns out that Heartbreak House will be the thirteenth show I’ve worked on at Hartford Stage! I’ve had the privilege to be a part of so many incredible designs, and it makes it hard to pick just one. I think that the most fun was certainly Darko’s The Comedy of Errors; it was whimsical and full of so many simple tricks and actually moved the play along as much as all the wonderful actors did. Also, the space and how all of those entrances worked together were incredibly challenging to wrap my head around, so I loved that! I think that Alexander’s set for Twelfth Night would be my other favorite because it was so wildly original and perfectly fitting to that play. It was so beautiful in its simplicity; nothing else needed to be said other than the play itself.