Nick Vaughan

Stagenotes: Seder

Artist to Artist: Set Designer Nick Vaughan

By Skye Robinson Hillis, Artistic Apprentice

Nick VaughanHouston-based artist Nick Vaughan returns to Hartford Stage after designing the set for last season’s production of Cloud 9, directed by Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson. In this interview, Vaughan chats with Hartford Stage about working with Williamson and playwright Sarah Gancher, navigating a prop-heavy show, and the experience of designing for new work.

This is not your first time collaborating with Associate Artistic Director and director of Seder, Elizabeth Williamson, or playwright Sarah Gancher. How would you describe your working relationship?

I try to only work with people I really trust and who, in turn (I hope), really trust me.  I’ve known Elizabeth for more than 10 years now. Although last year was the first time working together as a designer/director combo, we’ve kept an eye on each other from our various locations around the country. What I love in particular about working with her is that she really knows my whole practice (I’m primarily a visual artist these days.) That sensibility informs the way we approach work together and the way our conversations about a project start. It allows for a certain kind of shorthand.

As for Sarah, we met a few years ago when she came into a development process with the TEAM (the Brooklyn-based devised theater company I’ve worked with/been a member of for the last decade). The piece was undergoing a lot of changes, and we decided we needed an outside eye to help corral all the material. Which is to say – it’s nice to be working with Sarah on one of her own pieces!

What excites you about Seder? How is the experience of designing for a world premiere different than other works?

I would say with the exception of Cloud 9 last year, I mostly only design new work. I like how malleable it is. I like trying to find the skeleton of something, dig into dramaturgical architecture, figure out how to craft the “event” of the piece (the contract between audience and performers, the framing of narrative, etc.), which is really what I think about more than the ‘setting’ of it.  It’s also totally unburdened by people’s ideas about what it should be, or how it should look, or how so and so did it. I tend to feel like it’s a more generative process.

Seder is an extraordinarily prop-heavy show, and your set is filled with incredible detail. What is your process when it comes to designing a show that involves this much specificity? How do you and our props master, Erin Keller, collaborate to bring all those elements to life?

The process on a show like this is really something I can take very little credit for.  Partially because I live in Houston, and partially because it’s just so big, prop decisions have truly been driven by Erin Keller and the folks in the rehearsal room. Erin and I had some time in New York together, and a long line of emails, but most of those consist of feel, tone, and large environmental ideas. I had the fortune of working with her on Cloud 9, so again, coming back to trust, I know that she’s got an amazing eye and I trust her judgment.  I feel like Erin needs a special spot on the marquee for this one . . .

How does designing for Hartford Stage’s thrust compare with designing for a more traditional proscenium space?

Sarah Lemp and Mark H. Dold in Cloud 9. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Sarah Lemp and Mark H. Dold in Cloud 9. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Well, there are all the basic concerns: sightlines can be tough, you have to stage to all sides, not everyone gets the same picture, etc.  But I think the big difference for me is not technical, it’s conceptual.  I’ve always been really interested in the physical, mental, emotional experience of being an audience member in a room. What does that mean? How do keep it from being a passive experience? How do we make folks aware of their butts in the chairs and the fact that they’re sharing this space with performers a few feet in front of them in this big, unspoken ritualized contract? Along those lines, a thrust space does half the work for you because almost everyone in the room spends some time looking at each other across the way. It makes the ritual of the whole thing more alive, more tangible. Which is to say, in general, that I tend to find it conceptually easier. The technical concerns can be solved one way or another.

Of the many shows you’ve designed, which was the most meaningful for you and why?

That’s a tough one…it’s like, “Which of your children do you like best?”  I guess right now, the most meaningful experience I’ve had as a “designer” was probably the least designed project I’ve ever worked on, Primer for a Failed Super Power. Last August, we (not the royal we, but the aforementioned TEAM) put up a show that was essentially a big, intergenerational concert of broadly-defined protest music from the last 100 years. We had teenagers, our generation, and Baby Boomers; and we commissioned six composers to put together arrangements of these songs (everything from ‘The Internationale” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright).”  We’d spent years developing the project, but what we had didn’t really sink in until we got all forty of us in a room for two weeks to put it all together.

At some point in the first week, one of our teens was talking about social progress and the future and Ching Valdez (a legendary performer and one of our Boomers), leaned over to Tom Walker from the Living Theater and said, “you know, I think we can relax a little now, things are going to be alright” – which truly was the experience of being in that room.  Had there never been a public presentation, I think the project would have been worth it. That said, I think all of that energy was palpable in the room when we finally presented it. (It helped that the air conditioning went out on the first night, so it really and truly felt like a big sweaty concert and demonstration . . . I mean, it was one.) A lot of what I did (outside of helping steer the whole thing conceptually along with other company members, was making a ‘zine every night, which also served as a program for the event.  All of which is to say, as far as theater goes, I tend to be more interested in the ‘thing’ rather than the set for the ‘thing.’  I’m just trying to let that ‘thing’ happen.