Dallas — Everyone needs that person who “gets” them. For Kevin Moriarty, the inventive artistic director of the Tony-winning Dallas Theater Center, well, there are probably plenty of people who fall into that category. One is New York-based set designer Jo Winiarski.
She has designed for Moriarty for about a decade, including four shows at DTC, such as the repertory productions of Moliere’s The School for Wives on the mainstage at the Kalita Humphreys Theater and the searing Medea in an underground sceneshop below it. Before that was The Wiz at the Wyly Theatre, which was Moriarty’s first wildly outlandish experiment with audience/actor relationships in the Wyly’s Potter Rose mainstage, what with some of the audience in “pods” that were moved by the actors and stage crew during the production so that those audience members’ perspective of the action changed during the production.
How to top that? How about a 50th anniversary production of the iconic rock musical Hair in the Wyly that not only puts the audience on four sides, each themed to a room/neighborhood (garden, playground, lounge, kitchen), but replaces all of the Wyly’s uncomfortable lime green chairs with an assortment of things to sit on, from wooden chairs to sofas and loveseats to beanbags and, the best seat in the house, a red barber chair that swivels so its inhabitant can get a 360 view of the action around them (I speak from experience).
In this immersive production, the band is in a circular pit in the middle of the stage, there’s a giant tandem slide on the playground side that’s used by actors in a variety of contexts, cardboard walls on the perimeters of the Potter Rose on which audiences can draw, and for the fourth production since the Wyly opened in 2009, there are no balconies. Those can be removed in this endlessly reconfigurable space (the other balcony-less shows were The Second City Does Dallas, The Wiz and Colossal).
For the last week of Hair, which closes on Oct. 22, we asked a few questions of set designer Jo Winiarski, via email. Here’s the exchange.
TheaterJones: Of the three previous shows you've designed for Kevin at Dallas Theater Center, The School for Wives was the most conventional in terms of the space and concept. You did The Wiz which had the audience pods, and Medea was in small sceneshop area below the Kalita. Tell me about your initial interactions with Kevin when he says "I have this crazy idea…"
Jo Winiarski: I have had the incredible pleasure of working with Kevin for over a decade now and he is one of my all-time favorite people to work with. I first started designing for him at the Hangar [Theatre] in Ithaca [New York]. What I love is that when I get to work with him all options are on the table as we start and we hone the idea in from the initial impulse. We start talking about the play or musical in broad terms. The idea for The Wiz came from the idea of the audience taking a journey with Dorothy, and the immersive Hair experience started when we first did the show together 10 years ago at The Hangar. I love the "what if" roads Kevin and I go down.
At what point did you both arrive at the idea of the four audience neighborhoods? Did the idea of a playground lead to the idea of a slide, or vice-versa?
We came up with the idea during a group meeting in Dallas early on, I think it grew out of a conversation about peanut butter sandwiches. As a group, we were throwing ideas about the show at the wall and seeing what stuck...I don't remember how the slide found its way in, but I did design that seating bank around it! A lot of the design came out of wanting different textures for each space, for them to be tactilely different.
What do you love about designing in the Potter Rose space in the Wyly?
What's incredible about the Wyly is you can decide what viewing experience the show should have and then you can do it. Is this something you want the audience to view with some distance like in a proscenium set up, or should it be immersive?
What are the challenges of the space?
Scale. How to create intimacy in a large room.
Do audiences like engaging with the set, as in drawing on the cardboard walls and the stage floor? Do you worry about what might happen, say, if one audience member writes or draws something tacky that you might see on a bathroom wall?
I don't know if the audience enjoys it, but for me, I wanted the space to feel communal, that it isn't complete without the audience. In deciding to have the audience to draw on the scenery I accepted that there would be a range of ways that people chose to express themselves. We all can be tacky or joyful, a little crass or maybe sentimental. I only hope that since I won't see the set at closing there will be a lot of photos taken to document the experience.
Tell me about the hunt for seating. Where did the chairs come from? What was the most difficult to procure? Did you just walk through DTC's set/prop storage and it was all there?
John Slauson, the props master, took that on. We decided on some guidelines and he went hunting from there. Then when we loaded the set in, we sat in every chair to make sure that none were too horribly uncomfortable and arranged them by neighborhood. I think he borrowed from many places and some were purchased. This show could have never happened without him.
I sat in the red barber chair, which was the best because of the swiveling. There's a theater in London that is just swivel chairs and the action happens around the audience. Could we see a whole swivel-chair show in the future at the Wyly?
If it were appropriate for the piece I don't see why not!
You design around the country, and immersive theater has become an exciting trend. Are you seeing more directors at traditional spaces trying to do out-of-the-box productions in terms of audience/performer relationships? Examples of a particularly challenging and/or interesting concept?
I think what theater can provide, that television and movies cannot, is that audience/actor connection. I think that is why it has become a more common experience and not so out-of-the-box any more. Mimi Lien's beautiful scenic design for The Great Comet brought immersive theater to Broadway even! I think it touches on what I said earlier about tactile experiences, that an audience can touch and experience things without the barrier of a screen. Sleep No More in NYC I think was a really interesting example of immersive theater that allowed for every audience member to have a unique experience that could only happen in live performance as the audience walked through the journey in a sort of "choose your own adventure" manner. Now THAT is something I'd love to do at the Wyly.
The Wyly is endlessly configurable, it seems. Do you think it, and the concept of immersive theater, will influence future theater design?
I hope so!
Are there any new scenic design trends we should look out for?
I think theater will continue to explore ways of providing the viewer with a more immediate experience. How will this evolve in scenic design? I don't know, but I am sure excited to find out.