Local Architect Sets The Scene for 'Boom'

Thomas Kamm created sets for stage productions before he became an architect.
Thomas Kamm created sets for stage productions before he became an architect. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 31, 2008

Say you're in a museum, absorbed in a painting. To what extent are you influenced by its frame? What about the building that houses the painting? Architect and set designer Thomas Kamm thinks about this stuff, and not in an abstract sense.

Before becoming an architect more than a decade ago, Kamm, 54, created sets for plays and operas. He found himself mulling the question of what role the set plays in a production when the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company hired him to design the set for Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's apocalyptic, futuristic fantasy "Boom," which opens Monday.

Kamm's architectural firm is based in the District, and he has been an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Illinois since 2002. But his formative years were in the theater, beginning at Arena Stage in 1978, and it's in the theater that he has earned an international reputation as something of a visionary. Kamm has created sets for shows by acclaimed experimental director and playwright Robert Wilson, and in 1991, he designed the set for the world premiere production of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" at San Francisco's Eureka Theatre. Most recently, he worked on "The End of Cinematics," a multimedia opera by Mikel Rouse.

In "Boom," a journalism student (Kimberly Gilbert) and a young marine biologist (Aubrey Deeker) meet via a personal ad promising "sex to change the course of the world," only to discover that their tryst could indeed influence the fate of the human species. For the play, Kamm conceived a set that differs radically from the one used when the play premiered in New York earlier this year.

The audience will play a more active role than perhaps they're expecting, and an audiovisual element will enhance the presence of the show's narrator, Woolly regular Sarah Marshall, an actress known for her outsize comic performances. Without giving away too many secrets, Kamm's notion of projecting close-ups of Marshall's face on a piece suspended from the ceiling serves a specific story purpose. Even so, Marshall had to be convinced, says "Boom" director John Vreeke. "Her concern was that it will distance her from the audience," he says. "I think projecting her image in large scale will actually serve to bring her closer to the audience, as will amplifying her voice."

Although Kamm's architecture practice keeps him busy ("the time for being a designer in Washington is very good right now, despite the economy," he says), he tries to design at least one show each season. He says that scripts present him with a ready visual image and that although "Boom" is set in the future, the image it evoked comes from his own past.

"It's this cool, modernist-brutalist basement of a science building," Kamm says, reminiscent of a building at the University of California at San Diego, where he earned a degree in drama, which he followed up 16 years later with a master's in architecture from Yale. It's his love of these two disciplines that informs his set design.

"A show is not about its set," Kamm says. "I think of it as a character. I don't want it to be the main character, but it is a character that has something to say."

POST-PERFORMANCE DISCUSSIONS Audience members can meet playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb after the show Wednesday and Nov. 8; members of the cast Nov. 12 and 20; and director John Vreeke, set designer Thomas Kamm and costume designer Ivania Stack after the 2 p.m. show Nov. 16.

Boom Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939.http://www.woollymammoth.net. Monday-Nov. 30. $26-$60, with pay-what-you-can performances Monday and Tuesday. Recommended for age 16 and older.

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