When you think of the future, what do you see? Hard plastic surfaces and a world of electronic lights? Or maybe a familiar, functional kitchen in an attractive house you might find on the market today? ¶ For theater designers, the more potent choice often is to keep it pretty real, even when a script is set in a disturbing dystopia, a virtual reality or inside a speculative view of decades to come.
“Every good play is a play about here and now,” says scenic designer Misha Kachman.
In a convergence that may say something about our anxieties about the omnitech present, three current D.C. shows plus one that just closed are either set in the future or in dystopias that feel unstuck in time. Headlong Theatre’s ferocious “1984” (at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh stage) brings George Orwell’s pivotal novel roaring to life with vivid sound and video. In Jordan Harrison’s new drama “Marjorie Prime,” on the other hand, the middle of the 21st century sneaks up on you at the Olney Theatre Center as you observe a grown woman fretting about her mother’s memory loss.
Martin McDonagh’s 2003 fable “The Pillowman” was just revived by Forum Theatre in an immersive production that makes the audience part of the totalitarian state investigating the author of unsettling stories. (It closed last Sunday.) Jennifer Haley’s popular ‘The Nether,” getting its area premiere now at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, likewise raises questions about the line between imagination and reality as dark deeds unfold in a virtual reality that some characters think should be policed.
“There is something very cathartic about thinking about dystopian futures,” says “Pillowman” set designer Paige Hathaway. “I think it can be a coping mechanism to say, ‘This could be the end of this’ — and breathe it out. It’s why things like ‘Mad Max’ are still around.”
Scripts aren’t always exacting about the way shows should look on stage. Adapting a novel such as “1984” obviously comes with a mandate to be imaginative, yet so does creating a set for “Marjorie Prime” or “The Nether.” Playwrights typically make suggestions; directors and designers make specific choices.
Turns out most of these designers are wary about creating looks that are too far removed from everyday life.
“I’m not smart enough to know what the technology is going to be,” Kachman says. “If you are trying to do it piecemeal, you usually fail.”
It has always been easier to create thorough alternate realities on film, TV or in fiction. But playwrights are increasingly drawn to sci-fi, and they’ve noticed the increase in high-tech on modern stages.
“The world is changing a lot,” says “1984” designer Chloe Lamford from London, where she is on staff with the Royal Court Theatre. “I think people need big stories and need to see stuff that inspires or shocks them in a different way. The Internet has had a huge impact. A lot of artists and playwrights are writing about dystopias, this disastrous engagement with the world.”
The Royal Court is currently premiering Alistair McDowall’s “X,” about a space crew on Pluto that has lost touch with Earth. “Maybe now we have a theatrical language for sci-fi, or are finding one,” Lamford says.
Sibyl Wickersheimer created the set for Woolly’s “The Nether,” and she once designed a “1984” for the L.A. troupe the Actors’ Gang, directed by Tim Robbins. Wickersheimer notes that futuristic stories have been around forever, even if sci-fi has never been one of the theater’s top genres. What’s changed is the omnipresence of technology in everyday life — and the tools designers can work with backstage.
“I think the newness is that the media is now being written in,” Wickersheimer says. “I’m not sure the playwrights fully understand the media. But they know they need it to tell the story.”
“It appears to be futuristic, but it really is not,” scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer says of ‘The Nether.”
She’s talking about the virtual reality technology that’s in our hands already. To demonstrate, she pulls out her phone and shows an enveloping 3-D photo of her back yard in Los Angeles.
“The Nether” is written by a former Web designer, and its theme is like a tech updating of McDonagh’s ethical concerns. Is a crime really a crime if it happens in an imagined or virtual space? Haley has said her play is modeled on TV procedurals, and in this plot the Internet has been rechristened as the Nether. Somewhere in the Nether there’s a place called the Hideaway, where very dark fantasies play out.
Wickersheimer and video- projection designer Jared Mezzocchi, speaking as they were still piecing their design together before the show began preview performances, describe two distinct worlds for the play: an interrogation room, and the virtual world of the Hideaway. The interrogation room is a sort of box; Mezzocchi’s projections play a strong role in creating the Nether.
Wickersheimer says, “In order to feel how free the Nether could take us and give the audience both sides of the equation, we need to feel what it means to be free from that box. By cracking it open, we get a sense of what could take place in that virtual world.”
To create three-dimensional effects with light, Mezzocchi is working with seven projectors in Woolly’s 265-seat theater. “It’s a bit of a mathematical wrestling match to figure everything out,” Mezzocchi says, “because it’s a very restrictive space in terms of where the gear goes.”
In practical terms, Wickersheimer and Mezzocchi are thinking about how much they need to disguise the play as a play — a problem, they note, that feeds into Haley’s theme. “In a virtual world anything can happen,” Wickersheimer says. “You don’t see the strings pulling things around. But we do, in theater. So how can we make that so magical that we buy into that world?”
One answer is a new surface material that neither of them had used before: voile. Voile is like scrim, the sheer, see-through screen that can also appear solid when light hits it from the front. But the weave of voile is tighter.
“It captures the high-def that scrim does not, and when it’s black you can see straight through it. It’s very cool,” Mezzocchi says.
Director Yury Urnov plunged the audience into a police state in Forum Theatre’s headquarters, the Silver Spring Black Box. A woman playing a very stern officer patrolled the crowd as they entered, murmuring directions and even commenting on the appropriateness of their clothing.
The space was dominated by a cube looming in the middle of the room. The audience sat on three sides of this cube, an interrogation area that acquired an extra layer of foreboding because it was enclosed on top. The audience was not outside of the action: Many patrons sat at conference tables, just like the officers who deceptively purred their questions toward the potentially subversive writer into a microphone.
“Yury wanted it to feel as if it could be happening here and now,” Hathaway says of the unspecified time frame. “Walking in, you want people to be confronted by the set. We felt it was the boldest statement we could make. . . . It’s a very communist, Brutalist structure, the cube.”
Katurian, the writer, was plainly imprisoned, yet the interrogating officers almost playfully hopped in and out of the inner room.
“The cube is difficult to work with, staging-wise,” Hathaway says. “But Yury used every inch of it. That delighted me as a designer. That’s always the hope. You give somebody a sandbox and hope they make a castle.”
A creepy feature of the design was the plastic sheeting used like a curtain to close off the cube. Shadow puppets were used to tell one of Katurian’s fanciful but grisly fables, which purportedly have inspired copycat crimes in the “real” world. The shadows were projected against the plastic.
“It works like a scrim,” Hathaway explains, adding that there was also a more sinister component: “The idea of that as a sterile space, and a space that can be easily be cleaned, has implications for the brutality of that criminal justice system.”
“Marjorie Prime” designer Kachman says he likes to play his cards close to his chest when introducing audiences to the world of a play.
“You think you know what you’re looking at,” he says with a sly smile. “You don’t. It’s not about surprises; there has to be story left to tell.”
At a glance, the “Marjorie Prime” set feels cozy. Kachman uses only the center of the deceptively wide stage in the 150-seat Mulitz-Gudelsky Theater Lab for nearly all the action. It’s a living room/kitchen area, sparsely furnished with chairs you could find in a thrift store now. The only futuristic touch — barely — is the universal remote that controls cooking appliances and music.
“Maybe I’m lousy at reading plays,” Kachman says, “because at first the fact that it happens 60 years in the future escaped me altogether. It’s very subtle.”
This science fiction future is partly populated by “primes,” cyborgs designed to look and sound like — well, whomever you like. In this household, the “prime” named Walter turns out to be a facsimile of Marjorie’s dead husband. The prime, programmed for companionship, asks Marjorie questions, building its memory of her life — a poignant turn, since Marjorie is losing her own memory.
To establish what Kachman describes as a “weird normalcy,” he chose a mid-20th century modern architectural template. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater was a model, with its right angles and natural materials that include light wood and an attractive, narrow stone wall.
The home’s back window looks out onto a deep green woods scene — printed wallpaper, in fact, that’s mounted into a light box. “I looked long and hard for this particular image,” Kachman says, “and I ended up just finding on the Web. The tranquility of it, the vertical rhythm of the trees — it just felt right.”
Ivania Stack’s costumes are likewise understated and recognizable. “They chose not to try to come up with what people would be wearing in 2060,” Kachman says. “If you try to do that, the danger is it will feel very design-y, and it will take you out of the story.”
Kachman’s “gestures,” as he terms certain visual touches, include ashes falling from above near the end of the play as the human factor diminishes, and also the idea that “primes” would still be visible off to the side when not in use, sort of in sleep mode. These images only occur late, after Harrison’s script has told most of the story.
“Sometimes you really have no option other than to design the living hell out of a play,” Kachman says. “In this case, in terms of the future, it is the text itself. You have to let the lines give the audience little cues.”
Edward Snowden’s surveillance state revelations, Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks data dumps, the U.S. government’s standoff with Apple about unlocking a dead terrorist’s iPhone — none of that was in mind when Headlong started the multimedia “1984” three years ago.
“We sort of worked obsessively within the novel,” Lamford says of the design team that collaborated with co-adaptor/directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. “We worked in this incredible detail in that story. But other things always become present. You realize how iconic that book is.”
The profoundly atmospheric staging captures the dread and aggression of Orwell’s novel. Banks of floodlights are positioned on the front corners of the stage. They’re aimed at the audience and at times flash with concussive blasts from the buzzy sound design. Lamford’s set positions a domineering screen over a generic-looking meeting room that feels cramped and oppressive. The audience views certain offstage scenes via live video feed. You know: . . . Big Brother is watching.
To conjure the emotional frenzy of the mandatory Two Minutes Hate, the cast is positioned at the front of the stage, with the inescapable video feed above them. “It’s important to connect strongly with the audience to convey what that is,” Lamford says of the famed brainwashing ritual.
The staging hides a certain amount of its technology until Winston, Orwell’s hapless protagonist, discovers the ugly truth. Cameras, sound and light all play an increasingly forceful role as the state exerts control, and as Winston finds himself in the torturous hellhole that is Room 101.
“The video designer [Tim Reid] was super involved in terms of where things would go, asking, ‘Do we need to cut a hole in a wall? Do we need a secret panel?’ ” Lamford says. “It was a math puzzle of where everything is. The team had to work together super-closely. Natasha Chivers, the lighting designer, had to light for film and for theater. It was quite a fiddly show to put together.”
At the same time, the rustic wood-paneled room and dated costumes keep much of the story from feeling terribly futuristic.
“We were deliberately obscure about whether it’s the future or not,” Lamford says, “so that we feel quite connected all the time.”
“Marjorie Prime,” through April 10 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.
“1984,” through April 10 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theater, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
“The Nether,” through May 1 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. call 202-393-3939 or visit www.woollymammoth.net.