Monday, January 5, 2015

Designing the Look of Destruction for "The Whipping Man"

Designer Tom Buderwitz on the set of The Whipping Man.
What do you do when the playwright calls for his story to be set in a destroyed-by-war formerly grand home in Richmond, Va? Put in a call to Tom Buderwitz. The Los Angeles-based scenic designer has worked with South Coast Repertory on productions since the 1998-99 season, including Bach at Leipzig, The Heiress, Collected Stories, Three Days of Rain and 13 seasons with A Christmas Carol.  He also is one of the most-respected West Coast-based designers. Variety has called his work “gorgeous” (Gigi), and the Los Angeles Times says his work is “breathtaking” (Putting It Together, The Autumn Garden) and “superb” (Crimes of the Heart). For The Whipping Man,  he has created an achingly beautiful and war-torn set. Learn more about his design process in the conversation below.

What drew you first to scenic and set design?
I came across the renderings of Robert Edmond Jones and Jo Mielziner in theatre books as a freshman in high school. I thought they were so poetic, magical and evocative. They captured the essence of the theatrical moment.

Who would you cite as your mentor—and how did that person work with/inspire you?
Allen Cornell was my scenic design teacher at Adelphi University. He is a fantastic designer who passed on a solid foundation in theatrical design and he instilled in me the idea of creating the right world for a play.

What makes you most proud of the work that you do?
Seeing it all come together with all of the other elements: acting, direction, costume, lighting and sound. My sets never feel complete until actors in costume under light appear.

What keeps bringing you back to SCR?
SCR has created a great working environment. I feel fully supported here and am encouraged to dream and push the boundaries of my craft. It is a place where I can freely exercise my design muscles. There is great reverence for the work here and an inherent professionalism that is ever inspiring.

What is your process in approaching a design like The Whipping Man?

It always starts with the text first. Having a pure first read is a theatrical experience, just me and the play (playwright). Then comes research and a lot of dialogue with Director Martin Benson about the play. We next spent time developing the plan (layout) of the set, carefully working through blocking possibilities and sightlines. In design, form follows function, and the way the design works has to take precedent over what it looks like. A well-functioning design will then take care of much of the form a design takes on.

What did you find most creatively challenging?
Probably finding the right level of destruction and deterioration in this set. It was supposed to have been a very nice place not very long ago, but the end of the war and recent events have wreaked great havoc on this house. Trying to find the right balance here was crucial.

What should audience members note about the set as they watch the play?
Don’t note anything. Take the set at face value and listen and watch the play unfold. The set is big and grand and almost another silent character all on its own. Hopefully the set will make sense and just be accepted as the right place for this story.

Learn more and buy tickets.

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