4000 Miles to a Realistic Set

Over the weekend, I saw “4000 Miles” by Amy Herzog, directed by Mark Rucker.   I want to write about the set.  Erik Flatmo designed a very realistic, and very detailed set for the show.  I have written before about my dislike of realistic sets, and this show pointed out why.   I first want to say that I have seen other work by Flatmo and I like his work, so I do not want any part of this discussion to to be taken in anyway to disparage Flatmo or his work.  (In fact, his design for last season’s “Higher” was one of my favorite set designs I have seen at A.C.T.)  Flatmo’s  great work only points out my issues with very realistic sets.

No stage set is completely realistic.  It can’t be.   People on stage need a bit more room to move about.   The show must be clear to the audience, real conversations must be tilted so the audience can see it.   Actors need to be able to move around the stage gracefully.  On stage, the space between furniture is often wider the usual.  There is often a bit more room along the edges.   

“4000 Miles” is set in a rent controlled Greenwich Villiage apartment.  The owner of the apartment has lived there for conservatively 40 years (that assumes the main character is the oldest child of the oldest child, the owner’s husband (the main character’s grandfather) was significantly older than owner (the main character’s step-grandmother), and everyone had kids young).  The apartment had lots of detail about a long life.  Piles of papers stacked around the stage.  Pictures, bookshelves, cheap folding tables next to an upright spinnet, next to a nice period desk — these items tell the story of a long and full life — of an apartment full of kids, and now almost devoid of people.  

So what’s the problem?  Well, there are three (actually there are a few more, but I’m going to highlight three).   First, the furniture had to be spread so far apart to accommodate the blocking, that when one character wanted to set down her tea cup on the coffee table next to her, she had to get out of her seat because the coffee table was so far away she couldn’t reach it.  This yanked me out of the play.

My second issue was that the owner of the apartment was forgetful, loosing her check book, her glasses etc.   I know people like that.  (Heck, when I’m in tech, I am that person.)  My piles of the detritus of life, are constantly being moved, rearranged, gone through — hoping that my missing stuff somehow ended up in there.  The show did not allow time for moving the stuff around between scenes, nor would that have been a good use of time.  But the fact that the stuff didn’t move made the very realistic set feel false.

My last issue comes from the fact that in the play, a new character moves in for several weeks.  His influence on the apartment wasn’t minimal, it was non-existant.   If the apartment owner was one of the women who was so organized and neat that she alphabetized her socks, I could believe that a new flat mate wouldn’t disrupt the order of stuff.   This owner was not that woman.  I would have liked the computer, once set up, to remain on stage, instead it disappeared after its usefulness in the script.  I would have liked to see his stuff creeping into the space here and there — some visual evidence of his presence. 

As a designer, I understand the reasons for all of these decisions.   For the good of the overall show, they were the right decisions to make.  But these three items are examples of the realism of the set hurting the realism of the show.  When a set is theatrical, or suggested audiences accept the non-reality and roll with it.  But the more detailed and realistic it is the more the audience demands of it.  When the set looks like it could almost be a location magically transported to the theatre, and one wall carefully removed so the audience can see in, the audience needs that feeling perpetuated throughout the night.  On the other hand, if designers can force the audience to be a willing accomplice in making the magic they are seeing (by leaving more of the set to their imagination), the audience will fill in the details all on their own.

What to do?  Make the show even choppier than it is by taking long breaks between the scenes to move stuff around?  No, the play could not have handled that.  So the stuff was left where it was.  Make the set the size of a real Greenwich village apartment?   That would come off as claustrophobic.   So its probably better to have that coffee table too far away.

I don’t think there is a good solution, if the production has decided to go with a very realistic set.   So why not go with something less real — something more conceptual — something more abstract?  Well, it really isn’t that kind of show.  A single set play where characters speak the way people speak, and a plot that is plausible enough that you would believe your aunt when she tells you that this really happend to her in-laws’ neighbor.  When confronted with that type of play, realism is the natural answer.

Personally, I’m generally so repulsed by realistic scenery that I would fight against.  But I also imagine I would loose to most directors. (Actually, I don’t need to imagine it — I loose, because the director is ultimately right that realism is the natural answer.) 

So what do you do?  

You make it real, and hope the audience doesn’t notice the artificiality.  

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