Designing the Undesignable Set: Behind the Scenes of Off-Broadway’s Fefu and Her Friends

Photo Features   Designing the Undesignable Set: Behind the Scenes of Off-Broadway’s Fefu and Her Friends
 
María Irene Fornés’ play has gone unproduced professionally in NYC for four decades, but scenic designer Adam Rigg figured out a way to make it work for the TFANA production.
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Rebecca Greenfield

Fefu and her Friends. If you haven’t heard of the play, you’re not alone. The play by the “greatest and least known dramatist,” María Irene Fornés, has not been produced in New York City in 42 years.

The drama showcases the Mother of Avant Garde’s experimental nature. In three parts, audiences spend an afternoon with, well, Fefu and her friends, in her 1930s New England home. Part 1 begins in Fefu’s living room, a single scene at a conventional proscenium view. But Part 2 consists of four scenes performed simultaneously in four different rooms of Fefu’s house. Audiences walk through the house, watching each of the four scenes in a variety of orders, before reuniting in the house to watch Part 3 reconvene in the living room. Fornés essentially created promenade theatre—before Sleep No More—before it became popularized enough to have a name. Because of its architecture, few companies dare to mount a production.

READ: 7 Things You Never Knew About America’s ‘Greatest and Least Known Dramatist’

Theatre for a New Audience takes the plunge with the first Off-Broadway production since the play’s debut in 1977. The production, directed by Obie winner Lileana Blain-Cruz, was a late addition to the season; despite TFANA’s reputation for daring theatre, even their team wondered how it would be feasible. Enter: scenic designer Adam Rigg.

A longtime collaborator of Blain-Cruz, Rigg created ground plan after ground plan—18 in total—to map the six-room home nesting in the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, ready for its open house. And it’s a wild sight.

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Rebecca Greenfield

Though some might hear 1930s New England and think dark woods and dark wallpapers, Rigg opted for a more eccentric design. “Lileana is all joy and all vibrancy,” they say. “So our impulses are always, ‘How can we buzz this up?’” Inspired by Hollywood Regency and interior designers of the time, like Elsie De Wolfe (who decorated Marlene Dietrich’s house), Rigg designed a surge of color and texture.

It all translates to Fefu’s naturally vibrant and creative personality—her, at times, campiness.

Look closely, and you’ll notice the scenic designer took liberties mixing in furniture from the mid-century and the ’70s. “It’s still set in the ’30s, we’re not updating the timeline at all,” says Rigg, “but we didn’t want people coming in and disconnecting right away thinking they’re staring at a period piece.”

The cast, though white women in the original production (likely because of the perception of affluent New Englanders), are a spectrum of women, “modernizing the self-referencing Fornés.”

From brass lamps to animal prints and nude paintings, Rigg conceives Fefu’s place as “a salon of a home. The intent of everything was almost dollhouse-y. Like every space are these little dioramas and we’re thinking of these women in a world where they’re grappling with the male gaze. How they come to this space and don’t really talk about men, but talk to each other and about each other.

“And yet,” Rigg continues, “we’re also like predators as audience members” observing and coming into their space.

Here, Rigg lets us enter their space with an unprecedented look at their research, models, and finalized set for the milestone production of Fefu and her Friends.

THE MODEL

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The model for Fefu and her Friends at TFANA (2019) Courtesy of Adam Rigg

As audiences enter, they are on the outside looking in; they sit in the traditional proscenium space of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, facing the living room. The other rooms are visible; there is no stage masking. But while the original production played to audiences of 35, TFANA welcomes audiences of up to 240 each performance. The model is the set at its most simple: the olive green room (bottom) is the living room, rotating clockwise is the study, then the kitchen at the back, and the lawn, with the foyer at the center and the bedroom below the living room.

THE LIVING ROOM

The most conventional of the spaces. The green offers an unexpected pop of color, a tone common in Rigg’s research. The walls are practically covered in square-framed artwork, as was typical of the time. And the plush blue couch was inspired by magazine photos. In Part 2, the rug will peel up to reveal a trap room below for the scene in which Julia lies in bed, looking up at the (transparent) ceiling.

THE FOYER

The bright pink wallpaper and taxidermied animals and overgrown plants add a bit of the bizarre to Fefu’s world. Though no scene takes place here, the characters walk through the main hallway between rooms as they would in any actual house.

THE STUDY

“Of all the rooms, the conversation here is the quietest and least forthcoming,” says Rigg. To forecast that atmosphere, Rigg and Blain-Cruz conceived a dark, cave-like, but cozy, space. The individual brass lamps and paneled walls exude warmth, but the idea is that “the two actors are the brightest things in the room.”

THE KITCHEN

In stark contrast, the kitchen is as bright white as a Crested smile. “We got this sense that there’s a lot of windows somewhere because the conversation is so stripped bare,” says Rigg. The orange print wallpaper and bright turquoise appliances pump up the brilliance of the room. The blue frosted glass comes directly from Rigg’s photo research.

THE LAWN

The “outdoor” space is the sole setting in which the audience shares the playing space with the actors. In every other room, though audiences walk through from one room to another, they stand or sit in a fixed, removed view. “Emma’s soliloquy [in this scene] is very presentational with a kind of direct address,” says Rigg. “So our intention was to make it feel as though we are somewhat aware of the fact that she’s performing.”

THE BEDROOM
(Some things must remain a suprise!)
Below the living room (masked by the rug) is the trap room of the theatre. It’s cold and sterile. The bed rests in the center of the room, below the translucent floor. Watching from above, the audience wears headphones while staring directly at the actor’s face. “It’s really voyeuristic because you’re very close, with Julia’s voice right in your ear, but you’re also 20 feet away from her.”

Fefu’s manse presented Rigg with one of their greatest career challenges to date. Because while the construct is very much a set, it requires the trappings of a home. Furniture scratches and scuffs that scenic designers get away with in a traditional show don’t work with viewers six inches away. “Fefu would have a beautiful paint job. Fefu’s wallpaper would be put up perfectly,” says Rigg. Not to mention, the acoustic challenge of hearing what you should hear and not hearing what you shouldn’t.

And while there were considerations in the earliest days to stage the show in multiple rooms of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center—to shirk building a house at all—“we did miss the intimacy of knowing Fefu’s only walking 15 feet to the next room and we hear her say, ‘Do you want to play croquet?’ And every room we’re in, we hear the repeat of her asking everyone to play croquet. There’s something fun about that.”

Something very Fornés.

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