Living for Design: Beowulf Boritt Conjures Arresting Scenic Worlds for Chaplin, Grace and More

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02 Nov 2012

Beowulf Boritt
Beowulf Boritt

Meet the scenic designer who created stark whites for The Scottsboro Boys, blacks and grays for Chaplin, flood-drenched chaos for If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet and a kinetic spareness for Grace.

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Beowulf Boritt is busy.

The Broadway and Off-Broadway scenic designer has had an active fall season, with three shows — Grace, Chaplin and If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet — that have attracted notice for their non-literal, non-naturalistic designs.

Boritt received a Tony nomination last year for The Scottsboro Boys, and his other credits include Sondheim on Sondheim, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, LoveMusik, The Toxic Avenger, The Last Five Years and the current hit musical Rock of Ages. He has worked for the Roundabout Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, the Public Theater, Second Stage, the Vineyard Theatre and regional theatres across the country. We got together with him to talk about his creative process — how he conceives his ideas, and how he brings them to fruition.

So let's start with If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, the Jake Gyllenhaal starrer, at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre. It's about an overweight 15-year-old girl whose teacher mother transfers her to the mom's own school to try to keep her away from bullies. There's a connection in the play to global warming , and there's a set full of water, starting with rain dropping curtain-like across the front of the stage, a trough, then actors sloshing across the stage through water, and scenery that winds up in the trough.
Beowulf Boritt: When I read Nick Payne's play, and when I first talked with Michael Longhurst, the director, what really excited me was that he wanted to take a conceptual approach and do something non-literal. The base story is a simple domestic drama, but obviously the larger framework is the question of global warming and what do we do about it. And you can try to illustrate the difficulty of that but also illustrate that by the difficulty of dealing with simple domestic problems that are a little more understandable.

A view of the water reflection in If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet.
photo by Joan Marcus

I tried to get those two parallels running. We have very literal furniture, and items that represent the different locations. It's the set designer's job in a literal way to tell the audience where we are, and in a play like this where we have 15 locations you need something so you know where you are in each scene. But from the beginning we also wanted to do something that would get the sense of climate change and global warming. And Mike kept saying, "I think there's water in the play somewhere. I think somehow it has something to do with water."

When I read through the script again I thought the obvious place to do it is in its suicide moment — in the bathtub — there is literally water called for in the script. You could probably do it without that, but that's sort of the tipping point of the story, when suddenly a problem you've been able to ignore becomes unignorable. I said that we could have this bathtub overflow and flood the world, basically.

We went through a bunch of different ideas on what the surround would be. We always wanted to do something simple and abstract. Early on I did a version that was a big iceberg made of plastic water bottles, as some sort of poetic reference to the melting icecaps. We looked at it, but it felt a little heavy-handed. And why is this big mountain sitting there if it's never going to do anything in the play?

That's when we got down to this very simple non-set surround, trying to do something that felt as non-present as possible. This dark blue carpeted box. I said to Mike that if we were going to do water I wanted to do a carpeted set because that feels like the last place in the world you should put water, and it doesn't telegraph that the space is going to be flooded.

After the onstage flood
Photo by Joan Marcus

We had the idea that all the furniture should be onstage at top of the show. We thought it was interesting if we conceptually said that for each scene we were going to use as little as possible and be as environmentally efficient as possible. It still adds up to a lot of stuff by the end of the play. It kind of makes the point that even if you're trying to be environmentally responsible there's just a lot of stuff involved in living. We liked the idea of all that being piled onstage at the beginning of the play — these are the pieces we're going to tell the story with, these are the things the family needs to live.

And we introduced with the Jake Gyllenhaal character someone who's less concerned with living ecologically. He starts throwing things away as he doesn't need them. It has the practical effect of clearing the stage a little bit, and has a dramatic effect. When he first knocks over the museum piece you don't really see it coming. People first think it's an accident, and they're kind of shocked when he throws it in the water. It seemed relevant to his character, but it's just a good device. It helps make the point throughout of stuff piling up.

The last thing I'd say is that in the early drafts of the script — and this changed fairly early in previews — the opening monologue was all about New Orleans and the Katrina floods, which makes it appropriate for talking about today [Monday, Oct. 29, as Hurricane Sandy was approaching the New York region]. We sort of create, by the time the stage floods, this post-hurricane flood-scape where you've got all this stuff sticking up out of the water. The ruins of these characters' lives. And at some point the playwright decided the monologue was just too heavy, it started the play on such a heavy note. And he jiggered the script around so the opening monologue is lighter-toned. You get global warming references [elsewhere]. I was sad to lose the Katrina reference because it made the look of the set very poignant at the end. But hopefully it's very poignant anyway.



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