If you walk into Stage 5 at New World Stages, where The Woodsman currently plays, twinkling lights in mason jars will greet you as they dangle from the ceiling and perch along the walls. If you walk into the Laura Pels Theatre, you will see a wooden barn covered by a ragged, burlap curtain enscribed with the words “The Robber Bridegroom A Mississippi Fairytale.” If you walk in to Ars Nova for The Wildness: Sky-Pony’s Rock Fairy Tale, ushers wear shirts designed specifically for the fifth year of the ritual party that is “The Wildness,” guiding audience members to seats around a runway-like stage.
These three Off-Broadway shows immediately transport audiences to specific fantasy worlds: one mystical and gloomy, one rustic and salvaged, one glam rock and rebellious. “Fairy tales come with so much baggage. We have the Disney version, and we have the Grimms’ version,” says Tilly Grimes, costume designer on The Wildness. “We were trying to figure out what is Sky-Pony’s version.” Each of these design teams created a vision for their fairy tale un-encumbered by these typical versions.
So what exactly makes designing for a fairy tale different than designing for any other show? “Fairy tales are so open to visual interpretation, there’s no need to be exact. It goes against the point of fairy tales,” says Donyale Werle, set designer on The Robber Bridegroom. Based on Eudora Welty’s novella (which itself is based on a Grimms’ fairy tale), the musical by Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman is about Jamie Lockhart, a gentleman by day and bandit of the woods by night. The flexibility of the fairy tale premise allowed Werle to play with her design—something that director Alex Timbers encouraged of his whole company throughout the rehearsal process.
Werle grew up in the South and spent a lot of times in barns full of junk and antiques. “As kids, this mysterious dark world of the woods and these abandoned structures were mystery and intrigue and fabulous and wonderful, and we created an entire fantasy life in these spaces. But, there was always this edge of maybe ‘unsavory’ or ‘unsafe,’” she says. “That spirit is definitely part of the show, where there’s always that edge of safe/unsafe, dark/light, hidden spaces/open spaces.” Set in a barn, Robber Bridegroom is a story within a story, with a motley crew of players telling Lockhart’s tale. Werle’s design directly plays into the DIY-feel of the show itself. Instead of representational scenery, she hints at locations—a quilt to represent Lockhart’s den or a table and chandelier to represent the plantation owner’s house. Yet, she injects the comedy of an acting troupe with onstage pieces and props—like the noise box dropped in front of the audiences face that in higher-tech shows might be an offstage sound cue.
Coincidentally, The Wildness by Kyle Jarrow and Lauren Worsham of the band Sky-Pony, is another case of a show within a show. The conceit is: Every year the band comes together to perform “The Wildness,” but this year Michael, who created it, is missing. Without him, they still have to put on the show, about a princess and her handmaiden who realize that everything they were told about the world is a lie. Despite the princess premise, Grimes used her costume design to show that princesses are not all flowers and flowy tulle. “How can this clearly not be a girly-girl version of fairy tales, but a punkier off-beat version still inspired by all the playfulness of fairy tales?” Grimes asked herself. She drew on Sky-Pony’s fashion (stockings, corsets and wigs), added in peasant wear based on illustrations from Grimms storybooks to yield the “RuPaul’s Drag Race meets Stars Wars meets playing dress up when you’re a kid” final look in order to straddle the line between fairy tale and rock show, fantasy and real world.
Grimes created clothes to enhance the atmosphere of a cool party that audiences would want to participate in. For The Woodsman, inclusivity also motivated lighting designers Catherine Clark and Jamie Roderick. They drew audiences in with a “Pinterest” style. The fifth incarnation of the show, and the closest to James Ortiz’s original vision, the play at New World Stages immerses audiences in the origin story of L. Frank Baum’s Tin Man. “When you’re walking into this theatre, you’re walking into Oz,” says Roderick. In addition to the mason jar votives, there are approximately 20 LED flashlights, 150 conventional lighting instruments and 300 practicals—any type of lighting that you’d find in the real world like a lamp or light bulb—used to create the aura of Woodsman’s Oz. Roderick and Clark arranged the jars in four sections, representing the four corners of Oz.
Woodsman heavily relies on the design elements (moreso than the average show—for spoiler-worthy reasons we won’t reveal) to communicate the story. Roderick and Clark had to find their lighting vocabulary within the greater design. “The thing that becomes tricky and where you have to find the balance in doing something that is a fantasy: what world are you in and what is your vocabulary,” says Roderick. “[Then] stick to the rules that you establish, the rules of your storytelling visually.” For example, The Witch is always lit in blue and purple LED flashlights to represent that darkness of her magic, while warmer natural lights illuminate the love between Nick and Nimmee.
“It wasn’t just about getting the show up, it became about how in sync the acting and the staging is along with lighting and sharing the same peaks and valleys in movement and energy and I think you see how those things come together in a seamless fashion,” says Roderick.
Whether in lighting, sets or costumes, these fairy tale worlds would not exist without the larger visions—and subtleties—of the designs. “Sondheim has a really great quote about how audio enhancement has led to audiences no longer listening. When shows were quieter, they had to actively engage themselves and listen,” says Roderick. “I think we’ve done the same thing visually.”
Linda Buchwald is a New York-based arts journalist focusing on theatre and television. Follow her on Twitter @PataphysicalSci.