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Jenny Koons (director), Steph Cohen (set designer), Elisheba Ittoop (sound designer), Hahnji Jang (costume designer), Stacey Derosier (lighting designer)

Designing the Scenes for Men on Boats

Men on Boats assembled an incredible team of designers who re-define how stories are conveyed through their creativity. Get a glimpse into their unique design process:

JENNY: We started our process with each designer bringing in images that resonated with them, which was fun because we didn’t have to be siloed by design element from the start. From there, we started with big questions and big ideas raised by the play. It was inspiring to see how threads of similar imagery and thinking were present from first impulses and where those surface in the final design. For example, Steph’s original images with dioramas and ways we frame historical events and moments in time really inspired a lot of the final design.

STEPH: One of these big questions Jenny is referring to is about whose stories get told. We talked a lot about how we preserve history, who gets to tell these stories, and whose stories go untold. With the diorama imagery, I was interested in how we try to depict nature on stage, putting something uncontainable in a space with limitations and boundaries. While our world starts in the diorama, it quickly breaks the fourth wall and becomes a living, growing thing.

ELISHEBA: Musically, everything in this show is kind of sparse. Nothing is very lush. That lends to the vastness of it. These big-in-their-minds men trying to make their marks on the world. Everything is in a minor key; it all feels very lonely. Musically, we’re trying to get across the idea that they’re just tiny specks in a great big universe.

STACE: Once we found our diorama setting, a source of inspiration for my approach was more images of containing or controlling of the elements or nature (Anish Kapoor's piece Descension & Fujiko Nakaya's fog sculptures). We spoke a lot about how much we prepare to go out into the wild. We think that by organizing gear, we can conquer the environment. I began to think about how the piece begins as a confident exploration tale but breaks out of its container as the danger of the water chips away at the order. When we spoke about what water is in this world, many things came up—from what does water sound like to super soakers-- but something felt important in creating a sense of disorientation and obfuscation throughout. How can we make the stage of the theater feel compact and menacing. What if we can't see what's in front of us?

HAHNJI: In that same vein, I tried to focus my research on what was outside of the “diorama frame.” To look for the stories that weren’t told. A lot of the research process was a journey of discovery for me. I started with the actual historical men of the play, then kind of threw that out and researched who the people around them would be.

ELISHEBA: While researching music and sound, I went down a rabbit hole of the music of Gene Autry—the Singing Cowboy. His movies were really big in the 30s and 40s, at this time of growth within American society, coming out of World War II etc. So the movies kind of harken back to “simpler times.” It’s him riding on his horse in the Wild West. But not guns and violence and male bravado; it’s another form of masculinity that’s yes, rugged, but also very sensitive. Sitting on his horse in great vast wilderness, singing about women and nature with a full orchestra backing him up. In Men on Boats, there’s some of that romanticism of the Gene Autry music, but it’s not as lush. A sad romanticism.

STACE: A lot of my research also contains the color story of the light in that area of the country. I'm excited to play with the seemingly preternatural colors of water, sky, and canyon throughout the piece.

JENNY: There was a real attention to impact and how we demonstrate our values in our practice. Hahnji, can you talk a little about how you’re sourcing costumes? And Steph, maybe a bit about how we’re using stock prop and building, rather than solely purchasing?

HAHNJI: One of the big themes of the play that we talked a lot about is what kind of mark we leave behind. I wanted to translate that into how we sourced our clothing. One way is to make sure we leave as little environmental impact as possible. We are operating under the Buyerarchy of needs--“use what you have, borrow, swap, thrift, make, buy” -- which looks to eliminate waste and disrupt the mindset that we need new things. I wanted to operate as the people in my research did--with limited resources, repurposing items, and borrowing clothing.

STEPH: One of the most exciting discoveries for me has been the incredible resources the theater already has. For the most part, we are repurposing things that BCS owns. The backdrop and floor are also worth noting: they both were hand painted by Erich Starke and his team. These days we see less and less hand painted scenery, especially at such a large scale. Because we’re going in this diorama direction, it seemed only right to have our 54’ Grand Canyon backdrop hand painted, rather than simply being a printed image. The work the shop did is so impressive, and it was exciting to find a really appropriate opportunity to use this somewhat fading art form.

HAHNJI: A huge amount of our costume materials are also from the BCS stock, taking apart and splicing together existing items in the ways these characters would have to make them functional. The next step was to go thrifting. When I first visited the theater, I took a walk around the neighborhood and found several thrift stores that we’ve gone back to. I also went to the Baltimore Vintage Expo at Union Craft Brewery. For supplemental fabric, we are sourcing from FABSCRAP, an organization in Brooklyn that recycles fashion industry fabric and clothing samples. The items we are buying new are sourced from Indigenous designers.

STEPH: We also sourced from the river! I joke, but not really. The props department took a field trip to a reservoir nearby, searched for driftwood, and found some gorgeous pieces by the water with the goal of transforming them into benches and stools for our world

Men on Boats begins November 29. You can click here to book your tickets.