Mar 12, 2012

"Of Mice and Men" Set Designer Interview

Scattered across Chris Sheley's desk is inspiration for the OF MICE AND MEN set: Thomas Hart Benton illustration work

With over 30 FAC Theatre set designs and seven seasons under his belt, Production Manager and Technical Director Chris Sheley uses Permanent Collection artist Thomas Hart Benton as the main visual inspiration for the set of the current production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (tickets here). Benton’s lithographs are part of the Taylor Museum collection; five of them will be on view as part of the Resilience exhibition alongside Boris Deutsch works. Benton’s early Depression-era lithographs will compliment Introducing America photos—which includes Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother”.

In addition to Of Mice and Men, Chris also designed sets for this season’s productions of In the Next Room and Assassins. During this weekend’s tech rehearsal in preparation for the Friday opening, we pulled Chris aside to learn more about his Benton-inspired set design.

(Top to bottom)Thomas Hart Benton; Benton’s
Departure Of The Joads, commisioned by 20th
Century Fox to advertise their film production
of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; Sheley’s
oil paintings, inspired by Benton’s work, set the
tone for the look and feel of the set design; scenic
artist Sarah Talaba translates Sheley’s small oil
paintings into large stage pieces.
How did you first learn about Thomas Hart Benton?
Benton had a great influence on me because he’s a Midwest regionalist painter who lived in Kansas City; I grew up in St Louis and lived in Chicago. His work appealed to my blue-collar upbringing. I had constant exposure to Benton’s work and quickly became a humble devotee of his.

Why pair Benton with Steinbeck?
Steinbeck and Benton were contemporaries, and were interested in creating art for the common man – making art accessible. There was just an immediate parallel between Steinbeck and Benton in my mind. It all just cascaded towards Benton’s works. I want to do both Benton’s and Steinbeck’s works justice [on stage] through the feeling of audience members. 

What Benton aesthetics are you specifically using?
I’m looking for visual inspiration whenever possible. The big theme of the play and parts of Resilience is the sense of dreams. George and Lennie retell the dream they will never achieve. It’s visible, it’s over there, but you’ll never bridge the gap to get it. I wanted the landscape to look dreamlike yet realistic. I’ll look at his works for the color, texture, and shape, and pick out the tiny pieces from his works that I like. It’s making a visual library of everything that goes into the design, like the rocks, clouds – which all draw heavily from Benton’s color and line quality. I think it’s pretty recognizable as Benton’s art.

What’s your set designing process?
The main goal of set design is to viscerally and intuitively inform the audience about the mood, tone, feel of the scene and the play generally. The process goes through three main stages: (1) I usually spend 3-4, but in this case I only spent 2 weeks just looking at Benton’s works, (2) I make thumbnail sketches of the gestures that have a basic appeal to me, nothing serious yet. They’re seriously just little scribbles, (3) then I make tiny oil paintings that I hand over to the Shop and Scenic Artist.

What’s unique about using Benton as visual inspiration?
This is a large paint show because color was so important to Benton. The difference between set design and paintings you would see in a gallery or something is the huge effect of the lighting. Set and lighting designers must work closely with each other to reinforce the visceral feeling from the audience. We will mix 15-20 different colors through a process called scumbling in conversation with the lighting people so they can do stuff like change the mode of time of day - lighting changes to subliminally affect you.

Resilience related events
Of Mice and Men | Mar 15 - April 1
The 75th Anniversary performance of Steinbeck's classic American novella. 

Introducing America | Mar 17 - May 27
Farm Security Administration commissioned photograph works in both black-and-white and color.

In the Field: Depression Era Works by Thomas Hart Benton and Boris Deutsch | Mar 17 - May 24
Lithographic and painted renditions of American working class during the Great Depression.

The Grapes of Wrath | March 21, 6:30 p.m.
John Ford's classic 1940 adaptation of Steinbeck's Pulitzer-prize winner.

Viva Zapata | March 28, 6:30 p.m.
Marlon Brando's 1952 portrayal of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Quinn).

Lifeboat | April 4, 6:30 p.m.
Creative collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock's directing and Steinbeck's screenplay to tell story of three survivors of Nazi torpedo attack.

Art and Letters: Artists during the New Deal era, in their own words | May 15, 2 p.m.
Presentation of Broadmoor Art Academy and FAC artists letters from Archie Musick's extensive archives. 

Check here for the full FOUR MONTH Resilience schedule!

1 comment:

Marco said...

Conceptually? Brilliant. Visually? Breathtaking. If you haven't bought your tickets yet, GET ON IT! You don't want to miss this emotionally, and visually appealing theatre experience.