Walking into a theatre should feel like the audience is being transported. As opposed to film or television, theatre has an immersive and experiential quality for viewers. Audiences, even if they’re behind that fourth wall and never interacted with, they still are taking the ride with the actors. Signature Theatre’s latest production, John, provides a true sense of place right when audiences enter the theatre. The set is an elaborate Bed and Breakfast in present-day Gettysburg, PA during Christmas time, featuring a Paris-themed dining area, a massive decorated Christmas tree and real working Christmas train scene, and many many creepy dolls and porcelain tchotchkes. John’s set designer Paige Hathaway, props master Becca Tuteur, and associate Props Master Pamela Weiner give an insiders look at how the B&B came together over one of the longest, and most rewarding design processes any of these women have experienced during their time at Signature.
Tuteur describes the plot of the play John as “a couple that are staying at this bed and breakfast because the man is obsessed with Civil War history. The play begins and the B&B is creepy and it’s weird and you’re taken aback by that but you soon realize that the proprietress, while eccentric, is fine and it’s the couple that’s weird and broken and damaged. This set is here to distract you from that realization for as long as possible.”
The set is truly a delightful distraction. There’s always some special detail wherever you look. That lived-in look on a set takes time. Tuteur tells me that she and Weiner started working on the props design since this past October. In January, they started collecting. Tuteur explains that that’s “insanely early” for them, when normally they start the process about a month before the first rehearsal (John’s first rehearsal was March 5).
When asked where they got their props for this show, Tuteur tells me most of their stuff is from Craigslist or eBay. She says to collect the things from Craigslist, like the Christmas Village, she drove up and down the east coast. The Christmas Village was from Pennsylvania. The couch is from Western Maryland and the coffee table is from New Jersey. Most of the figurines came from Signature’s storage from previous shows. Tuteur says that “80% of the dolls are from one woman. Which is terrifying.” There are A LOT of dolls.
Some of the set pieces take some work to revamp by the crew. The large, imposing grandfather clock was partially from Wayfair.com (the top portion) but the theatre shop had to build the bottom portion to make the clock higher and more prominent-looking. There’s an electric train rigged to run off the light board and a real working player piano that were all made to work by the electrics department of the theatre.
There’s a large book shelf which is filled to the brim. While all the books are from Signature’s stock, they were individually chosen with care. Tuteur and Weiner discussed what kinds of books the B&B had to have and Tuteur insisted on a lot of Nancy Drew and Weiner wanted a bunch of encyclopedias.
So much of props and set design is creating atmosphere over functional use. In this very full set, besides the furniture, only about a handful of items get used by the actors in the performance. The functional train in the Christmas Village, the player piano, and a American Girl Samantha doll are just a few of them items that serve a purpose in the action of the play, the rest is pure mood setting.
Before any of the props details could be chosen, Hathaway had to design the set. A drawing of the set, known as a rendering, came from Hathaway studying the text of the play which is very specific about the atmosphere of the play. Hathaway recalls from her reading “that there are references to Mertis, the inn-keeper, has a lot of matter and taking very good care of it. The couple also says that there’s so much miniature stuff.There’s talk of miniature birds and a specific reference to the Samantha doll within the play.”
There are also references to the different regions of the set (which is the first floor of the B&B: dining area, entry way, stairs leading upstairs, and a living room area). Hathaway also did a lot of research on real B&Bs, even finding one that inspired the play setting with it’s real Paris-themed breakfast nook. From all that script study and research, she could then use her own creativity to set the tone. From the different color wall-paper choices (and the color palate in general) to the volume of dolls and figurines to the ability to have certain props be able to pull focus during the play and be very visible, Hathaway worked with the play’s director Joe Calarco to achieve her unique creative vision.
Even the configuration of the set is different than this space normally is set up. In Signature’s larger theatre space “Max,” the set is normally proscenium style (a traditional, frame-style set), but John’s set is done in a “jewel-box” style, situated in the corner of the theatre and the audience in a semi-circle around it. This creates almost a doll-house atmosphere and adds to the intimate vibe of the setting.
Hathaway gives a lot of credit to how hard this all-female design team worked together to pull off such an elaborate vision. “We had all the furniture in place by first rehearsal,” Hathaway explains. “That’s truly unheard of and so helpful for the actors and director to be able to fully live in this world.”