Annie Smart is a professional scenic and costume designer and has been a Continuing Lecturer in UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies since 2004. Born and raised in England, she is now based in the Bay Area. Her scenic design can be seen in TDPS’s upcoming production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD.
Tell me about what you do.
I am a set and costume designer based in the Bay Area. Traditionally, American theaters employ separate set and costume designers for a production, whereas the UK more traditionally employs a single designer to do both. I very occasionally get to do both these days.
I tend to be interested in new plays because there’s nothing like designing a new play that no one has ever seen before. There is a zeitgeist that exists around any show — not just the writer’s story, but also a hidden history within the play, almost like the ghost in the walls. Have you ever heard of morphic resonance? Morphic resonance is the idea that as we sit in a room all of our ideas and experiences are absorbed into the architecture and, if you know how, you can plug into that reserve. I think plays carry morphic resonance and it’s fun to design for that. You end up putting a stamp on the show, stylistically and design-wise, even though the play then goes off into the ether and becomes a thousand other things.
Do you have a standard, or systematic, design process?
I design every single show differently. Several years ago, I had dinner with Athol Fugard and we were talking about teaching when he asked “how do you approach your work?” I said, “You know, every time I start to design a show I have no idea what I am doing. Not a clue. I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know how I’m going to get it out there, I don’t how it’s going to develop.” And he said that’s exactly how you should work — it’s the Buddhist way of being alert with child eyes, and that’s when you do the best work. And I think that’s true. I really do think that’s true.
Can you tell me about some of your favorite productions to design?
My favorite things are nearly all new plays where I was the first designer and I feel that the play went out into the world well-conceived. This includes productions like Fen and Mouthful of Birds by Caryl Churchill, Big Love and Wintertime by Charles Mee, and In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl.
I also really enjoyed designing for Sarah Ruhl’s version of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. There’s a trend of reapproaching classics in a deconstructed way, especially since the 80’s, which I completely understand and find fascinating. But in other ways I think those classics became classics because they are just brilliant. So finding a way to reanimate a play without taking it to pieces is something one wishes to do. Working on The Three Sisters with Sarah, our approach was to not mess with it. Let’s just try to make it lively and relatable and filmic. We tried to make it feel like you were sitting in the room with people, and I think we did that.
Did that experience impact your design work for TDPS’s upcoming production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard?
Well, our version of The Cherry Orchard is the opposite of filmic. We are certainly not trying for verisimilitude because of the fact that we don’t have, for example, a 50-year old actress, and we don’t have an 80-something-year-old actor playing the old retainer.
I think verisimilitude in theater is really tricky. You pretend you are doing a ‘slice of life’ at your peril. Because theater is inherently contrived: every single thing on stage is the result of a choice by a designer, director or actor. This play is happening in the room with me, but I haven’t moved to 1905 Russia, so it can’t be real. But if you can accept the fact that you are doing something inherently contrived and embrace the idea that theater is in the realm of visual poetry, then you, as a designer, can say wonderful things.
So the limits of verisimilitude and the idea of human relationships being shown in all their three-dimensionality were the starting points for the design. And it’s led to a very blank-page set where we’re leaving the thing very unprotected emotionally. The focus is on the acting, the emotions and the relationships. I want the audience to follow who’s talking to whom, and ask “why are they talking to them?” And are they listening or aren’t they listening? Or are they overhearing? Did they pass through the hallway and just hear that little end bit of a sentence? It’s all to do with the complexities of the inter-relationships. Lura Dolas, the director, has her work cut out!
How do you approach teaching?
I don’t teach fixed techniques and fixed methods and fixed theories. I spend a lot of time trying to get into the head of each student and see what wonderful thing they can produce. I try to teach the undergraduates almost as if they are graduate students; I approach the work as if they are capable of taking on a sophisticated level of analysis about what they are doing. The poor students, sometimes they don’t know what’s hit them. My reviews at the end of a semester are always a version of “there’s an awful lot of work in this class.” But I think it’s better to feel challenged and achieve than not to feel challenged and achieve.
And do you find they rise to the occasion?
Last semester we designed costumes for the play Mr. Burns, a post-electric play and I invited Mark Rucker to come to our class, since he had just directed Mr. Burns at ACT. I was so proud to ask him to look at the designs — they were all so different and so well-developed and showed such a clear understanding of the play. You could have taken many of them to any repertory theater in America and said, “here’s your designs for the play,” and they would have been completely acceptable and worked really well. And half of the students had never done this sort of thing before. So wow, I’m very lucky.
Berkeley students, when they decide to get behind something, they are so excellent. There’s a hell of a lot of talent that comes in the door and if you don’t expect students to be single-minded in their dedication — if you accept the fact that some are going to create wonderful costume designs and then go off and be social workers — then you are going to be happy with working here. If you think “I’ve got to find every costume designer and change their life path,” then that’s a false expectation. My mindset is that there’s a lot of talent here, so let’s help them bring it out and put it out on the table and appreciate it and celebrate it — and that’s enough. That process may change how a student thinks about their creativity, and they can then take their creativity and those new ways of thinking out into those other fields they are going to work in, out into the world.