Statements from Designers of “Apologia”


Megalyn Echikunwoke, John Tillinger, Talene Monahon, Hugh Dancy, and Stockard Channing. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Dane Laffrey, Set Design
The process of designing Apologia began with and continues to be driven by a lot of research. I did a series of digital models which Daniel, Alexi, and Stockard responded to until we honed in on the right space for the show. All along the way, new research continued to inform the space we were making. Apologia is a play in which the set – Kristin’s house – is inextricably tied to character. It’s her domicile, one that she created and curated. Our research was focused on trying to see her character reflected in a wide variety of homes. In some cases, it was about architecture and in others just about the way a painting was hung on a wall, or the kind of bowls in a kitchen. Ultimately, the set was distilled from hundreds of images into something that hopefully feels very specifically hers. One of the big challenges in design and fabrication has been to effectively present the age of the house. We want it to feel like a structure that was built in the 19th century. As structures age, they shift and settle and their appearance becomes softer. Right-angled corners and walls and ceilings aren’t so straight and plumb anymore. We’re very focused on getting a freshly constructed set to feel visibly antique, which adds an interesting level of complication to the process.

Anita Yavich, Costume Design
Apologia is a very intimate play about extremes. Tension is high at a family reunion where everyone questions the notion of success and failure, and in between all the doubts and arguments, out pour years of resentment and long-suppressed emotions. Throughout the play, the audience will witness their sympathy sway in unpredictable directions. When I design costumes for a play, it is important to collaborate with the actors and create the look of their character together. Especially with a play like Apologia, where expectations are constantly being turned around, we need to make sure the designs are subtle, that the characters’ looks can facilitate the suspension of disbelief. In other words, we need to come up with something that looks familiar and specific, but also has a mystery to it at the same time. After all, the play is about discovering or rediscovering all these people in your life and hopefully be able to find the answers to the truth behind past behaviors and decide what really matters in these relationships. On a practical note, we also have to solve a heightened moment in the play when wine is spilled all over an expensive light-colored dress! How can we make this happen eight times a week and still make sure the dress looks fantastic? It would be easier if this liquid were not edible, because we would be able to have more options for the solution. However, since it is wine, it will need to be edible and come out in the wash out every night. We might need to consult people at NASA about this!

Stockard Channing. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Bradley King, Lighting Design
Few things would seem to instill as much fear in a lighting designer as walking into a theatre and seeing that the set has a ceiling. Everyone wonders how on earth are you supposed to light a sealed-off box?!? But, on the contrary, I find ceilings an indispensable design element when attempting to design a highly naturalistic environment such as the one in Apologia. Think about it: How many rooms have you been in where the ceiling is a black void that disappears into eternity? A ceiling cements the idea of a real room, a real place, and contrary to conventional wisdom, provides infinite opportunities for a creative lighting designer. Windows become extra important. Blasts of sunlight or moonlight can be the principal motivating source of light for a scene. Lamps, chandeliers, and bulbs (what we refer to as "practicals") also become critical, lending a source of light for both day and night that can be reinforced with traditional equipment. Ceilings also bounce light around the stage, adding softness to shadows and a glow to surfaces and reflections. So despite what conventional wisdom might lead you to believe, any lighting designer who relishes a challenge loves nothing more than to see that ceiling in the model. Bring it on!

Ryan Rumery, Sound Design and Original Music
My process is different for each project that I score. Each play that I work on, including Apologia, I try to approach it as though I were an audience member, seeing and hearing the play for the first time, and I try to really focus on what makes sense to someone who is only seeing the play once. I do believe in certain nuances that might not be perceived by the audience, but that doesn’t always work for every show. As a starting place, the script is informative, but it's only when I hear the actors read the play that I know where there might be scoring or outdoor noises, whether the sound and the score are realistic or abstract. Do we hear the cars arriving at the house, and what do they sound like? What's the tonality for the mobile phone text and ringtones? I'm always asking a lot of questions to myself, and I try not to worry about finding all the solutions until we get into the space. Another aspect that is important to my process is finding time to sit in silence in the theatre because each theatre is different, and I want to hear how I might add to the aural world of the existing space. By the time you're reading this, I'm sure I will have come up with something different from where I started by just being in rehearsals and responding to how the actors and director interpret the play!

Apologia is playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through December 16, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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Puritans to Pussy Hats: Changing Sexual Norms in American Popular Culture


“I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.” French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States in the 1830s.

The Puritans punishing and humiliating someone. Credit: F.T. Merrill.

The Puritans
Though the Puritans arrived almost 400 years ago, aspects of their culture, including the desire to repress public displays of sexuality, continue to inform American society. Puritan villagers belonged to a single church and resisted the intrusion of outsiders. Relying on mutual surveillance, they sought communal unity and frequently took each other to court on charges of moral violations in order to suppress deviance.They controlled individual behavior through fierce gossip and public punishments, like whipping, use of the stockade, and the infamous scarlet letter for adulterers.

Voices of Change

Ideas about female sexuality have changed dramatically over the last two centuries, when, frustrated at being thought of as property, women began to demand legal and personal rights.

In 1792, British author Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, in which she argued that women should be formally educated and that men should be held to the same sexual standards as women.

Sigmund Freud lived from 1856-1923, and his theories and research methods were as controversial during his life as they remain today. He theorized that neuroses are the result of sexual desires from early childhood that have been repressed from conscious awareness but continue to impact personality. Freud believed a woman’s life was dominated by her reproductive functions and that “hysteria” was the result of women repressing their sexual desires.

Sexual Behavior of the Human Female. Credit: Fine Editions Ltd.

At Indiana University in the 1940s, Alfred Kinsey and his research team set out to understand the actual sexual behavior of Americans. He conducted interviews with thousands of people and wrote detailed “sexual histories” of each. He introduced Americans to the “Kinsey Scale,” the idea that people do not fit into exclusive heterosexual or homosexual categories and sexuality exists on a continuum.

In 1960, the Federal Drug Administration approved the birth control pill. Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique argued against the notion that it was a woman’s destiny to marry and bear children. 1967 brought about the “Summer of Love,” a “Human Be-In” that ushered the hippie way of life to the forefront of American media. In 1968, New York Radical Women protested the Miss America pageant because of its stereotypical notions of female sexuality, throwing bras, high heels and other trappings of femininity into the “freedom trash cans”.

Dan Savage’s sex-advice column, Savage Love, has been going strong since the early 1990s. Savage, a self described “deviant of the highest order,” encourages sex-positivity and sexual interactions where consenting parties strive to be “GGG”: good in bed, giving of equal time and pleasure to your partner, and game for anything within reason. In 2010, he founded the It Gets Better Project, an internet-based effort committed to creating a world “where all LGBTQ+ are free to live equally and know their worthiness and power as individuals”.

Sexuality in the 1990s

The 1990s, when the characters of Usual Girls are coming of age, can be seen as a decade celebrating female sexuality. Pamela Anderson posing in Playboy was marketed as a sign of female empowerment. Britney Spears came on the scene in her Catholic schoolgirl skirt and tied up white shirt. Lil' Kim released Hard Core, and a week later Foxy Brown dropped Ill Na Na, both brazenly celebrating their sexuality through uncensored rhymes.

But in the 1990s many women who were seen as too angry, too ambitious, or too sexual, were also maligned in the media. Feminist Allison Yarrow coined the term “bitchification” to explain this process of reducing women “to their sexual function in order to thwart their progress.” White House intern Monica Lewinsky, after participating in sexual activity with a man in a position of power over her and 27 years her senior, was reduced to a punchline.

Third wave feminism, a phrase introduced in 1992 by Rebecca Walker partly in response to the silencing of Anita Hill, took hold in popular culture. This period in feminism also embraced sex-positivity and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s concept of intersectional feminism—the idea that multiple identifiers are essential in understanding an individual’s experience of the world. The Riot Grrrl movement combined these feminist ideas with punk music and culture to start a “girl riot” against a society that offered no validation of women’s experiences and held a narrow view of beauty and sexuality. In 1993, thanks to student activists at Ohio’s Antioch College, the country’s first “yes means yes” policy was enacted, making verbal affirmative consent necessary at every step of a sexual interaction.

Pussyhats. Credit: Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh.

Pussyhats and the Present

During a 2016 presidential debate, the Republican candidate called his opponent a “nasty woman”—just a few weeks after The Washington Post released tapes from 2005 in which he boasted that he can get away with grabbing women “by the pussy”. In response, over a million craftivists donned pink “Pussyhats”™ and marched on Washington in January 2017.

Public discussions of pubic hair and the political implications of how a woman grooms herself can be found everywhere from “Keeping up With the Kardashians” to magazines at the checkout stand. TV commercials advertise lingerie, vaginal lubricants, condoms, and adult toys. Nevertheless, puritanical norms still abound. Abstinence-only education programs, though proven ineffective, prevail. Purity rings and chastity club ceremonies publicly celebrate waiting until marriage to have sexual intercourse. While the media titillate consumers with sexual imagery, so often the message young women receive is that female sexuality is bad or dirty—that a woman should appeal to sex partners, but not actually engage in sex and certainly not enjoy it. Four hundred years after the Puritans’ ships docked in these shoals, Puritanical values linger in America’s soul.

Usual Girls is playing at the Black Box Theatre through December 23, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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Interview with Arnulfo Maldonado


Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Set Designer Arnulfo Maldonado about his work on Usual Girls.

Set Model for Usual Girls. Credit: Arnfulo Maldonado.

Ted Sod: How did you respond to Usual Girls when you first read it?
Arnulfo Maldonado: I was very much struck by its directness. This play has zero fluff, so it was important for me to also approach the design with that same directness. This is a play that sees a woman’s (in this case, Kyeoung’s) journey/transformation from a very early age through young adulthood. What are the events in our young lives that shape us to be who we are as adults, especially for a young woman of color?

TS: Does the play have personal resonance for you?
AM: It’s personal in that I think we all grapple with our own identity and our own place in the world; I certainly believe that my own personal journey through the murky waters of adolescence, coming to grips with my own sexuality, understanding what it meant to be a minority—those are parts of me that were very much shaped by the people in my life, in school, the social groups I was attracted to, the social groups I avoided. It’s equal parts exciting for me because this is the third play this season in which I am creating a world for an almost exclusively female ensemble—School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh at MCC, and Dance Nation by Clare Barron at Playwrights Horizons —being the others.

TS: What kind of research did you have to do in order to design the set?
AM: The rawness of the play reminded me of Nan Goldin photographs, her unapologetic documentation of intimacy. That led to discovering other photographers whose work focuses on capturing teenage/young adult intimacy, like Justine Kurland and David Stewart and Olivia Bee, who documented her own adolescence in a book entitled Kids In Love. Bee’s use of color felt slightly surreal and right for the tone of the play. That led to looking at more sculptural-based work, like that of Alex De Corte’s. And, of course, looking at photographs of grade schools, middle schools, high schools…the architecture and makeup of these spaces. The geography of these types of institutions includes very vulnerable/open spaces, like a parking lot (where one waits for a ride after school, for instance). It was important to retain that openness in the design because that waiting time/space wants to feel slightly scary. There’s nowhere for you to hide, nowhere for you to retreat to.

Set Model for Usual Girls. Credit: Arnulfo Maldonado.

TS: How are you collaborating with the director, Tyne Rafaeli? Please give us a window into your process as a set designer.
AM: This is my third collaboration with Tyne and what’s great about a recurring relationship is that you pick up on what helps each of you connect with the piece. Tyne shared with me a visual that felt right in terms of the vulnerability of the space, but also possesses a slight eeriness and seduction to it, that ultimately led me to make the connection between the work of photographers like Olivia Bee and visual artists like Alex De Corte. That was the key image that opened up the possibilities of the space.

TS: What were the challenges in designing the set for this show?
AM: This is my third show in the Underground space. I also designed Kingdom Come by Jenny Rachel Weiner and last season’s Bobbie Clearly by Alex Lubischer, so I have become well acquainted with the challenges of the space. With a play like Usual Girls, which also takes place in multiple locations, it was important to strip the design to the bare essentials and at the same time retain some of the eeriness and excitement of the visuals. The floor felt especially important: we thought to use a similar rubber flooring found on playgrounds because we first see these women on a playground at a very early age. playing a game involving not falling into molten lava. Similar games are played, more emotional ones, as they get older, but the floor remains constant—this felt especially right. As you’ll see, There is one wall that transforms subtly to allow the room to feel slightly more expansive at times—sometimes it becomes a reflective space and at other times it becomes a retreat/protective space. Kyeoung can sometimes feel in control of this space, sometimes lost. This ever-shifting wall feels important in terms of connecting it with how the world itself shifts around her, and at times it can be pleasant, and at others you’re staring at yourself in a mirror and it can be quite painful.

Usual Girls is playing at the Black Box Theatre through December 9, 2018. Best availability on Sunday nights. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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2018-2019 Season, Usual Girls

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