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On the surface, it would seem like the scenic design for MOTHERS & SONS wouldn’t hold a lot of surprises. The play takes place in only one setting, which the script describes as “a desirable apartment on Manhattan’s Central Park West with a maximum view of the park.”
But for IRNE Award-winning Scenic Designer Erik D. Diaz, the devil is in the details. Terrence McNally’s script is so detailed and nuanced in its treatment of its four characters, how could the execution of the world they live in be any less specific? Speaking to us from his home in Los Angeles where he is the Head of Design at California Lutheran University, Diaz talks about his design process and the unique challenges of creating a home for the characters on stage.
What attracted you to work on MOTHERS & SONS?
Well to start, I have long wanted to work with Paul Daigneault and everyone here at SpeakEasy. I have always admired the work that is produced here. I am also a big fan of Terrence McNally and his work. So, when Paul asked about my interest in designing Mothers & Sons, I jumped at the chance. Being able to work on this wonderful story, at SpeakEasy, was a perfect opportunity in my mind.
Is it easier or harder, more fun or less fun – to design a naturalistic set?
Well, there are inherent challenges in designing something that is naturalistic versus a stylized production. I personally love working on naturalistic sets. It is all in the details, and I love crafting what those might be. You also have to be more true to what a room looks like. You can’t necessarily rely on the “theatrical tricks” you might in another production, even a realistic one. It is through those details that you help the audience feel as if they are looking in on the personal lives of these characters. To take a naturalist approach as a designer means working with the director and other designers in order to really flesh out who these people are. What are their likes and dislikes? How would they decorate their house? Are they “clean” or “messy?” It is through creating their backstory, personal style, and establishing the details, that we can make the naturalistic set believable.
What did you do to research the home described in the play?
Research is the keystone to any design, and I find it to be one of the most exciting aspects. It is where my ideas can begin to take shape. So with a play like Mothers & Sons, I spent a lot of time looking at the history and backstory for these characters. I searched through countless books in my personal library, online research databases, libraries, as well as magazines to get inspiration and find accurate research for what these apartments look like. A helpful tip in this case is to look at real estate listings for that part of Manhattan. You can find photos of real apartments in those neighborhoods. It is like a scavenger hunt.
What elements or qualities did you feel had to be in your set in order to tell this story?
It was important to show the house and style that is appropriate for these characters. But even more than that, it is about the personal items that have help us get a sense of this loving family. I think personal pictures of the family, and individuals really help to tell the story of the tight bond they have. The other aspect was seeing and knowing that they have a 6 year old so, and that his toys and playthings are present, but not the focus. This helps us to get a full sense of this family’s life.
What were the unique challenges this play presented for you?
I don’t know that I would say there were any unique challenges per se. With any show, the challenge is to conceptualize a design that will not only be functional, but help to further the storytelling. Yes I want to create a beautiful design, but even more than that, I want to transport the audience into this world.