Building the Heights

Building the Heights

May 10, 2013

In the Heights > Special Features

Jenna McFarland Lord: Building the Heights

The hair salon and some of the graffiti from the set of In the Heights photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
The hair salon and some of the graffiti from the set of In the Heights
photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Jenna McFarland Lord designed scenery for SpeakEasy Stage’s productions of Moonlight Room, Theatre District, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Great American Trailer Park Musical, and The Drowsy Chaperone. Her work in Boston includes sets for the Actor’s Shakespeare Project, Stoneham Theatre, and Gloucester Stage. In our interview, she discusses her process as a scenic designer and her experience on SpeakEasy’s production of In The Heights.



How did you get your start as a designer?
I went to Emerson College for Graduate school. After school I started as a scenic artist around Boston. As the theatre companies got to know me as a painter, we talked about my interest in design and many companies began giving me shows to design.

What about designing sets is satisfying for you?
I love working with a team to tell a story. When I am at a tech rehearsal, and we bump into a problem, I get a huge rush from all of us working together to solve it. I think it is a beautiful thing that a group of people can come together in a collaborative way and emotionally affect an audience.

How much of any set design is dictated the script? And how much is your invention?
I think it is important to respect what the playwright intended, but not be tethered to it. Most important for me is the concept the Director goes with. I try and think of it as an umbrella I am working under, meaning- it is always there, coloring how I approach the show, but within the concept I am free to explore.

Alessandra Valea in front of Usnavi's bodega from In the Heights photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Alessandra Valea in front of Usnavi’s bodega from In the Heights
photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

What does the script for IN THE HEIGHTS call for in terms of the set?
It is actually fairly straightforward. The set needs to be on a street corner in Washington Heights NY. It calls for a bodega, beauty salon and a car service company. We also need to see the front stoop of a few apartments in the area. During the show we also go to a dance club, but in an abstract way. It was challenging in the sense of making sure that we supplied all the necessary locations but without making it look like Sesame Street. We wanted to convey the fun and unique personality of the neighborhood, without creating a cheesy overly realistic space.

How do you get started on a project? What is the process of developing a set?
After reading the show, I go right into research. I start looking for images that reflect something interesting about the location of the show. Though often it is something very abstract, just colors or shapes. For In the Heights it was all the wonderful graffiti that decorates Washington Heights. After I collect several images, I share the ones I think work the best with the Director. We spend some time discussing which ones we can use as inspiration for our set design. Then I create several “thumbnail” sketches, and ground plans. The director and I will talk over these early designs, and hopefully include the lighting designer and choreographer in our discussions. As a team we begin to discover what we need to tell our story. These conversations lead me to a final ground plan for the show. Then I turn that into a fully fleshed out set design. During the process I am constantly in touch with the director and other designers, making sure that all of our designs are working toward telling one cohesive story.

How much say do the other designers have in what the final set looks like?
A lot! It is very important to have all the designers’ voices in on the design. That is really what makes theatre special, the art of collaboration.

Do you attend rehearsals? How much does your design change during rehearsal?
I attend the designer run through. This is a special rehearsal that allows all the designers to get a real sense of how the show will look. It depends on the show, but overall we try and stick with the design we began rehearsals with. We have a limited amount of time to make changes, and while some simple changes are made, it is important that we start with a design that works.

Diego Klock-Perez and Santina Umbach on the stoop in In the Heights photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Diego Klock-Perez and Santina Umbach on the stoop in In the Heights
photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

What can you tell us about tech week?
This is the week before the show when the technical aspects of the show are incorporated. The set goes into the theatre, the lighting and sound designers (and sometimes a projection designer) set up all the cues for the show and the costume designer gets a chance to see the costumes on the actors, under the lights. The actors also get a chance to practice any technical cues that involve them.

How much does your design change during tech week?
Hopefully not a lot. I often add some paint treatments to the set, but mostly by this point we are all fairly sure the set will work.

Do you ever look at other productions of a show to get ideas for the show you are currently working on?
I will occasionally look at other productions, but it is most often for a logistical reason. Like, “How did they manage to fit all those locations into one scene?” or “How did they deal with the set changes?” There is no need to reinvent the wheel, if someone else already solved the problem, I am happy to incorporate their ideas!

What about this design are you most proud of?
I love the way we were able to incorporate the graffiti.

Is there some little secret about the set that you can share? Something for us to watch for?
Ask yourself, “How in the world did they paint that mural during intermission???”

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