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When it comes to set design in Boston, few have the impressive resume of Cristina Todesco, a four-time Elliot Norton Award and an IRNE Award winner for set design. Long-time SpeakEasy fans will certainly recognize her work from shows such as Hand to God, Dogfight, appropriate, Tribes, Clybourne Park, and Red, just to name a few. Now, as we gear up to present Fun Home, we sat down with Cristina to learn what goes into designing a set for this Tony Award-winning musical.
What attracted you to this project?
I’m actually not a musical theater person and don’t work on them often. When approached by Paul to design, I knew that Fun Home was considered different from other musicals, and that it was based on a piece of art: Alison Bechdel’s memoir and graphic novel. What attracted me to it was its deeply personal nature and its truthfulness.
What is the first (or most important) step in your process for creating a set design?
The most important thing I do is to dig into the script and begin to understand its voice, what it’s really about, and why its relevant. If I don’t begin by doing THAT homework, my work suffers.
How did the fact that Fun Home is a memory play inform your design?
When I think back on my childhood home, I wonder whether it resembled at all how I remember it now. Are some of those memories actual events or did I dream (or even daydream) them? I’ll never know. Memory plays are based on actual events and experiences, and yet how memories and images take shape in our minds is so deeply personal based on who we are. The words of Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space struck me when thinking about this play. He wrote of childhood homes, “If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” At the same time, he describes childhood as the place for “experienced reality”, which becomes “the vein of rich memory to be evoked in adulthood.” These are the worlds Bechdel is navigating and the worlds we’re juggling and blending in this staging – the house, the objects, and the events against Alison’s imagination and how these memories continue to take shape in her mind.
What kind of research did you do to come up with the Fun Home set?
Of course, I read the graphic novel and read about Alison Bechdel herself. I searched for images of the Bechdel family home to discover its details and character.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in creating this set?
The biggest challenge is always harnessing the ideas into a practical and achievable plan. We had a lot of expensive ideas that took some time to simmer down into something we could afford.
Is it harder and/or less satisfying to design a set for a show that is performed in the round?
Not every play can support a thrust or an in-the-round configuration. Some plays come alive when the action and the playing space are shared with the audience, and others work with the audience at a distance. For me, the design is very much dictated by the confines, the character, and the parameters of the space. I try to use the architecture of the space as much as I can to present the play in the most exciting and clarifying way possible. A black box gives us the opportunity to find the most effective physical relationship between actor and viewer and to use the space more sculpturally – I love having that freedom.
What do you think is the most important element of your Fun Home design?
I think the most important thing is also the first thing we decided on: that the audience and band completely surround the action, They act as a shell, the outside world, and the sounding board.
What advice do you have for young artists just beginning their set design careers?
Give yourself enough time to research and ruminate before starting to design. Read, research, make time to learn.