Inside MY OLD LADY Part Two: Crafting a Moment Inside MY OLD LADY Part Two: Crafting a Moment
In this 3-part feature, PerformInk Kansas City’s INSIDE series takes you behind the scenes of Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of MY OLD LADY... Inside MY OLD LADY Part Two: Crafting a Moment

Photo: One of Bret Engle’s Set Renderings for MY OLD LADY.

In this 3-part feature, PerformInk Kansas City’s INSIDE series takes you behind the scenes of Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of MY OLD LADY through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes.

Part Two
By Bret Engle, Set Designer

I, being as young as I am, and being from California, had never heard of Israel Horovitz or the play My Old Lady. I was delighted to discover that Horowitz’s story is touching and timeless and that he mistakenly remains a prolific and relatively unknown playwright.

The first thought I had upon the completion of my second read of the play —and it is a thought that still stays with me all these many months later — is that I have one simple and specific job: to get out of the actor’s way. Especially in this production with Kansas City Actor’s Theatre who have an affinity for pared down sets and more metaphorical, poetic designs. The play was beautiful, and it needed a backdrop and a structural context that would be just as beautiful.

The Luxembourg Garden – one of Bret Engle’s research images.

I wanted to create a world for Mathilde, the nonagenarian inhabitant of this apartment. A world she has inhabited for the last 40-50 years (depending on which version of the play you are reading). Time stopped a while ago, as did current fashions, and we are left with the utilitarian trappings of a once highly decorative (“grand,” as the playwright says) apartment overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. It is a world of echoes, of dust just out of reach, of the staggering journey from the chair to the bedroom, and back again. A room that is somewhat lost in time, inhabited by a woman who is simultaneously antique and vibrant. Old and current. There are others in the apartment, Mathias and Chloe, but it was not built for them, and it is not them. Mathilde is the apartment, and the apartment is Mathilde. Now distilling all of that into logistics Darren Sextro, the director, and I, had lunch. During which we talked about a great many things having nothing at all to do with this play, but we eventually came to the consensus that this play didn’t need many walls, didn’t need to strive for painstakingly realistic detail. The most important thing for this apartment to impart was the former grandeur and the location. Specifically its location next to le Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” said Darren, “…if we could have a reveal of the location? Something to show how valuable this apartment really is?” I went away with that and developed the structure and look that would become, with minor tweaking, the completed set that will soon exist on the City Stage.

An image of a window that became an influential piece of research for the design.

Now distilling all of that into logistics, Darren Sextro, the director, and I, had lunch. During which we talked about a great many things having nothing at all to do with this play, but we eventually came to the consensus that this play didn’t need many walls, didn’t need to strive for painstakingly realistic detail. The most important thing for this apartment to impart was the former grandeur and the location. Specifically its location next to le Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful”, said Darren, “… if we could have a reveal of the location? Something to show how valuable this apartment really is?” I went away with that and developed the structure and look that would become, with minor tweaking, the completed set that will soon exist on the City Stage.I designed these immense French doors looking out onto the cloudy backdrop of the Paris sky. In this

I designed these immense French doors looking out onto the cloudy backdrop of the Paris sky. In this case, it is quite literally a backdrop of the Paris sky, done in a looser, watercolor-like style, and giving a poetic and lyrical contrast to the drabness of the interior. You can see it in the image it along with this article. I also designed a large wall containing double doors (per the script), and another wall to represent the hallway through the doors. Those are all the walls. An easy chair, a dining table, a writing desk, chairs, side tables, and other properties fill out the interior space, and the floor treatment of faded white and black marble gives a hard outline to the room’s dimensions. Other rooms are suggested with standing door frames off left and right. A large chandelier floats in the middle of the room and the rest of the space is ethereal, and left to the audience’s imagination. The colors are faded purple wallpaper and aged Mahogany.

And, oh yes, the reveal. The large curtains in front of the French doors are closed at the top of the play and Mathias, when he enters for the first time into what he thinks is an empty apartment, proceeds to open the curtains, revealing the view, and lifting his spirits. This, in turn, leads him to let enough light into the room to see Mathilde sitting there. They are both surprised and the play goes from there. It was one of the best collaborative moments that has happened during my design career. The entire set is designed around this moment (and the ending moment of the play, but I don’t want to spoil anything for you) and it takes all of the other designers to pull this off.

The design process is over. Now all that remains is to let the wonderful people who are building and painting this idea make it into reality. I can only hope to capture even a small part of this play’s beauty and vibrancy onstage.

 

Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of MY OLD LADY by Israel Horovitz will begin previews on January 11 and continue its run through January 29 at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station. Performance and ticket info at www.kcactors.org or 816-235-6222.

Bret Engle

Bret is a recent graduate from UMKC with an MFA in Scenic Design. Originally from Long Beach, CA, Bret got his BA in Technical Theatre from Cal State University Long Beach. He is currently the Props Master for the Unicorn Theatre’s current season and for The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. Bret made his Kansas City Debut designing Clybourne Park for the Unicorn Theatre and has subsequently designed The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Liar for UMKC Theatre, and The Whale for the Unicorn Theatre. Recently Bret designed The Way We Get By at the Unicorn Theatre. Bret is excited to be working with Kansas City Actor’s Theatre.

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