PerformInk takes you inside Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of BLITHE SPIRIT through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past “Inside” articles click here.
By Scenic Designer Kelli Harrod
With what would initially seem to be few moving parts and little changes, the world and the set for BLITHE SPIRIT go from the quiet parlor of a couple living their everyday life to crazy happenings where anything can come crashing to the floor at any moment. Being the scenic designer has allowed me to explore what this world of the characters looks and feels like. I have been working on the scenic design for BLITHE SPIRIT since around April, so by the time we open, I will have spent close to five months reading, designing, and collaborating with all of the aspects and other artists that are a part of this show. From finding research, drafting, and building a scale model, all the way to building and painting the set, these are some of the thoughts and conversations that have had an impact on how the scenic design got to its finished form.
Noel Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT is the story of Charles, an author who accidentally summons the ghost of his first wife, Elvira, much to the chagrin of his current, living wife, Ruth. This is the first time I have worked on a production of this play (and my first show with KCAT which is exciting in itself), but it seemed like everyone I talked to about it told me a story about the time they designed it, or asked how I was planning to do this trick, or if I had thought about doing this thing. In the process of working on the initial design, I had acquired so many different opinions I had a hard time separating my ideas from the things I heard from others.
I finally had to get rid of all of the thoughts and concepts around me and dig into the script again as though I was reading it for the first time. I wanted to think about the mood and feeling that the play gave me. I went back through my research and landed on the few images that jumped out at me reflecting that feeling. Since it is a kind of farce, I wanted the mood to be lighter, brighter, and more filled. BLITHE SPIRIT is not just any farce, however; it has a strange otherworldly aspect to it, which adds a whole other layer. It is a place that we can walk into and recognize, but we don’t quite understand. I then brought these images to my first meeting with Doug Weaver, the director, and we landed on a couple of ideas that I was able to pull the color palette and many of the design elements from.
One of the things Doug told me in this first meeting was that “they [the characters] are drinking the entire show and they aren’t trying to hide it.” We also talked about how since Charles is a writer, he would have shelves and shelves of books. With both of these thoughts in mind, we came to the idea that these bookcases are mostly covered in books, except for one that Charles would have taken all of the books out of in order to have a ‘liquor cabinet.’
Reflecting on the house as a lived-in space led me to think about who these characters are and how they came to be in the setting, even long before the action of the play. I thought about what would have taken place once Ruth moved into the house. We know that Elvira lived there when she was alive, and it is clear that these two women have very different personalities and would have different opinions on decor. Ruth would have redecorated, perhaps bought a new rug so the chaise would work better with the room, added some things here or there, changed what type of flowers were put out, etc. There were some things, however, that Charles wanted to keep around, such as the odd clock on the mantle that was a wedding present from Elvira’s uncle. For me, thinking about the small things like this allows for the characters to interact with the scenery and give the set a life and history like any house has.
For anyone who knows this show, there are many “ghostly happenings” that take place throughout, so figuring out those tricks has been a really fun challenge. There are practical elements that almost every play calls for in the script, and making sure that these are worked out is as important as the overarching design. The hardest part of designing BLITHE SPIRIT for me was that we needed to have a piano on stage. I had to design much of the layout for the set around where the best placement for the piano would be. I don’t often like to look at the designs for previous productions, but in this case I had to do quite a bit of research on where and how to fit walls, two sets of doors, and numerous bookcases around a grand piano.
My favorite part of being a scenic designer is getting to collaborate with the other designers and artistic staff. I worked with costume designer Sarah Oliver to create a setting where, on an average day, the characters almost blend into the set and their world as a whole, and the most exciting thing in their life is having an overzealous maid. All that changes when they invite Madame Arcati into their house, which both literally and figuratively shakes up their world. Through costumes, lighting, and property shifts, this “other world” pops out against the warm, neutral, and lightly-colored set. Collectively we came to a concept that makes this production unique, which would not have happened without the whole team. While we do have theatre “magic” in BLITHE SPIRIT, I really believe that the true magic of theatre comes from the incredibly creative individuals that all work together to make it happen.
This is Kelli Harrod’s first production with Kansas City Actors Theatre. She has previously designed “Men on Boats” and “Informed Consent” at the Unicorn Theatre, and will be designing the new original adaptation of “Dracula: A Song of Love and Death” as a co-production with KCAT and UMKC later this fall. With a life-long passion for art and community, the theatre culture in Kansas City has found a very special place in Kelli’s heart, and she knows that it will continue to fuel her creativity and designs.
“Blithe Spirit,” by Noel Coward, is playing August 8-26 at the City Stage in Union Station. The show features Coleman Crenshaw, Matt Rapport, Jan Rogge, Cinnamon Schultz, Vanessa Severo, Margaret Shelby and Cheryl Weaver under the direction of Doug Weaver. Tickets and information are available at www.kcactors.org or by calling the Central Ticket Office at 816-235-6222.