Setting the Stage for Dialogue to Come Alive

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Theatre Professor Nephelie Andonyadis says set design is about “inventing a world.”

For Nephelie Andonyadis a set design can be many things. It can be a colorful painted backdrop that fits into a (rather large) suitcase. Or it can be a truss, platforms, stairs and “a huge number of props” that travel to different venues in several large trucks.

What matters, says Andonyadis, is that through her scenic design she is “creating an opportunity for words to be spoken in a meaningful way” and providing “the playground, the vessel the antagonist, the physical and visual space in which action happens.”

As a professor in the University of Redlands theatre arts department, Nephelie Andonyadis designs department productions, teaches courses in stage and costume design and theatre for social change and mentors student designers. A busy creative life beyond campus sees her designing sets and costumes the length and breadth of the state and throughout the U.S.

Recently, Andonyadis brought her design skills to two regional theater projects—Mr. Wolf (by Rajiv Josef) at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and Disgraced (by Ayad Akhtar) at Playmakers Repertory Theatre in Chapel Hill, N.C.—as well as two touring productions, Wrestling Jerusalem (by Aaron Davidman) and California the Tempest (by Alison Carey).

“It starts with a conversation,” says Andonyadis. “What is the play about? Where are the sticky points? Where are the images?” After that comes research, and lots of it. Anything can inspire, she says, from photography to encounters in daily life. Small-scale models, complete with tiny furniture and tiny people, help solidify the ideas. Then comes discussion, revision, more discussion and a final design, though even that can evolve and change during rehearsals.

“Every time we’re inventing a world for these particular artists and this community,” says Andonyadis. “There’s no one way to do it.” In terms of bringing it back to the classroom, Andonyadis sees the “narrow area of designing for stage” as instructive in much larger ways about “problem solving and collaboration and visioning.” Working with the seamstresses, carpenters and myriad other workers on a stage set is a skill to be learned, too. “You have to be able to inform and inspire the team so they can invest themselves.”

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