Facebook's reach into the theater has been far and wide. That is one of many things I learned this week as I sat down in the Broke-ology rehearsal room with Donyale Werle. As hammers and drills could be heard down the hall -- a crew was in the Newhouse, where the play begins performances September 10 -- Werle talked about the development of her Broke-ology set design.
"I do a ton of research always," Werle said, "and for this one I've spent a lot of time online. The four characters in this play" - an African-American family in present-day Kansas City, with flashbacks to the early 1980s - "were crucial to coming up with the design and the props."
Werle, who attended the University of New Mexico and has an M.F.A. in set design from NYU, was inspired by photos on large sites like Facebook and on more specific sites like www.uglyhousephotos.com. "I don't just look at the overall structure of houses, but at the things people use to furnish their kitchens and bedrooms and living rooms. The home in the play is roughly 60s-ish. It was built in the early 50s and renovated in the 60s and the 80s. The websites are rich in photos from that period. Sometimes, people post their house photos because they're trying to sell their properties. Other times, they're just saying: Look at my home! Whatever the reason, the photos have been an invaluable resource."
Werle says she wanted the set to "show the patterns of the characters' lives over the past 20 years." Specific objects to do that have been culled from a variety of sources - Habitat for Humanity's "re-stores," which are rich in building materials; garage sales; even previous theater productions. "In a play like this," Werle pointed out, "the set can't be generic. It really has to locate you in the period."
Werle worked with Broke-ology director Thomas Kail on his Broadway hit In The Heights, where she was an associate set designer. When Broke-ology was done last year at the Williamstown Theater Festival, Werle was working with a proscenium. For the production in Lincoln Center Theater's Newhouse, she has had to reconfigure the set's house somewhat for a thrust-type space.
"Yes, we've made some changes," Werle said, "but it's not just because the shape of the stage is different. The more we understand about the story and the characters, the more we can create a world that best suits them. And even if the stage at Lincoln Center were exactly the same, I'd still keep doing research, online and everywhere else." She offers two more thoughts about her online expeditions. "I really try not to 'steal' the art and the furnishings I see in the pictures of people's homes." And: "I don't think you realize just how old your house looks until you see it in a picture online. If you don't believe me, take a snap of your living room and email it to someone for a reaction."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com.