Here’s what I can tell you about Matt Saunders’ striking set design for Pipeline: it uses cinder-block and linoleum. To reveal more before the play opens would require a spoiler alert. In a recent conversation during rehearsal Saunders spoke not only about things that I’ll keep secret but about things that I can reveal.
“The play has many locations,” Saunders said, “including schools and a hospital. But the unifying feeling of almost all of them is institutional.” He added: “Rather than establishing each location in a super-realistic way we wanted to create a poetic envelope for the play. We didn’t want to have huge transitions and completely different looks for every scene.” He stressed the importance of using colors that don’t necessarily go together. “Public schools don’t hire interior decorators.”
Saunders, who grew up in the tobacco country around Roanoke, Virginia, and who was an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, spoke about the advantages of doing Pipeline in the Newhouse’s thrust. “It becomes a forum, where ideas can be discussed and where the audience is included in the piece in an immersive way. We wanted the design to be as much an installation as a set.”
A thrust, however, isn’t without challenges. “Designing in this configuration,” Saunders said, “is tricky because the audience is on three sides and you don’t have a ton of real estate for expression.”
Saunders has learned to find solutions for such a challenge owing to the variety of his professional and scholastic career, which includes acting and teaching. (He is an assistant professor of design in the theater department of Swarthmore College.)
“As an undergrad, I co-founded a company called New Paradise Laboratories” Saunders said. “In the late ‘90s we moved the company to Philadelphia. By the time I went to graduate school, at Yale, I had designed 80 or 90 shows.”
At Yale, Saunders studied design and became a friend of Lileana Blain-Cruz, the director of Pipeline; their most recent collaboration was on The Bluest Eye, at the Guthrie.
In New Haven, Saunders studied with Ming Cho Lee, the designer of dozens of notable shows at the Public and hundreds of sketches on “Saturday Night Live” as well as the creator of perhaps my favorite Broadway set of all time: for K2, a 1983 mountain-climbing drama.
Saunders said: “Ming Cho Lee has a theory about doing theater under two roofs and doing theater under one roof. In a proscenium, it’s basically a theater under two roofs, with the world of the performance happening in one world and the audience inhabiting another world. But in a thrust, we’re all together under one roof. I’ve worked in many ‘one-roof’ theaters – the Mark Taper Forum, the Guthrie – but they’ve general been large, around 1,000 seats. What’s wonderful about the Newhouse is that it’s a thrust but a very intimate one. It’s perfect for Pipeline.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com