WAM Associate Artist Juliana von Haubrich is a visual artist working in theatre and graphic design. Her set for “The Bakelite Masterpiece” has received unanimous praise from critics and audience alike, and so we asked her to share her design process for this show in words and pictures. We hope you find this glimpse into the the working mind of a scenic design artist as fascinating as we do!
My first steps in designing the space for “Bakelite Masterpiece” began with multiple discussions with the director, Kristen van Ginhoven, to hear her thoughts and vision for the story. Then reading, and re-reading, the play to find my own visual inspirations, and understanding how the characters move in their world. Then I dive into visual research. For “Bakelite”, I knew the chaos and devastation of Amsterdam right at the end of the war was key in Geert Piller’s (played by Corinna May) zeitgeist. The playwright, Kate Cayley, had said it should feel like she just came from the square where the women’s heads were shaved, so I wanted to show parts of that devastated world, spilling in from the sides and just outside of van Meegeren’s (played by David Adkins) cell walls. Below are two research images that made a big impact on me.
Next in the process I’ll sketch, to get initial ideas down fast. The broken world around the cell, the window and floor, using the architecture of the theater (the beams), these are some of the ideas I was drawn to.
Once I zero in on the visual elements that have the most resonance with the story, I work in Photoshop arranging these elements into renderings that I share with the director. As I see objects put into this virtual space, the cell wall (like a Vermeer wall), the broken windows above, and the beautiful blue sky (from my research, survivors commented on how beautiful the blue sky was juxtaposed against the destruction of their city), I can now make decisions on what to edit and what to keep. You can see some of that progression in these Photoshop drawings. One thing you’ll notice is the evolution from 2 walls to 3. It seemed to emphasize a “vanishing point,” something you find in Vermeer’s paintings.
Finally, it’s time to move into 3 dimensions. It’s time to construct a scale model and try out these edited ideas. What you’ll see in the model images below is that we ended up cutting the door. This came about through discussions with the whole team (lights, sound, and costumes). We initially felt seeing the door was important, but when Kristen wanted to use the balcony in the theater to bring Geert into the cell, it became clear that it was better to include the audience in the cell with van Meegeren and not see a door. Brad Berridge, our sound designer and also a WAM Associate Artist, was very excited about the trapped feeling it conveyed, and suggested depicting the door as a sound. It was a great collaboration moment. It was a real team effort. Without the door to draw focus, I straightened our wall lines, and added a big dark beam, which underscored the beautiful blue sky. I also fine tuned what of the broken world we would see on either side of the stage. One side would be an abandoned Nazi office, destroyed files, the other would show domestic debris, children’s toys, crutches, photos, pieces of the lives of the people who were taken, like Geert’s parents.
The final model as presented to Berkshire Theatre Group’s scene shop, who took on the building of the set for this WAM/BTG co-production:
They did an excellent job realizing our vision for “Bakelite Masterpiece, ” as you will see from the production photo below:
I then do a lot of what I call “sculpting in space” after the Technical Director has finished installing the set. I add a lot of details, like specific objects in the debris piles that I found after hunting through BTG’s stock. I “arrange” and create a pile of papers and files that look like they’ve been ripped out of the file cabinet for the “office” side. I add pieces of furniture to the domestic debris pile, always thinking of the people’s lives the items represent. And of course, I labored in complete love of Vermeer to blend the beautifully realistic walls in his paintings, into a dank, battle-worn, basement holding cell for van Meegeren. In the above production photo of the set, note the beautifully sad tree. WAM’s Technical Director, Sam Craig, my favorite “tree artist,” worked with me to wonderfully blend and engineer mine and Kristen’s vision of that destroyed tree just outside his cell window.
I’m very proud of the design for The Bakelite Masterpiece. The inspiration you get from working on a compelling play, with a terrific team of fellow theatre artists, is evident in this production. It’s always hard to let go of a world created with that kind of passion, but as theatre artists, we have to move on to that next amazing story. I look forward to it, and hope you’ll join us!
Originally from Michigan, Juliana obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Michigan and her Masters of Fine Arts degree in Scenic Design from the California Institute of the Arts (Calarts). While in Los Angeles, Juliana designed sets for theatre, film, and television, earning a “Best of L.A. Award” from L.A. Weekly. Moving to New York City in 2000, Juliana focused on theatre, designing for The Juilliard School, The Acting Company, and other off-Broadway companies. Currently living in the Berkshires, she continues to design for WAM Theatre Company, the Theatre Institute at Sage, and the University at Albany. She has also started a new path in Graphic Design and Book Illustrations. Juliana is an Associate Artist with WAM Theatre. This was Juliana’s first production with Berkshire Theatre Group.More Info on The Bakelite Masterpiece