A Conversation with Sara C. Walsh

I had the opportunity to sit down with Sara C. Walsh, the visiting scenic designer for Holy Mother of Hadley New York. The production opens Thursday, December 10th. Tickets are now available from the Harper Joy Theatre Box Office. 

Erin: Can you tell me how you got your start as a scenic designer?

Sara: I was in college in Chicago and I was an actor, but we had to take—what’s the play pro class here?— like that introduced all the different parts that make a play come together and after having taken that class I started thinking about set design and that I was interested in it, but I don’t think I ever would have become a set designer if it wasn’t for a friend of mine who is also an actor coming up to me and saying like, “hey, you are an artist, like you can do this right? Like, design my play?” And I said, “yes.” And then I cried a lot and had a lot of fun and fell in love.

E: I noticed on your website that you use the term “scenographer” to describe yourself and your work. What types of scenic design beyond theatre do you do? And is there a different approach to your design process when it’s not a play?

S: I do plays and I also do a lot of devised work so it doesn’t really have a name we just create it and it is performance. I work with performance artists for whom it is sometimes—it isn’t a play in the sense that it isn’t text driven. I also design for dance and for opera and for film and what I’ve started doing in New York is a lot of large immersive works that are environmental in scope. Practically it’s a lot more like designing a film. When you are designing a film you are thinking in 360 degrees and you don’t know what people are ultimately going to see on film so you just have to design the whole space. And when you design environmental spaces for the “theatre” then you are also in a position where you don’t know what people are going to look at or what they are going to be interested in so you have to get inside the head of whoever’s space that is and figure out what they would have in their drawers because there needs to be stuff in their drawers. And I think that my process is very text based. It starts in the world of theatre or an opera where I have words and a storyline to go from. When I do dance work I skip the part where I deal with words and go straight to the part where I deal with images. The words that I use end up being from conversations with the choreographer about “what is her piece about? What is she excited about?” And then also I’ll watch it and start pulling my own words that describe what the piece is doing to me or what we are trying to make it do and then I’ll go into image gathering and I’ll go from that into a design.

E: In talking with the director, Kristen Kosmas, she mentioned that you have more of a collaborative role on Holy Mother. Can you describe what a typical rehearsal process looks like for Holy Mother? What are you doing in the room?

Roxanne Stathos and Noah Yaconelli rehearse a scene together
Roxanne Stathos and Noah Yaconelli rehearse a scene together

S: Kristen has spent so much time with the actors just dealing with the depth of what’s happening in the play and the depth of what’s happening in the scenes and so there is some amount of who goes where when that she’s dealing with but a lot of it is just about getting the relationship in the right place and where they are standing in space is arbitrary. And so what I’ve been doing in rehearsal is taking all the work that she’s been doing and then the two of us together are trying to form in the larger space where things happen and when. And also what the story of presence and absence is. So if everybody is on stage what does that mean? And if everybody is gone what does that mean? And so a lot of what I’m doing in the rehearsal room right now is both tag-teaming with Kristen  first to lay out where people want to be and when and then to just keep tweaking that. Like, “Oh maybe it would be better if he was here then? Or maybe we need these three people on stage at this moment. And just, Kristen and I are clearly telling the same story, so its just having an extra set of eyes who is there trying to help us tell that story.

E: Do you have a favorite part of your design process?

S: I like all of it. And I like a lot of different parts for very different reasons. It just lined up with my personality that set design is really good for me because I like all these different steps in the process. But I think my favorite part is probably being in the rehearsal room because—like I said I started as an actor. I was a performer and a director for years before I became a set designer—so it just becomes this full body use of the knowledge that I’ve stored up as a theatre artist. I like being in the room and helping to make the thing actually happen. To be there when decisions are being made. To be there when realizations are happening.

E: Great. Do you have any words of advise for aspiring designers?

S: Take photographs. I think that’s the one thing that people never remember to do. You will find yourself either working on other people’s projects or working on your own projects or you’ll have a school project and you’ll do the work and you’ll have this amazing thing that you did, but it’s theatre so it disappears. And if you don’t remember to take photographs of it then a year later when you are trying to get a job, that person didn’t see that show, you don’t have evidence of the thing that you did. So take in progress photographs. Even if you are just on a crew building something for somebody you want to have evidence of all of those things that you did. So just remember to document what you are doing and then just keep exploring—take any job that sounds fun, intern or volunteer with people whose work you really respect, but take lots of photographs.

E: That’s a great answer.

S: If I could go back in time that’s the thing that I wish somebody would have told me.

Sara is a Brooklyn based artist, designer and teacher.  Her work investigates boundaries and rules, transformation and surprise, and the perceived safe space between audience and performer.  Previously at Whitman: Noises off, directed by Nancy Simon.  Notable designs include: Wolf 359‘s Temping at the Lincoln Center, and Get Mad at Sin! with Andrew Dinwiddie and Jeff Larson (The San Diego Museum of Art).  She was Head of Design for Queen of the Night.  Upcoming in 2016 she will also be designing puppets at St Ann’s Warehouse and for the choreographer Juliana May at the Chocolate Factory.  www.saracwalsh.com  B.F.A Loyola University, Chicago.  M.F.A. NYU Tisch School of the Arts. 

The Holy Mother of Hadley New York runs from December 10th to December 12th at 8:00pm and December 13th at 2:00pm.  Tickets are still available at the box office or by calling 509-527-5180. Adults are $12.00, Seniors 60+ and students are $8.00 and WHITMAN students are FREE!