About three weeks ago was the first rehearsal for Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, and as with most first rehearsals we heard presentations from the creative team—showing us their models and mock-ups and explaining their vision and what they’re going to be working on. When our Company Member Misha Kachman told us his set design for Mr. Burns was going to include the most amount of scenery he’s ever put on stage I was intrigued. Last week I spoke with Misha about what the process has been like so far.
Brooke Miller: When did you first find out you were going to be working on Mr. Burns, and what were your first impressions about the play?
Misha Kachman: I first found out I was going to work on Mr. Burns sometime last spring, that’s typically when theaters seek designers for their projects. Before I read the script I received about a three sentence synopsis and I thought wow I want to see that and be a part of that. I think also my friend Colin Bills told me about it—he said you have to be on this project, it’s a really cool idea.
BM: What is your process like for coming up with a set design? How much is your own brainstorming and how much is collaborative with the other artists involved?
MK: Well the process for this show was not a typical process because the needs of the play are incredibly specific. There’s poetic input on the part of the design team mostly about surfaces, textures, little things. But the play tells you what needs to be on stage at any given moment. The logistical challenge in this particular script is we need to find a way to get those things on stage in a way that’s elegant and practical. So it’s challenging but also very exciting—there’s three completely different locations in the play, very fleshed out locations, so how do you do that? Where do you keep all that stuff? Some of the other brainstorming has been thinking about 80 years after collapse of civilization, what are shirt materials like? What kind of paint would still be around? What pigments haven’t faded? You have to be creative and curious and have to research those things.
BM: So building off of that, what sorts of research did you have to do for this show?
MK: Well we did lots of research about the iconography of the cartoon itself. People of the future don’t have visual evidence of what The Simpsons were like, everything is oral tradition. We studied how the imagery mutates—are the Simpsons recognizable 80 years from now? There’s this great book that playwright Anne Washburn recommended that the entire production team read, called The World Without Us. The author Alan Weisman wrote an exploration of civilization once it stops functioning—how it comes apart and what happens to materials, structures, and infrastructure in the future.
BM: At first rehearsal you told us that this is the most scenery that you’ve ever put on stage and you want the audience to wonder where we were keeping all of it. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MK: Yes, well in Act III the goal is to create a spectacle—to make the audiences’ jaws drop. In this scene the characters are resorting to the old forms of theater, such as baroque theater of 18th century. It’s idiosyncratic because we want it to be a spectacle but the visual elements have to look amateur and pathetic at the same time.
BM: I know you and our props master Jenn Sheetz had to travel to a junkyard to pick out car parts, what was that like?
MK: That was quite exciting, we needed the car to look very generic and it had to be compact and small, so we went with an early 1990s Toyota. The challenge was to figure out how to get into the building, it was just big enough to fit in the elevator. The real car was very heavy but they took out the engine, and now the car has to be “tricked out.” There’s a scene with three people dancing on the hood so we also have to make sure it can sustain that.
BM: What has been the most challenging part of designing this set for you?
MK: I think the most challenging part is ahead of us, getting through the tech rehearsals and putting this thing together. We have to find places to hide things on stage which is an exciting exercise in geometry…but I don’t want to give anything away. It’s a terrific script and at the end of the day it all comes to the words, if they’re funny and exciting and interesting.
BM: Is there anything else you want our audiences to know about?
MK: We’ve been cooking ourselves in this for awhile, for a year, so I’m looking forward to the reactions of people who don’t know the frame of the story, and the story is being told to them from scratch. I’m interested in finding out how this thing plays out for a person who doesn’t know or watch The Simpsons.
BM: So if you found out the world was going to end tomorrow, what things would you make sure to save?
MK: Well probably the tools of my trade such as brushes, paints, pen and ink, model making. I also think I would save my dog.
~Brooke Miller, Press and Digital Content Manager