Interview: "Detroit" Set Designer, Eric Chamness

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Eric Chamness is an MFA Design and Technology student at the Department of Theatre and Film Studies.  He is currently serving as the scenic designer for Detroit.

What is your concept behind the set design for Detroit?

The concept behind the set design of Detroit is ‘the plan, the dream, or the blue print.’

What was your inspiration for your concept?

I call the Detroit design "the blue print". In the blue print design, the facade of the homes is realistic, and as it progresses upstage and downstage, it fades into a non-physical 'dream world', the blue print. My inspiration for the concept of the blue print design was based on how we can feel so isolated and so connected simultaneously. For example, I can sit for hours in a room with other people with the TV on, a laptop in front of me, and my phone by my side. If I choose to, I don't have to say anything or make any interaction with the people that share my space daily. Multiply that by a week or a year, and where does that get you? On the flip side, in the same space and at the same time, my phone tells me I have 20 matches on Tinder, and my Facebook messenger is dinging on my laptop while I'm writing a paper, as the TV is talking to me. So which one is 'real' or more important? The blend of these two worlds, the physical and the virtual, and how we live in both and respond to in them is part of what inspired the blueprint design.

Also, a short story that influenced this design occurred at USITT-SE at Clemson University this past Fall. I took my Vanya, Sonia, Masha, and Spike design to the expo. It was judged by professional designers, and I got to meet John Iacovelli, an Emmy award winning designer, and our very own Julie Ray was his assistant when she first started her career. Ivan Ingermann introduced me to Iacovelli at Clemson after the day of classes, that evening, there was a cash bar and finger foods in the expo lobby, and I was smart enough to stay for a beer and talk instead of driving home after a long day. Iacovelli ended up looking at my Vanya design and talked to me for about 40 minutes, giving me loads of constructive criticism. The thing he said that burned into my brain was, "Don't be a boring, straight white guy.” Nothing against Vanya, I am very proud of the design, and it was a very successful show, but I share this because I designed Detroit realistically at first, but wasn't happy with the result. Detroit gave me the opportunity to take Iacovelli’s advice. If I didn't have the interaction with him, I probably would have kept my first design, and the concept would have been non-existent or rather bland.

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How does one tackle a play with an ambiguous setting? Did it make the process of designing more easy or less easy for you?

Detroit has the potential to be approached realistically or more stylized. This show has been quite the journey; I designed Detroit 5 times before coming to what the set is with the 'blueprint'. Playwright Lisa D'amour gives the designer some flexibility with the location, and going with the blue print or dream approach made more sense to design the show more stylized and not realistic. A lot of times dreams aren't realistic, at least mine aren't. Our director George Contini and my advisor/major professor Julie Ray helped me filter the many, many ideas floating around my head in order to achieve a cohesive design; I'm very grateful for their input. To answer your question, every show I've designed has been difficult, I don't think it's supposed to be easy. If you care, I don't think it can be easy because you're always striving for better. This design process has been exhilarating in the sense that it's based more on a concept rather than actual concrete objects.

Why do you think this play is important to today?

I think this play is important to today because it shows the struggle, the grind, and the adaptive or non-adaptive qualities it takes in order to get by and survive. Sometimes the dream or plan doesn't align with reality, and a crucial skill and lesson is to be able to adapt to survive. I personally believe there is an entitled belief that exists that one should be successful after X amount of education, training, etc... And the reality of it is that it isn't always true. This play illustrates that it's essential to be adaptive and willing to put in the work to pursue happiness and success.

Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit and the New Millennium

Matthew Suwalski, Taylor Wood, John Terry, and Ami Sallee in Detroit.

Matthew Suwalski, Taylor Wood, John Terry, and Ami Sallee in Detroit.

Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit and the New Millennium

by Lukas Woodyard
What do we envision when we think of the American Dream? A white picket fence, a loving spouse, a few kids, a well-paying job, or maybe even a dog?  Imagery typically associated with the American Dream has all but vanished from the American public, possibly due to the fact that we are now a decade removed from the housing market crash and being told that our economic bubble is set to burst yet again. The reality of this depleted dream seems to be haunting two sects of society in particular: millennials and college students. Many of today’s students are wholly invested in a future of sweet nothings, paying thousands of dollars for an education only to graduate with little hope of getting into the esteemed “dream career.” For many the decision to pursue higher education feels useless but it is ultimately a necessity in today’s society. Thus, the new millennium has become an image of overwhelming debt, misplaced hopes, and survival for survival’s sake. Is this the new American dream?

Lisa D’Amour’s play Detroit explores the aftermath of a lifetime replete with empty investments and the inability to escape one’s own circumstances. D’Amour received her Bachelor of Arts from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi in English and Theatre, a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, and opened her own theatre company, PearlDamour in 1997. Detroit, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2011, is influenced by D’Amour’s life experience as well as her concerns with modern American society. In an interview with the National Theatre in London, she noted that Detroit was “subconsciously influenced” by her family’s reaction to the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. It is also important to note that the setting of Detroit is not the once-great industrial Michigan city, but a general representation of suburban America. So why call the play Detroit? “The city of Detroit, just that name conjures up a kind of mythic America that is in some way lost,” states D’Amour. “I think the play is dealing with a particular crisis right now in America that has to do with an infrastructure that is failing a lot of people.”

The characters of Detroit inhabit a world that is seemingly falling apart and the playwright emphasizes both their failures and the ways in which they choose to react to the crumbling world around them. For Sharon, Kenny, Mary, and Ben, their connection is defined by their camaraderie in the face of these failures. The human reaction to stress, failure, and aimlessness is a theme that lends the play a certain universality, but it is also especially relevant for college students on the cusp of entering this ambiguously-ordered world. While braving the unknown is an intimidating prospect, Detroit offers a certain comfort in reasserting that you are not going to be alone in that struggle.

Q&A: "Detroit" Costume Designer, Desiree K. Smith

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Desiree K. Smith is an MFA Design and Technology student at the Department of Theatre and Film Studies.  She is the costume designer for Detroit.

What is your concept behind the costume design for Detroit?

The costume design for Detroit focuses on the notion that either couple is trying to, in several ways, become the other couple. Kenny and Sharon are striving towards “the American Dream” but are trying to live one day at a time; Ben and Mary are more financially stable but find that things are growing stale in their relationship. It became important to show, through the costume design, not only each character’s economic and social status, but also ways that they would implement changes in their individual style as their relationships with their neighbors develop.

 

What was your inspiration for your concept?

Much of the costume design inspiration came about during the preliminary design meetings with the director (George Contini), scenic designer (Eric Chamness), and lighting designer (Melanie Stevens). As a group, we worked to create a cohesive production design that still allowed us each to play to our strengths in each design area. For the costumes, this meant working with the director to select fashion imagery that spoke to both the setting of the play and the personalities of the characters themselves. As a costume designer, one of the difficulties of designing a realistic contemporary show lies within knowing that if you’ve done your job well, the costume choices should seem natural enough that they appear not be costumes at all. Therefore, a lot of the inspiration for the costume design of Detroit came from very familiar sources, looking at fashions and garments that are available from current retailers and working to piece together outfits that would fit each character’s personality.

 

What has your experience been like designing your first show at UGA Theatre?

Honestly, it has been such a pleasure to work with George, Eric, and Melanie, as well as the acting ensemble and crew. I loved getting to work with a group that is so willing to work with new ideas and embracing changes, and I am incredibly excited for others to experience the final product. Being the costume designer on Detroit came with unique challenges, a lot of which had to with letting go of my ego. It can sometimes be hard to get excited to work on a production where the costumes may go entirely unnoticed, but this process has allowed me to embrace the subtleties and unique challenges of costuming a modern show and I’ve really enjoyed watching the other design areas shine. I was also granted the unique opportunity to work in-depth with the actors’ discoveries about their characters and find ways to incorporate it into their costumes throughout the rehearsal process. Having such a positive experience designing this show, I can now look forward to designing more modern-dress shows.


 

How do you think Detroit fits into the UGA Theatre season of “Balances of Power?”

Detroit is certainly a great choice to fit into the season’s “Balances of Power”, since it not only focuses on the social and economic differences in power between Kenny, Sharon, Ben, and Mary, but it also plays with the power that D’Amour’s storytelling has over the audience and the effects that the viewer’s presumptions have on their interpretations of the events of her play. The influences that the characters have over each other constantly ebb and flow throughout the show, resulting in an ending that may or may not feel resolved or balanced, depending on the character that the audience associates with the most.

 

Why do you think this play is important to today?

Personally, I think that D’Amour’s Detroit serves an important purpose in today’s world, particularly due to the tempestuous political climate, in realistically illustrating the effects of trying to achieve “the American dream”. While it was originally written in 2009, following the previous year’s economic collapse, I think that Detroit’s significance still resonates nearly ten years later. The tangible fear of financial instability, the bare-faced humanity of substance abuse, and the pursuit of an unattainable reality – each portrayed by both couples – adds a depth to the show that appeals to our individual reservations and experiences of trying to pursue a cultural ideal.