Interview: "Detroit" Set Designer, Eric Chamness
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.
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.