The recently revived Picnic, staged by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, was scenic designer Andrew Lieberman’s first Broadway show. He did an impressive job with a set that featured two house facades — a main house for the mother and two daughters at center stage and the front porch of the grandmother’s house at stage left — and a large, rusting metal wall looming over them. The metal roof of the house comes off like an extension of the wall, as if they are blending together. Lieberman says that while he looked at and researched Jo Mielziner’s sets from the original 1953 production at the Music Box Theatre, he did not see any other productions of Picnic, but instead found inspiration in the 1955 movie, which was also designed by Mielziner.
“I was not interested in what they had done previously on Broadway,” admits Lieberman. “It was just very much of its time and didn’t seem interesting to me at all. But the movie was weirdly gritty and real and beautifully designed. Of course, there’s a scene at the picnic that wasn’t in the play. The movie was actually very, very good primary research, since it was actually shot nearby Independence, Kansas. There is also something inspirational about the movie because they try to take in the industrial landscape of the town. There were scenes in grain elevators, and I thought that was kind of important to weave in there somehow. It isn’t really written to be part of the environment.”
An obvious nod to that concept in this revival was the Corten metal wall in the background that loomed over the entire set. The imposing structure was chemically rusted, since Lieberman and his crew did not have the time to let it sit outside for two months.
“My basic premise is that you’re always inside in the theater, so I’m not trying to create this fictional illusion of being outside with a cyc or whatever,” notes Lieberman. “That’s certainly how it’s written to be, and that would be a standard theatrical approach to making us feel like we’re outside, except for me, it always makes me feel like it’s artificial, and therefore I feel like I’m more inside than I would have otherwise been. I would say the most metaphoric gesture in the set is just to acknowledge that we’re up against the industrial reality of where we are — that rusty metal wall that everything is emerging out of.”
Originally, the wall was meant to wrap around and lock in the set between the two houses at stage left, but budget restrictions meant it just spread into the wings and faded into black space. Even though it is omnipresent, the wall often recedes into the background literally as the drama unfolds onstage, and later as the light of day melts into nocturnal shadows. The main house itself has a lot of detail, from the wood siding to the colorful green steps, and it looks lived in. Further, the audience got to see the kitchen through windows that let people in on the action, even when not everything could be heard.
“That was also a gesture that’s not written into the play, [being] inside the house,” says Lieberman. “As written, it just takes place on two porches across the backyard. I think one can take it from the starting point that we were going to do some kind of naturalistic version of the play. Given the naturalism, I wanted to push it even further. For a while, we were pursuing the two porch thing, but it didn’t feel right to me. At one point, I pushed out the façade of the house to create an interior through windows, and it felt much more real and less like a stage presentation. It also gave the opportunity to use the house in a more natural way, which in the end I thought was fairly useful and felt like the way it was supposed to be. It didn’t feel like an added gesture. Most people didn’t know that the play has no action that takes place in the house.”
When asked about whether his set design changed the nature of the blocking, Lieberman says, “I’m not sure that you could say that it changed the blocking, because I don’t know what the blocking would’ve been otherwise, but you could say that it gave a different focus and energy to the way that the interior and exterior set pieces engaged each other.”
The designer notes that he has lived in rural areas in the past. He was born in Decatur, IL and later lived in Williamstown, MA for four years. “I had a house with a couple of porches,” he explains, “and, to be quite honest, a lot of the way the house [onstage] looked was taken directly from my life. I have to say that I did draw on a lot of personal experience to come up with the way the houses looked and were lived in. We had loads of crap in our porch, and in the lives of the characters, there is nobody to help them clean up. Stuff just accumulates, and that’s just the way people live.”
Lieberman and director Sam Gold worked really hard on the ground plans because, according to the designer, the American Airlines Theatre is tough to work in. “It has very, very difficult sightlines, so there’s a very small little triangle in the center of the stage where everybody can see,” Lieberman says. “I pay a lot of attention to sightlines as a designer, and I wanted it to look like I didn’t pay any attention to sightlines. My goal was to get everything that needed to be in focus in that tiny little wedge, so when you came to the theater it didn’t look like it was aligned with the sightlines. Most people at the Roundabout thought that it was going to be terrible, but in fact, it was quite good.”
Lieberman also thought about how the houses could relate to each other as well as to the street, the alleys and the broader town. “We tried to fit that in the American Airlines Theatre in a way that didn’t feel like it was just obeying the sightline parameters of the theater, which are pretty extreme. That’s where the classic Broadway box set comes from — a response to the sightlines of those theaters. Obviously, we didn’t want to do that, because that feels very artificial.”
A Sense of Place
The main house is tilted at a slight angle, not quite 45 degrees, giving the audience a good view of the back porch, the kitchen and the staircase leading upstairs to the bedroom, which is glimpsed through the window on the second floor. There is a front porch to the main house at stage left (behind the omnipresent front porch of Madge’s grandmother at stage left) that is visible to much of the audience. Lieberman says that when the cast saw the set, they loved it.
“It gave them a real sense of place,” he states. “We spent a lot of money, frankly, building a good rehearsal version of the set. I think they really appreciated that, because this is a play all about where you are going to sit on the porch [and elsewhere]. It’s pretty technical stuff, and I imagined a blank rehearsal room and thought that wasn’t really going to cut it. We got a good rehearsal mockup, and I think the actors felt that the tactile reality of the set really helped ground them.”
Lieberman praises Showman Fabricators and Nancy Orr, their scenic charge painter, for their work on the houses. “They raised the grain on a lot of the wood. You’re not adding texture but revealing what’s in the wood. I thought the painters at Showman Fabricators were really great. I think it’s always interesting to work with a painter or shop for the first time, and it takes some time to develop a common language. I felt like over time Nancy just understood the kind of reality that I was going for. There’s a certain type of reality that can seem very poetic, and I wasn’t interested in that at all. In fact, she pushed me to be a little bit more textural and a little more painterly than my natural instincts would be. I think that was probably good. It needed that. In the end, it needed many layers of texture and many layers of aging.”
Having worked on a variety of interesting projects lately — including a production of Julius Caesar at English National Opera and Uncle Vanya at the Soho Rep, on top of being an Associate Arts Professor and Head of Scenic Design at NYU — Lieberman found his first Broadway show to be a rewarding experience. While in retrospect he would have wanted to change some things, he notes that there many things to learn about working in that environment, and he did. “I don’t do a lot of commercial theater, and I guess the Roundabout wouldn’t consider themselves a commercial theater, except that it’s like doing Broadway on a nonprofit budget. I think the most important thing I learned was how to maneuver through a New York commercial environment and end up with something that I wanted.”