The Pillowman from Martin McDonagh has been a hot play for more than a decade, catapulting its author to major film writing gigs and international stardom.
A local version from Forum Theatre, due to its early announced powerhouse cast of Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, James Konicek, Bradley Foster Smith and now Jim Jorgensen has been my pick of this theater season for more than 6 months. But it wasn’t until I saw the breathtaking images of Paige Hathaway’s set for The Pillowman that I became entranced with the possibilities of this production.
The Pillowman looks at the interrogation of two men accused of horrifying child murders that seem to stem from one of their published writings.
I got the chance to sit down with Paige, a rising star among local set designers (recently doing Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for the Folger and Godspell at Olney), to chat about serial killers, an island of creepy dolls, Mussolini, mullions, and the challenges of scenic design.
Alan Katz: How have the sets you’ve been doing challenged you?
Paige Hathaway: I’ve had a variety of theaters I’ve been working with, and each of them have pushed me in an interesting way. Here there’s, not weird theater—
AK: Weird theater isn’t so bad…
PH: It’s a great community with fun things happening…Many people, when they get into theater it’s all about big budget musicals or Arthur Miller. But in DC, I haven’t had to design a realistic interior.
AK: Like Misha Kachman quoted, sometimes a set designers job is “just getting paid so that they can tell me where to put the couch.”
PH: And there’s a certain satisfaction to a flawlessly executed couch. It can be satisfying. But for every set I’ve had to design in DC so far, the approach has been, “Okay, we have this insane idea. How do we execute it scenically.” There’s never a show simple enough to phone in, and that’s the greatest thing I could ask for as a designer.
AK: How did you approach The Pillowman?
PH: It’s difficult. The play is divided into three parts: there’s an interrogation room and a prison cell, but mixed in with those are these fairy tale stories.Those are the big question marks for anyone who does this play: how do you approach the stories? As a set designer, it’s all about balance. How much do you root those stories in the reality of the interrogation room and how much do you acknowledge the surreal nature of those stories? The conversations that Yury (Urnov director of The Pillowman) and I had began with his concept of including the audience in the experience of the interrogation room. Which, despite the play being loved by so many theater people, was new to me. A very outside-of-the-box idea.
AK: Which becomes literal in the design.
PH: It does. In our first conversation (which was the interview for me to get this gig), Yury talked about what he was interested in doing. He wanted the audience to sit at tables and have at least part of the stories be read by members of the audience instead of spoken by the actors. There’s something magical about reading a story and imagining these things happening. It’s a reason that people love reading The Pillowman as a piece of literature, because it is so literate and enjoyable that way.
That’s the kernel that started us. The audience participating in the stories. Like a criminal justice case where the audience is not only just observing, but also passing judgment on the events of the play.
So we’ve found different ways of presenting the stories in unexpected ways, and then we engaged with the child-like nature of these stories. Trying to find ways of telling the stories in a way that feels organic in relationship to childhood. A story is read, a story is told with shadow puppets, a story uses dolls that are posed, another uses a slide projector. We never repeat. In the play’s text, there are only 2 stories told separate from the action (the rest are spoken), but we made the decision to tell all of the stories in elevated, theatrical ways.
AK: That’s what this play is known for: these freaky, strange and often horrifically violent stories. How do you create an environment where these things can be effective?
PH: Honestly, much of my job is to get out of the way. Allow a very stark place for these things to happen. When an audience first comes to the play, it seems straight-forward: you have these guys being interrogated, and you aren’t sure if they’re guilty or what’s going on. You let that happen. Then I apply myself most strongly to the stories where those capital D Disturbing things happen. Finding the aesthetic of those stories. That’s where we found the Island of Dolls.
AK: What’s that?
PH: The Island of Dolls is in Mexico, near this place where a little girl drowned. There was this hermit on the island, and he found a doll who he thought was from the spirit of the little girl. Then he decorated the entire island with dolls, the trees and his hut. It’s very weird. What I find interesting is that he created something out of innocence and purity that outsiders see as creepy and horrific. So that was the core of how we told these stories: something that comes from a place of innocence, like dolls, that in a different context can be something very different and much worse.
AK: What about the initial image for the audience? You get to set up the very first thing that the audience sees. What do you want them to feel from that?
PH: Monumental. Cold. Institutional. I wanted specifically to create a barrier to the end of the audience feeling like they are a part of the space, a part of the interrogation in an uncomfortable way. With the mullions and clear plastic walls, there is no imaginary wall, no pretending. There is a wall and you are watching through it. I want the audience to be taken aback by having that new role. In the play, the characters are in a totalitarian dictatorship, so I wanted to reflect that.
AK: It’s funny; I instinctively know what you mean by that. It’s like all dictators draw from the same Mussolini-esque design aesthetic.
PH: Oh yeah. Super brutal. Concrete squares.
AK: In the opening of the play and its development, as a reader and audience member, you’re coming from a position of neutrality and ambivalence. You don’t want to think that these brothers committed these awful crimes and you’ll hate them if they did. But these interrogators are bad guys working for a dictatorship, so you don’t like them either. What does it do to the play to implicate the audience in the way you’re doing, essentially forcing them to take a particular side?
PH: One of the interrogators, Topolski, starts in the audience, and I think that, along with these other elements, really pushes the audience to be on the interrogator’s side. That means that Katurian [the writer of the stories and one of the accused] is much harder to empathize with. Which in turn emphasizes some of the playwright’s themes like: how much is an artist responsible for the effect their art has? How can you sit in judgment of someone’s art? If someone goes out and does something terrible because of what an artist, or whoever, says, how much is the the person who says that thing responsible?
March 10 – April 2
at Silver Spring Black Box Theater
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: PWYC – $18 – $38 (reserved seats)
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PH: We start in this straightforward, realistic world—just an interrogation room. Then, as we are told the stories, more and more bizarre things start happening. Lighting, which was a huge part of our journey, becomes more surreal and saturated. By the climax, there’s a violent set reaction that ultimate lands us in the world of the surreal. I can’t say anymore without giving it away.
The way that the actors interact with the set evolves, too. They start with a very formal, traditional relationship with the set. Then they start breaking the rules, and by Act III, there’s chaos. That clean orderly start gets dismantled over the course of the play.
AK: I feel that, as a set designer, you’re more aware of location than the average person. How does this play and your design deal with the fact that we’re in DC, in the place where interrogation techniques have been developed, in the place where the orders for the creation of things like CIA black sites and all of these scary things have originated? How does that affect this play?
PH: One thing that Yury has been very clear about since the beginning of this process is that he wants this place to feels as if it is taking place right here, in DC, right now. Even though it was written by an Irish playwright and the language of the play seems to suggest a place that’s in central Europe. But we’re firmly in America.
We talked during table work [the initial phase of rehearsal] about today, current events, torture techniques, and things like that. We talked about how we’re all probably on watch lists because of the research we’ve done for this play. That’s why it’s so important that we’ve put so much emphasis on implicating the audience and putting them on the side of the interrogators. I think it will make them uncomfortable to look at themselves in this way.
Being in DC has definite implications for the finale of the show. We ask you, the audience, to participate in the final act of the play, in the [REDACTED] of the stories to [REDACTED]. You are participating in that act. You have to say whether or not it is acceptable to [REDACTED]. You have to confront yourself in that moment.