Unit 102 Actor’s Company’s practical but ambitious set designer Adam Belanger won the indie division Outstanding Set & Costume Design award last year for building a ship inside the company’s tiny west end theatre. This year, he’s nominated again in the same category, this time for his Of Mice & Men bunkhouse, complete with a big reveal that was one of the great theatrical moments of 2016. Along with co-nominee costume designer Lindsay Junkin, Adam brought to life the early-20th-century California plantation where George and Lennie dream of something bigger.
We talked to you for the 2015 Nominee Interview Series. What have you been up to since then?
Well, what really keeps me busy is I’ve been working on this TV series that I’m production designer of: Nirvana The Band The Show, it’s on Viceland. I think it’s going to be big. It’s been the last year and we’re already shooting season two. So, I’m really excited about that.
Apart from that, I pick up the odd job working on commercials when I need to, you know they’re not really exciting or fulfilling. And, well, since seeing Unit 102 have to clear out the spot, I’ve been working with them, trying to find a new home. I’ve also been in prep for this next play I’m working on with The Storefront- Tough Jews [on stage now until April 16th at Kensington Hall].
They don’t have a space either.
They don’t have a space either! Which was a great surprise at the beginning of 2017.
You have terrible luck.
Yeah, maybe it is me. I don’t know. This is my first time working with The Storefront. Michael Ross Albert, the playwright, approached me about it, then Ben Blais [the director] also approached me about it. We started talking about it, and I read it and I thought it was great; and so, we decided to put this on and then found out we don’t have the space to do it, which is, in the end, may make it even better. At least, more interesting.
Because, we found a space. It’s not going to be The Storefront’s permanent home, but it’s going to make the play much more experiential because it’s going to be site-specific. This play takes place in a basement in Kensington Market in the late 1920s. So, it’s during prohibition when that was a highly Jewish area and this basement is being used as a speakeasy in this kind of gangster family. We are using a basement called Kensington Hall. It’s just 75 years too young, so I’ve had my work cut out for me.
Where do you start with something like that?
Well, first I have to figure out where the audience is going to sit. This is something I haven’t done before [because I’m usually] working with a traditional theatre. We have to really play around with the idea that every seat won’t be a good seat in the house, but some might be more interesting than others. It’s a lot of playing with the line of where it is traditional theatre and where it isn’t.
Your sets always look like they cost a lot more money than they did. How do you do that?
[laughs] How do I do that? I don’t know. I guess it’s how you work with materials. I’m very hands-on with the sets; I construct them as well as design them. It’s knowing how to forge materials out of different things. And I kind of like that fake aesthetic anyway. I guess that’s a lot of it. Also, try to hold on to as many materials as possible and salvage. You know, we’ve reused so much at Unit 102 from those plays. That wall that we used are flats from four years ago, so you just have to be really economical with things. But why they look like they have a lot of value… I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a lot of care.
So David Lafontaine comes to you and says “it’s Of Mice and Men“. What’s your first thought?
My first thought is “I haven’t read it.” I mean I’ve read the novel but I hadn’t read the stage play. And he told me how much that play meant to him and that it would be a challenge, but that’s why he wanted to do it. And that he’s always wanted to do it. So I read it and I said: Okay, this is going to be a challenge because there’s so many different settings and everything else we’ve done there has been primarily one room. So, set changes weren’t really a thing. But tackling that was interesting for that reason. And it was exciting for that reason. Dave said to me: This play has no business being in this very small theatre. But that’s why we’re going to do it. And it worked out for the best for that reason. I thought it was so fun to try to make it work in a small space. And the transitions were the first things that I had to think of because you know, here you have all these rooms and I don’t want to have to make believe that each room is a different room. That’s just kind of a lazy crutch, you know, to not make yourself have to put more work in to make it more interesting. And Steinbeck’s…I don’t know if he really achieved in making this new form of theatre that he claims he was going to, but he claimed that he was going to make a “playable novel”. Which is really just an adaptation of a novel to a play [laughs].
But, it did kind of bring to my mind this kind of, you know, this story book feel in that we could kind of make this like a pop up book. And just have it unravel and open up and close and move in every way. It would make it all the more possible and…I also had this kind of Russian doll idea if the scenes later in the play get smaller. Then we can have it shrink down and expand. I also have to make sure that that’s doable architecturally and for the actors. Which is always a concern. You can make this so complicated and in the end, the actors have to do it and it can’t seem clumsy and cumbersome. A lot of trial and error. It’s not like we build them and then throw them away. And Dave helps me in the building of a lot of the things…and, he likes to get very hands-on with that. It’s a lot of us trying to be engineers and we’re not. So, we’re just up late, scratching our heads, trying to make it work.
Do you do much period research?
I do, I do. And that was definitely a very fun thing about this. I mean, my desk looked like an FBI agent trying to figure out a case. I just had print-outs of things everywhere and a lot of research, and visual research. I watched a lot of documentaries and things of the time and really got a sense of what life looked like and felt like. And that’s the best part. And that’s what I’m looking forward to with Tough Jews, too. Like, I don’t know a lot about Toronto history at that time in a specific cultural centre but that’s going to be the best part about researching it.
What were some of the key pieces of research that went into the set that were visible?
Looking at how the bunkhouse I think was laid out and put together was from a lot of research of what do these look like. Were they huts, were they log homes? Trying to mimic an agricultural valley in California. I was looking at a lot of these camps and how they looked, how the materials were being used and what we could do to mimic them. And then of course just throw that away at the same time and have fun with it. To allow yourself to have a good time because it’s theatre and you don’t have to be so locked into reality. That’s the fun part.
Did Dave give you much specific guidance?
It’s pretty open in terms of how…how…well, I guess he will usually tell me ideally where they’re going to play especially if they’re rehearsing. They’re rehearsing while I am researching. Eventually at some point we have to come together and it’s like “Well, this is what I’ve come up with and they say this is what we’ve come up with.” And we say, okay, we can make this work together. But I mean, Dave was definitely very strongly for this reveal. For having everything hidden. Because he didn’t want, and this is where we’re totally on the same page and I love working with him, because he doesn’t want to just lazily make concessions that you don’t really want to deep down that you’re making yourself because it’s too hard not to. But this big reveal of like, I don’t want, the opening they have to be laying under the stars. In the woods. And although most of the set is going to be the bunkhouse, because half the play is there, you don’t want the audience to see it immediately when they walk in.
When we first walked in it looked like the set was really simple. Like, “He painted a board. That’s not like Adam at all.”
I know, I had some friends who were like “Oh, you really phoned this one in. “ [laughs] “It doesn’t look like you did much work.” But that was the thing. We definitely wanted to cover it up in some way and Dave definitely was not going to let that go. He really wanted to cover it up in some way. It was like, if we have to board this up and we have to have the beginning act be on this side of the theatre, we will do that. Because I just want there to be this reveal of now the story begins. Him pushing that idea really really helped the play enormously. I don’t think it would have been as interesting as it was.
Did you collaborate much with Lindsay Dagger Junkin on the costumes and the overall look of the piece?
We talked about the colour palette and whatnot. But I mean, Lindsay is just so well researched. When I saw the research she had done, and she just kind of set up shop around the theatre and is just kind of there a lot more than the costume room while they’re rehearsing. I’m just kind of like, in my shop the whole time, doing my own research. But when I looked at her board, it was very similar. It had like, these old photographs. I was like, I think I even have that one on my wall. So, it was quite clear that we were on the same page. And from working with her before, it was like, yeah, we’re going to be in line, regardless.
What were some of the practical demands of the play that you had to accommodate, in terms of…you were familiar with that space, but what were some of the practical limitations in terms of budget, time space, and the actual play logistics?
I mean, definitely, the transitions and that some were so, some definitely had like, some were so minor change, but, but, represented a rather big change. Like, if you have the outside the barn area, and then you have these crooks’ quarters, which is also inside the barn, but a different area of it. You know, it’s, okay, we need to dress this differently, and we need to do it enough and quickly enough that it’s not going to, like, take the audience away, but will keep it interesting. So having hay bales, and what not, and repositioning them, helps. Having Dave work with the actors, telling me, don’t worry about them, we’ll make these transitions work. They’ll be fine with it and make these transitions work. And that was good to have me keep trucking along. And I was just like I don’t know Dave, we’re going to have to haul out these walls and it’s going to be, like, really cumbersome and what not. And he just had them like they were working in the field, and it was the most effective thing. It was like, okay, they’re just moving hay now, they’re out in the field, but they’re actually transitioning, it was great.
Did you have any big ideas that were edited out for practical reasons?
Oh, probably. I mean, you’re never really done. There’s always probably like 30% of things that just don’t ever see the stage because the ideas are more than you can really do. Like, a lot of these bunkhouses generally have a cast iron like fire place that’s heating the place, and, you know, I was going to have that there. I mean, obviously not cast iron, but it would look like it. You know, maybe I could have that fake fireplace we were talking about. Something the would glow and have a live warmth to the room that could also work and it would also be another offer for sound cues and whatnot…things like that. So it’s kind of like, one, we’re out of space. There’s no more room in this bunkhouse for anything else. Two, we’re running low on budget, so just put it where it needs to be. Three, we’re running out of time. So, all those things kind of happened now, and it was kind of like, ok, pencils down, test over. You can only do so much, so, yeah.
Did you have a favourite design element of the show?
Of the show? Hm. What was my favourite? I did really like that backdrop. And that I have to give credit to Sarah Cannon for that. She’s an amazing painter. Came in to help me. The sunset. Which is not, I mean, that wasn’t easy for her. Originally, it wasn’t going to be slats. It was going to be a fully covered wall that she could do her, what she does, as an amazing large scale painting backdrop. But I wanted this sort of, gradient, for the sky, and to really have a beautiful sort of evening look. When the practicality of having this heavy wall being lifted by the actors, I was just like, ok, we need to figure out something else. Well, okay, what about the floor, could just be used. It would be light weight, and it would look interesting, and it would have light coming through the cracks, like you do in barn and whatnot. So that sky could become a barn, and then also a floor, so it was three things, and that was really interesting. But the reason it was hard for Sarah was because painting gradients, you just can’t, when it’s all separated by slats of wood, it’s hard to spread the paint across to make that gradient.
So she was doing little individual paintings?
Exactly. Little ones on each strip. You can’t just throw the colour across two boards it’s like, she had to tell me it doesn’t work that way. But it looked amazing. I think that was my favourite part.
Were you pleased with how it all worked in practice?
I was very pleased. I think the hardest thing in the very end, which I knew was coming, because we couldn’t really practice that wall coming down until the paint was dry. And I didn’t want her to paint it until we were done striking the set because there was so much dust in this ventless room. So like, we need to really wait until the 11th hour here to try this out but, uhm, I knew that the problem that was approaching us was going to be the sand on the ground, which I stupidly, probably, insisted on having. And I tried many ways to harden it, or paint it to make it look like sand. I was like, they need to be dirty anyway. Like Lindsey, she was dragging I think, costumes behind cars to try to get it as dirty as possible. So like, why not just have them laying in dirt in the beginning? But I knew that painting going down and being trampled on while it’s laying in sand was going to be an issue in the final act when it comes up again.
Did you ever have an issue where sand got stuck to it, or it got damaged somehow?
Yes, definitely. But I don’t know if you remember, during that transition, before they put the wall down, we had two guys come out and lay down a blanket to cover the entire thing. So it was okay. We covered most of it. It got a little bit of sand on it, but like everything, it kind of just had this happy accident aspect to it. That’s why I don’t, you know, Dave included, we don’t stress out very much because it’s going to work out in some beautiful way. You might not know exactly, we’re going to put as much intent into it as possible, but the rest is just going to happen without us knowing it, it’s gonna be great. Like the floor becoming part of the wall and the sky, that was just an accident because of it not working out the other way. And like the sand on the painting a little bit at the end, in my mind, I was just watching it, and like, it was just perfect because it’s a dust up and chaos is ensuing, and a manhunt is out, and they’re in the same place they were in the beginning, but literally it’s dirty. The whole situation isn’t as beautiful as it used to be, and I mean, it just works.
Lindsay actually picked that as her favourite design element, the fact that when that wall goes up, things go flying and straw fills the air with this sort of haze,
Yeah, it was accidental. And some nights it was more dramatic than others, like when they lifted it up and literally hay went flying through the cracks like a gust of wind. Wow. I mean, I can’t take credit for everything, there was no way I was going to have that much foresight. I knew it was going to be an issue, and I just hoped it was going to be a beautiful problem.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
I really liked the beginning. I love George and Lennie laying out and just talking about how beautiful things are going to be and that was such a well done scene of just seeing George’s frustration with Lennie, but how much he loves he loves him. And how much Lennie loves George in these little moments. There we go; I’ve led myself into my [specific] favourite moment: it’s when they’re both going to sleep, but Lennie’s not really sleeping. He’s too riled up and excited about things, being Lennie. He keeps looking at George and positioning himself to make sure that he’s laying down the same way as him. And then will look again to make sure he’s got it. Like, okay, he’s got his hat over his head, I’m gonna do that too. And he’s got his knees in this position; he’s mimicking his best friend. I thought that was a beautiful moment.
The Unit 102 space where you did so much of your work with them is gone. Give the theatre a short eulogy- what are some of your favourite memories, and things you might not miss as much?
I love it because, if it wasn’t for that space, I possibly wouldn’t be a set designer right now. At least in theatre. So that really gave me my start, when Dave came to me and said, “Do you want to be a part of this?” That was, I think, when Dave was just cutting his teeth directing. It was a perfect first experience there because we were doing Oleanna, which Dave was directing, one night and then on the alternate nights we were doing Dark, Dark House, which Brandon Thomas directed. It showed how bold the company was, wanting to do these plays on alternate nights. Really, why not just do one, and have its run, and then do the other? I designed both plays. So I was like, “okay, here I go trying to design a set for theatre and I’m gonna do two at once?” It was actually a first example of these happy accidents because I had the Oleanna set be a small classroom that was put more towards the front of the stage because the back, behind the flats that were there for Oleanna, had to be reserved for the other play, Dark, Dark House. [That set] was just a stone wall with vines all over it, so we put a window [in the Oleanna set] so you could see outside and it looked like it was the campus. It was amazing. People were like, “oh my god, there’s so much detail. It really looked like an exterior stone wall covered in vines”. I was like, “yeah, come tomorrow night, and you’ll see what that’s all about”. [Laughs]
That was the first experience, and one of the boldest. And it kind of told me a lot about myself as a designer and, how much I wanted to put towards these plays. I mean, I made an operating windmill for this mini putt scene. And Dave was all for it, even though he had to putt in the scene. It was him playing this game with this other character and it’s all based on who wins. So, like, the plot is hinging on the fact that he gets it in or doesn’t. I made it so that you could still get underneath the windmill, but he had to aim [laughs]. The fact that he let me do that, I was like, “okay, I love this place”.
And then, after that, I think it was A Behanding in Spokane, which a lot of the theatre company speaks to as being the favourite. That was just a grimy little hotel room. That was so fun. I think that we were really kind of finding the type of plays that we wanted to put on there. I was certainly finding some visual connection to them. There’s a dark grunginess to all the sets. I don’t feel like any of them are this glossy, beautiful thing. Even the courtroom that we did for Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Adly Guirgis [the playwright] was like “it has to be a little street, a little grungy… it’s purgatory, it’s not heaven”. So many great things have gone on there.
Are you helping with the search for a new space?
I am helping a bit. Because everyone sees different things about it, I want to be able to look and imagine actually having to put on a play there. I’m the one who’s got the measuring tape and is like “okay, well, these ceilings are like, seven feet high. Come on”. But it’s been fun. You have to remain optimistic.
Cost aside, what are some of the things you’re looking for that would be an improvement, something different from the previous space that you would ideally like to see in the new space?
A second bathroom. [laughs] Those line ups, there just isn’t enough time for everyone to go. And obviously, we’d like a little more audience space. We don’t want it to be huge, we still want it to be intimate, but, you know, having it a little bigger would be great. I think longer would be great. A longer kind of viewing space. I don’t want it to be too shallow, either. I just want everything. I think Buddy’s [in Bad Times] has the best setup. It’s just so big and something malleable is great. We need just a little more space. That’s really all we’d like. And a space that isn’t the main space- we’re building these sets right on the stage and it would be nice to do that off stage. Or a store room that’s not just five chairs covered in like a drape and hopefully no one will see. I’m not asking for a balcony, or a trap room underneath. Nothing coming up from the floor, we’re not quite there, but, you know, a little more room would be great.
Tell us a bit more about your TV projects and what goes into production designing something like that.
It depends on the show. Nirvana The Band The Show is a special situation. I think the reason that that show works for me and I work for it so well is that it is this DIY sort of, like, all the key people are really hands on. They’re the ones that are doing so much of the work and, I mean, the fact that I design these sets in theatre and also make them really speaks to my value on the show because we’ll need to create some sort of a set, but I’ll also have to make it. With this show it’s specifically unique because it has to kind of take place in real life, but you’re manipulating. So with locations, it’s about finding them and making them as real as possible without having to go into a studio because we just can’t do that.
For other film, that is what goes into it. It’s similar to theatre, if we’re doing studio shoots, I’ll design the sets and then we’ll put it up in a studio, but it’s just four walls instead of three. I have been working on this children’s series called Princess Sparklybutt and The Hot Dog Kid. Which is great. We are finishing the pilot right now. It’s an hour long featurette sort of thing. That’ll be on Teletoon and hopefully it gets picked up. But I work well for that show as well because of the same reason. Because it’s a lot of making these environments. It’s very hand on. This is a space adventure series. So, I made a big space ship and we shot a lot of it in front of green screen and we’re trying to make it as fun as possible. I love that kind of hands on aspect to it.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Keep seeing independent theatre.