Soulpepper Director of Design Lorenzo Savoini is a two–time MyTheatre Award winner and a double nominee this year for his outstanding work on two very different Soulpepper shows. For A Doll’s House, he created a hyper-modern canvas of stark contrasts with the awkward feel of misplaced toys. For It’s a Wonderful Life, he provided immense visual interest with a detailed and multi-layered recreation of a 1940s radio broadcast studio.
We last interviewed you for the 2015 Nominee Interview Series. Catch us up on your life since then.
Wow. Very busy. I’m the director of design at Soulpepper, which means I design a fair amount of shows in their season, but I also run the Soulpepper Academy design stream, so I think we have 16 artists, and of those, two of them are designers. It’s a paid training program for two years, so in August, we went through a very large selection process, with candidates from all over the country, and it’s a long interview process, multi-staged, so now I’ve arrived at the two artists, and we’ve started training them in 2016. So that’s been keeping me busy, along with – just all the shows that have been going on, so we had a pretty big season, and I did two big shows that were repped with one another – Father Comes Home from the Wars, and A Doll’s House.
When you’re picking someone who’s going to be in the Academy as a designer, what are you looking for in terms of potential?
We’re looking for somebody that is in the early stages of their career, but have been out of a training programme for at least a year or two, and have started to – I think are at the edge of finding their voice as an artist, but what this training programme offers is a holistic training, so I’m looking for a designer that’s interested in learning about design through the lens of multiple disciplines, so it’s not just about making theatre only from their perspective, but working with an ensemble of people for two years, so you have a wider point of view on how to make theatre. So I’m looking for somebody who is very open and interested in what it means to be a theatre-maker, more than specifically want to do a particular discipline and design.
And as the director of design, there are obviously shows you’re not the actual designer on. Are you still overseeing and inputting that sort of thing?
For sure. So through this season, we run in rep, which means that we’ll have multiple shows playing at the same time on the same day. So that means that I’m not on, like, Stratford or Shaw, so we might have Doll’s House at 2 o’clock and then Father Comes Home from the War in the evening, which means there’s a lot of consultation and discussion around how to make various designs all adapt and work together, and come apart. And I’ve been there now at Soulpepper working – not in this position, but I started actually in the first academy, 10 years ago, so I’ve gotten to really know the perks and ways of taking advantage of every little space that exists in the building. So I work in a place of consultation, a lot for production and other designers, so I’m trying very hard to create a kind of designer college that hasn’t really existed. I think it’s been known as an actor-centric company since it started, and probably only in the last five or six years by the influence of myself, but other designers that we have in our community, Ken MacKenzie, and now Shannon Lea Doyle, and other designers that have come through the academy, we’re all working hard to develop a sense of a design community there. So that takes time. And I think we’ve come a long way.
So you’re nominated against yourself this season. Let’s start with A Doll’s House, which changed directors partway through – how far along the tracks were you when that change happened?
I wasn’t slated, actually, to design it at all. It was going to be directed by Lazslo Marton, who is a Hungarian director and a huge influence on Soulpepper. He’s been there right from the beginning directing them in rather successful Chekhov productions that really landed the company with Uncle Vanya and Platonov. He really brought a pedagogy and an approach to Chekhov that is what we’re passing down to young artists in the Academy now. And he was unable to come over. He was slated, and then something came up, and he was gonna bring a designer from Hungary. And he was really going to mount, design-wise, the production he’s done before in Hungary. So now Daniel Brooks took over, and Daniel and I have never worked together on an actual show – we’ve worked together on a couple of workshop projects that we’ve been trying to develop, and so this was a really – and actually, I even spent time with him to try – because I was really busy. So I was helping him find another designer, and in doing that, we had discussions around the plan. I said, “I’ve done this play before, and I never really felt that I got to do it the way I really wanted to do it.” And we discussed that, and we realized we had a lot of similar interests around the play, and what we wanted to do with it. So we thought – and we had trouble finding a designer that he was interested in, and we were like, “Maybe we should just do this together.” So that’s how that came about. And I was already slated for Father Comes Home from the War, as directed by Weyni Mengesha. So it was very beneficial that I had the opportunity to control both designs happening that were going to rep together, so I could solve all the challenges while I was designing it.
Where did the very sparse contemporary look of that – how did that develop between you and Daniel?
We spent a lot of time talking and having conversation about what it means to do this play in period, or what it means to contemporize it. And there’s things you lose by bringing it into the present. There’s a kind of social structure that exists, in a kind of Victorian-Edwardian world, that we already understand – it can contextualize as a sexual politics that are in the play. But when we really looked at it, we said, “Okay, let’s take all the references, the period references. Is this any less relevant?” And what we really came to is that this play is still so much about right now, and we were more interested in it as a kind of broader lens, as a human experience – not so much as specifically a feminist piece. And I really feel that it was only over time that it became looked at as a feminist piece, and it wasn’t exactly – Ibsen didn’t go off writing one. I start to feel, and what I felt when I put it in period the first time I did it… there’s something that happens with the audience. It kind of lulls you into examining these human beings as something that happened back then. And you feel removed from this stake somehow. And somehow we were really interested in feeling that this is just extremely relevant right now. And so contextualizing it in a contemporary period became really, really important. But also performance styles, so there’s something that happens when you put on a bustled skirt, and you start to walk a particular way. Everybody starts to sit on the furniture in a particular way, and there’s a real formality. I think it’s a wild piece, and I think that we were interested in it being a very physical piece. And then the sparseness came about where, really, this house is – there’s a kind of tension between the emptiness that exists in her life, and in her home, and these particular choice pieces that are laid about the room. And if you go back and look at it, it starts to look like the attempt was – it kind of looks like somebody, a child just playing with their, their dollhouse. And then walked away. So there’s actually seating – if you look at it – and not all the seating is properly in relation to one another, so sometimes you’re sitting in a chair that’s facing upstage, away from the audience, and isn’t in relationship to anything. So what we took was the kind of – that metaphor of a doll’s house and found it in a mix of contemporary pieces of furniture that were strewn about the stage. But we were really interested in how much emptiness – I think it’s the emptiness around the furniture – that creates a kind of eerie tension, actually. And there’s an extreme cleanness. Clean lines that are kind of perfection, and the cleanness that creates a level of anxiety, in a way. That’s what we were going for.
When you’re selecting the individual pieces that are going to go onto the set, in terms of the furniture or any of the props or books or whatever, how much thought goes into it that relates to the character that would have been purchasing those things?
Well, we cut a lot of props from the show. We took out a fair amount of references and did a kind of – modified the adaptation that we were using. But of the objects we did use, I don’t know that I – a little bit – there was a few things that I was able to put myself in the mind of, because I felt like there’s a reference in the play that her husband is the one that has made this space for her, made this world for her. And that she’s never actually made a choice in her whole life. So while everything is a reflection of her, it’s his perception of what she should want, and what would be really pretty in her life. So there’s something about a kind of cliched delicateness and showroom beauty that we were going for, that nothing really felt lived-in and personal. And that was sort of the intention behind choice.
This was one of the productions that you worked on with a costume designer. Is there much collaboration between those two departments when it’s two different people?
Yeah. Yeah. Certainly Daniel and I got the ball rolling with the set design, and so that really, you know – for Victoria Wallace who did the costumes, she inherited this notion that we’re going to do it contemporary, and she did a beautiful job. I know that she designed a lot for character – specifically looking at each character and working. She works very closely with the actors during the rehearsal process and developed the costume during rehearsal, so it’s a very organic process. And basically Daniel and I would work, and when the set felt complete, we’d invite Victoria again somewhere near the end of the process to get her feedback, and we kinda got her perspective on things, and so the collaboration went from there, and I think all through, in terms of colour choice – because colour became so precise that we were constantly in conversation about how best should the costumes juxtapose the world, or should they relate to one another, and it really depends what your intention is, so in our case, I think she kind of picked a neutral palette that kind of mixed with the world, but played around with colour in terms of… Nora would get the majority of colour in the piece, until the end, when she left, she’d change into something quite neutral and bland. So we did have conversations for sure.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Did I have a favourite moment? Yeah. Yeah, you know – it’s actually a transitional moment that Daniel created, but it’s between – I think Act 1 and Act 2 – and it’s not in the play, it’s something we constructed, but yet it’s during a scene change. Our front curtain comes down, which is like a semi-transparent kind of gauze curtain, and through that, you see this little vignette, this little moment of the family opening presents together. And just the magic and optimism of Christmas and this sort of projection of snow coming down on the front drape, and sort of this heightened idealized world that was happening. And there was something so telling in that moment, about this family, sort of trying so hard to be this perfect image of happiness that you knew wasn’t coming to stay. That, and of course the brilliant climactic ending between Torvald and Nora when she finally says “I’ve got to go”. These two actors were unbelievable, and the big famous moment in this play – the very famous door exit when Nora’s supposed to leave and slam the door – and it’s usually done and has done, but it was the first time doing that kind of naturalistic living room, so she would leave the living room and go to the front door, and slam the door. And that door slam has become so – what was our version, and what she actually did was step off the edge of the stage. Which was like a breaking of the fourth wall and saying “Enough with this illusion. Now I’m going to go off to something real,” and you would imagine that as she went through the emergency push-door of the theatre, you’re kind of going off to Queen Street and jumping on a streetcar kind of thing. I really loved that moment and how we solved that.
Did you have any big ideas or any concepts that had to be edited out for practical reasons?
Well, we explored, actually, projection in larger ways. We were playing around with seeing very large images of Nora, and we were considering a TV on the set where Nora would suddenly see herself dead. So a kind of imagined, only she saw this and then the TV went back to whatever she was watching, Home Shopping Network or something, we had this idea. But it’s funny, you get going, and once you’re on your feet in the room, this work is actually so delicate for the actors that something so heavy-handed like that really starts to drive the direction of the language of your production. So we started to feel it being a bit heavy-handed, and so we started to pull back on some of those heavier conceptual visual ideas. It just felt that there was a stronger single note happening in this space that was enough.
And your other nomination this year is for It’s a Wonderful Life, which happened at the Bluma Appel, so not your usual space. What were some of the challenges of working in that totally different space outside the Soulpepper house?
Yeah, Bluma is – for designers, sometimes it’s just so much fun to get a really big pristine space with a fly gallery and a large audience. But this play is not necessarily – I mean, it takes place in a radio studio in the 1940’s. And thankfully I came across some really gorgeous large deco, art deco studios like in Chicago or New York that I felt, “Oh, that idea could really fill the Bluma”. One of the challenges I often find at the Bluma is that the play has a hard time filling that space, so you lose so much intimacy and detail. So musicals and opera and things of that nature can really reach the audience, but plays can sometimes feel lost in them. And this play offered – you know, it had 17 people onstage the whole time, and so we kind of created a hyper-realistic radio studio from the period, which was a lot of fun. So the Bluma just offered an opportunity to work on a scale that I don’t usually always get to work on, which is a lot of fun, and a different kind of muscle. And just for me, exploring – my work, I think, tends to be conceptual, and expressionistic, but this was kind of hyper-realistic, and not usually my real house, but I really enjoyed doing it. I really enjoyed looking over all the different studios in America, and all the details that exist, and how they do radio drama back then – was so exciting and fun.
Because of the structure of the play, the setting of the story and the setting of the play aren’t really related to each other. How does that affect your process?
Yeah, it’s funny you say that, because when I started working on it, usually you break down a script and start working – what are the facts, where are the props, where are the – just getting the basic nuts and bolts in formation on paper, and I start to write down all the props. And I totally forgot, no no no, this isn’t the movie, we’re not doing those scenes. And so really there were no props. It was all sound equipment and sound props. And it was actually important that the thing making the sound wasn’t the actual thing, it was more fun to watch – how do you make a car door, or how do you do these things without the real thing? So it was really just – my focus was all on just the studio. And then it’s about evoking the world that they are putting on, in different ways, and for us, it was thinking about how can you create a kind of – so there’s, just to be clear, the story of them, these actors in the studio, there’s the story you’re hearing, which is It’s a Wonderful Life, them putting on It’s a Wonderful Life. But then there’s the story of watching this acting company put on It’s a Wonderful Life, so there’s two things going on at the same time. But really the story I was serving was the second, which was radio studio with these actors putting on a piece. So in a way, it was just that simple. I just had to focus on that, and not focus on – whereas costumes, I did try to build a bridge to evoke – I watched the movie a lot, and so with the main characters, I certainly took their silhouettes and their looks in the movie and borrowed a little bit – like evoked it a little bit with George and Mary.
What were some of the practical realities of that play that you had to incorporate into theatre design?
Well, one of the things were – John Gzowski, who did the sound composition, and he has done this before – he did it, I think, maybe three or four times across the country – and one of the last times he did it was at the Bluma, with a Canadian Stage company. So it was a bit of a déjà vu for him, but I had to incorporate his – he knew what he needed it to be in terms of all the equipment, all the sound stuff, all the tables – he came in with a pre-defined amount of tables that he needed. So I had to make all that work within the given design space that I was putting together. So that was sometimes tricky, because he ended up having a lot more than I ever thought there was going to be. And as soon as we started rehearsal, we found that we wanted the location of all the sound folly to not just be in one spot, which is what it was for him before, but to actually play it across the theatre, and the stage, so we had multiple tables and used many more microphones than he had in the past. So Albert was interested in all the actors participating in the folly work, whereas when John did it before, it was a one-man show, and he actually performed it. So he actually did all of it by himself, which I imagine as a virtuosity is a lot of fun, but what we were able to do is bring the image right up to the front lights sometimes, which was a lot of fun to watch, I think.
The set had a lot of layers to it. Was that the real stage manager in that?
Yeah, that was fun. We needed an engineers’ room, which would exist, and I think a lot of the times it’s a little window, but I found this beautiful art deco studio image, and I loved this long, long thin window that it had, and that they were in. So I put that at the back, and then I thought “Do we do a two-way mirror? Who’s gonna – we can’t cast an actor to sit in there and do nothing.” And then Albert had this idea of the director, of “Let’s put the stage manager in there, and he can call the show from in there”. And it was tricky, because there aren’t actually any equity rules around it, but you can’t ask him to act in any way, or you have to pay him a lot more, and he just simply had to be the stage manager, but it worked out fine. We costumed him, and he called the show from there, and it just tripped him out. He said every night he’d take these great photos from that perspective, but he would see the show, call the show from behind, so he had also a monitor that you couldn’t see, which was a camera angle from the front. So that things that he had to actually call cues on, actor faces doing certain things, he was able to do.
Because everything would have been in reverse.
Everything was in reverse, yeah. And he said, you know, also, you can watch the audience, watch them, which sometimes can be just trippy. But he said it was a real thrill, he really loved doing it.
And because of the radio play setup, there wasn’t as much to watch as there usually is in a play, so what we were watching was your set, which had all these incredible details. What were some of your favourite little design elements you put in there?
I loved that we did – so some of those things exist in the studio because the idea of soundproofing back then was pretty rudimentary. They would put pegboard all over the walls, and so we covered all the walls in pegboard, but my favourite thing on the whole set were these schoolhouse lights. And we had, I think, eight of them, hanging over the stage. And they call them schoolhouse lights because you would have seen them a lot in the 1950’s, kind of institutional buildings like schools and libraries. And they’re this kind of beautiful frosted glass chandeliers, single light chandeliers. Anyway, it was beautiful to have as many as we did, and as well as – I really enjoyed the scale of it.
And you mentioned you also worked on Father Comes Home from the Wars, which is one of our most-nominated productions – tell us a little bit about working on that.
Yeah, that was kind of a gift of a piece. I mean, Suzan-Lori Parks, the writer, is as well in my understanding, is working on what’s going to be a trilogy, so there’s two more to come, and we’re hoping to be able to do them. So designing it was a real challenge. It takes place on a plantation for two acts. It’s a three-act play, but the middle act goes out into kind of forced clearing. So there was a need to evoke multiple locations, and on the plantation was this talk, this cabin, and we were definitely fighting the influence of the original production. There’s a very definitive original production that was done by the public theatre in New York, and I don’t think there’s many other productions that have been done. So sort of like doing Angels in America again, it’s got such a definitive first production. So we were struggling to figure out how to do some of the things they did in our theatre. And it really wasn’t until Weyni and I said “You know, we have to let go of that show completely, and I’ve probably messed this up just looking at it so much.” And one of the things I really held onto was this idea of this patch of land, and what it means to – who owns that land, who it belongs to. And this slave community has been working this land, and has been living on it, but it’s not theirs. And so what came to us was this kind of expressionistic, raked, organic-shaped central floor, piece of earth. And then that in a way hovered and just sat in the middle of the stage, almost like an installation. And then around it was a kind of more abstract white wood world, and then our backdrop – our back wall – was this ebony-stained old plywood that kind of evoked the sense of time aging wear. So it was a very symbolic set, but really, in a lot of ways, we thought about – the play reminded us of Shakespeare, and ancient Greek dramas. And really what it needs is a ritualistic plain space, something really quite simple, to tell a story. And so it occurred to us that we kind of wanted a very simple way, but all the materials and the nature of everything was really specifically thought out, and hopefully detailed. And the acting in that show was just unbelievable. Such an incredible story. I’m so excited, what she’s going to do, from what I understand is, it’s the experience of black culture through time in America. So I think the next play is further into the future, and the third play may be contemporary. So you see the journey. It was really exciting to work on.
What are you doing now, or what’s next?
Right now, I just finished putting up Of Human Bondage, which was a joy to put back – it’s a special play for us, and we’re getting ready to go to New York City. Soulpepper’s taking five shows down, we’re renting Signature Theatre down there, and we’re just on 42nd and 9th, just off Broadway. It’s crazy, it’s surreal that this is going to happen.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I don’t think so. Thank you so much for the nominations. It’s always an honour and a privilege, and it’s exciting.