Behind the Scenes: Building August Wilson's Pittsburgh
November 12, 2019 by Stewart Ikeda
The Umbrella Stage Company's newly constructed Black Box theater is a modern, flexible performance space that allows our design teams to design creative and intimate stagings for our smaller-audience productions. To kick things off in our new space with August Wilson's Fences, Dan Daly has created a lovingly researched and rendered version of an African-American neighborhood in 1950s Pittsburgh that audiences have called "immersive," "surprisingly convincing," "moody," and "evocative of a period". We asked Dan to share his thoughts and experiences building the Maxsons' world.
For this production of Fences, we wanted to really pull the audience into the world that August Wilson created. Because we were using the new Black Box at The Umbrella, we had massive latitude in how to place the audience in relationship to the stage. The opportunities were endless and we explored dozens of configurations until we landed on one that allowed the audience to feel included in the backyard but still allowed room for the story to take place.
August Wilson is incredibly detailed in what he asks for in his plays, not just from the actors but also from the designers. He places each play is a specific time and place, forcing us to delve into research and discover what Pittsburgh was like in a specific decade and in a specific neighborhood. For our production we leaned heavily on the photographs of Teenie Harris as a way to help us understand what the Hill District of Pittsburgh in the 1950’s was like. Once we understood the theater space and the world we were recreating, the details all fell into place.
Designing scenery for plays by August Wilson is all about detail, and the porch, the ball hanging from the tree, the interior of the house and more just grew organically from what we discovered and developed into a realistic style set design. When designing in a realistic way you have to think through how the details exists realistically but also what they mean. For instance, the powerlines we designed overhead in the space are historically accurate, but they also express the connections between people, and buildings, that this play explores. This play between reality and abstraction helps connect the audience to the emotions of the characters as well as placing us firmly in a time and place.
I was lucky enough to go to graduate school in Pittsburgh and see many of the places mentioned in August Wilson’s plays for myself, but it was an absolute joy being able to recreate a small slice of the Hill District for the people of Concord as the first piece in the new Black Box theater at The Umbrella.