Interview with WOLF PLAY scenic designer William Boles

by | Mar 5, 2019 | ART Productions

William Boles is a Chicago-based Scenic Designer who has designed at theaters all over the country. He has collaborated previously with Hansol Jung on CARDBOARD PIANO (Actors Theatre of Louisville) and NO MORE SAD THINGS (Sideshow Theater), and with Dámaso Rodríguez on WE, THE INVISIBLES (Actors Theatre of Louisville).


As a designer, what captivated your attention about WOLF PLAY right away?  

I think it had to do with the inherent theatricality that Hansol uses in the text from the very beginning of the play. We know that we’re in a theater. We know we’re hearing a story. The next part for me then begins with understanding the theater space that we’re in at Artist’s Rep to see how the play can relate to it. When visiting the space I was struck with how long, tall and hollow it is – a big empty box with the audience at one end. In my consideration of the design I didn’t want to hide the theater, but embrace it in conversation with the text of the play. I’m struck with how this play explores the ethics of adoption and the idea of home. I wanted to create a space in which there was a strong contrast between natural and domestic.


How do you begin a design process? 

My typical design process begins with reading the play. Rather than trying to deconstruct it through long practical lists of what the play’s needs are I like to just read the play and listen to how it makes me feel. When I have a sense of my feeling about the play and have done some general research regarding the content of the play I am then am able to share in a conversation with the director.

Sometimes directors come with very specific ideas of staging, but more often directors are open and invite a designer’s response to the piece. This is a particularly fun aspect of new plays when the playwright can be more involved in the conversation. I try to listen to those simple impulses or images that come to mind when processing the play. Sometimes a play could feel like a shape to me, or a color. Over many, many passes and conversations the design will make itself shown, and I find that to be a beautiful aspect of the process. The design is there, you just have to listen to the clues and sometimes you have to wait on it.


What was the most challenging aspect of this project? 

I find the most challenging aspect of this project to be how we deal with the ‘shared domestic spaces’ scenes.  Hansol has created a really exciting experience through the dialogue in those scenes where the characters are in their own locations, but the action overlaps, therefore creating a more psychological experience in a real location.

The specificity of the action and dialogue makes it challenging to figure out how much information to put onstage, because you don’t want to get in the way of what the dialogue is doing. I’ve been lucky to work on two other premier’s of Hansol’s plays –No More Sad Things with Sideshow Theatre Company in Chicago and Cardboard Piano at the Humana Festival. Through her writing I observe that the negative space is equally as important as the positive space onstage and that they both have to inform each other. She doesn’t want us to forget that we’re in a theater, and through the play, likes to turn that concept on it’s head as we begin to observe the complexity of the characters experiences more fully, almost like poetry unfolding itself. In this scenario the scenery needs to find a balance of supporting the action.


Is there a specific way that you believe a play’s text and design are in conversation? 

I imagine a play kind of like building blocks.  The blocks can be different shapes, made from different materials, sound differently when clanged together, come from different places.  All of this to say that the style of the dialogue can really help inform the aesthetic shape and physical form of a play’s design and how it moves.  For example: If a play’s text is super realistic you are given the choice to push against that realism or mirror it through the design. It all ends up with where you’re wanting to hold the tension in the production. If there’s no tension in the text of a play then most often you have to push against it with your point of view on the piece with some abstraction to lift out some life in the play.  Ultimately I see design as a facilitator for the action of a play and there’s a million ways that could look depending on what the play is wanting to do.


How do you think the design affects the way an audience takes in a play? 

The design of a play is pretty far up there with how an audience receives a play. I like to ask the question of ‘what is the set doing?’  How does it motive the action? Does it create obstacles? Or is the tension that there are no boundaries? These are all questions that the creative team asks together to help create the most effective way of telling the story clearly.  The design is influenced by the text, but it’s also influenced by the audience and it’s important to consider the exchange when laying the groundwork for the design elements.


How do I get unstuck creatively? 

Usually by going out in nature. I live in Chicago and like to go to the Garfield Park Conservatory during the winter. During the summer I’ll spend as much time down by the lake as possible.  Nature is unlimited in it’s inspiration and education and strongly influences how I see design relating to human experiences in created spaces onstage.

Other times when I’m stuck I’ll go on a random trip to an art museum or check out the art magazine section at Barnes and Noble or go to a used bookstore.  Looking through art magazines after having done a lot of period research for a play is a great way to see how ideas from times past make their way visible in our current culture, ultimately inspiring fresh interpretations to bring to the table.

I also am trying to practice writing some every day by writing about my personal experiences. When I’m connected to my own experience I’m able to better articulate the expression of a play because my mind remains open to inspiration, and that’s the most thrilling aspect of the design process for me.