First and foremost, scenic designer Collette Pollard is a storyteller. Most recently, her design for A Streetcar Named Desire, playing at Williamstown Theatre Festival through Sunday, has landed a place in the spotlight because of the announcement that the production would feature onstage seating, a first in the festival’s more than fifty years of operation.
The production, helmed by David Cromer (Off-Broadway’s Our Town, Broadway’s The House of Blue Leaves), originated at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, IL. The cast at the time were local actors; at Williamstown, Sam Rockwell and Jessica Hecht are taking on the roles of Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois respectively. Despite the cast’s name actors, however, the thrill of the piece comes in its unique ability to intimately engage an audience by placing them, in some cases, literally mere feet away from the actors. Such is the vision of Ms. Pollard, whose designs for the production are sparse and wholly concerned with facilitating the action of Tennessee Williams’ classic play.
In Glencoe, the play was performed in the round. In Williamstown, Pollard explains, “it’s in the Nikos space, which is a traditional proscenium space with a really large apron,” a configuration that, for a previously conceived production, introduced the quandary of replicating a successful design element within new, exciting surroundings.
Though the Nikos’ orchestra section features traditional raked seating, with those in the first several rows of the audience viewing the stage from below, those audience members lucky enough to sit onstage, behind Pollard’s set, are given a unique experience. “We tried many iterations of a design,” Pollard explained, “getting the set into the space where people could experience it similarly to the original design. What’s interesting about the onstage seating is that it’s actually the closest seating that represents the original design, where you’re on the same level as the home and you’re looking down into it.”
On a descriptive level, “the set is a two-room shotgun house based on New Orleans shotgun homes, with a bathroom. That’s all it is; it’s pretty simple. There are no walls, so when you’re experiencing the show, you’re literally looking into the space they’re living in.”
Ms. Pollard explains that “the importance of its being literally two rooms is that it’s a home for two people that, then, a third person ends up occupying, so it creates a very claustrophobic kind of feeling. The set is very simplistic; there’s also a ceiling, which helps with its being claustrophobic and also with the sense of the neighbors being upstairs, and it’s all designed with the idea that the walls are thin and that you can hear a lot of the city.”
In some ways, Pollard has an eye to previous designs of the play. “I’ve seen different versions of it,” she explains, “where the bathroom is off the kitchen, but having the bathroom in the bedroom,” as in this production, “it’s obvious that Blanche is out of place. We put the street outside the Kowalskis’ house on the side,” Pollard explains, “so there’s some distance between the people sitting onstage and the house on the apron.
“The audience across the way isn’t fully lit, which is nice. You have their presence, but they’re not overly present so we can keep focus on the story, but it’s really fun because when characters are exiting they’re exiting into the street, so you get some really fun moments with them exiting based on what event just happened in the house, which you get a sense of out in the proscenium audience, but you don’t have the closeness with the actor that you do up there. It’s kind of a treat.”
There’s something so fresh about this production’s minimalistic take on the play that it’s tempting to expect liberties have been taken with the text. According to Pollard, it’s quite the opposite. She and Cromer collude that, “We’re doing the play on the page; we really are. When designing a classic play, it’s really wonderful to look at all the different designs of it at some point in your creative process just to see what people have done, and often it’s beautifully but overdesigned. If you’re in a really big space, you tend to see designs that are trying to fill it, which makes sense, but in terms of what’s on the page, it says, ‘she lights a candle,” and so we light a candle onstage.”
“We talk about how funny it is that that seems so thrilling, when really it’s written that Tennessee Williams tells you to light a candle onstage. There are a lot of moments like that that Tennessee gives you. He tells you what he wants the play to be. So I think it’s really just about reading the text and being really honest about how you interpret it.”