Artist o’ the Week: Ryan McGettigan

7 Jun

Ryan McGettiganRyan McGettigan, this week’s AotW, chats with us about his design process for the Next to Normal set.  He pleaded for me to edit our conversation in case he sounded like an idiot, but the truth is he sounds pretty interesting. And did you know, when you google Ryan to get to his design website, you will come across a footballer by the same name who plays in the United Stages Australian Football League…I didn’t know such a thing existed. Anyway, on to the highly interesting scenic designer Ryan McGettigan.

Ryan, where are you from? 

I’m originally from a small town of about 1,000 up in Middle-of-Nowhere, New Hampshire.  From there I moved to Germany and Boston for school, eventually settling down in Boston for several years.

And now you’re in Houston! What brought you Texas-way?

My move to Houston was fairly recent when my boyfriend accepted a job offer from Houston Grand Opera.  Moving cities as a freelancer can be a rather frightening and stressful endeavor, but the Houston theatre-scene has been very welcoming.  I still juggle in-town and out-of-town jobs, which offers me a good change of pace and perspective.

Coming to work with Stages has been a very exciting opportunity!  Melissa [Melissa Rain Anderson] and I were able to begin our work on this show in October of 2011, and so it’s been a long collaboration and friendship.

For those of us who may not know exactly what a scenic designer really does, what is that process?

As a scenic designer, it is your job to draft build-able solutions to the visual and spatial questions proposed by a play.  But the real joy of being a scenic designer, for me at least, is in the actual ‘solving’ of these questions.  It’s a process that relies on an intense collaboration with the director and the other designers, and a process that with each person’s input, can take dramatic turns. There are of course logistical concerns, style, period, and script necessitations, but what makes the design process so exciting and important is the ability to focus and guide an audience’s perception via your own specific emotional and visual responses.

With so much time, and with such an enthusiastic director, design team, and support staff, I feel like we were really able to work through several stages of this design for Next to Normal, each time finding new ideas and inspirations that would take the next version of the design in a slightly different direction.  It was a long process, but it was continuously driven and developing, and yielded beautiful results.

Next to Normal scenic design

An early version of the ‘Next to Normal’ set (left) and the final version (right)

Where did you go to school?

I attended Emerson College in Boston, MA, and graduated with a BFA in Scenic Design. Emerson is a fantastic school in the heart of the Boston theatre district and really promoted student involvement within the city’s theatre scene.  These connections led to great opportunities for a lot of the theatrical design students that not only provided income while working our way through school, but simultaneously furthered our experience in professional environments and allowed us to really test our skills in real life situations.

When did you know design was “it” for you?

I was a very lucky child.  My parents would drive me from New Hampshire to New York City several weekends a year to go see Broadway shows.  They could see how excited and inspired I was by the theatre and would make the four and a half hour drive to help encourage my joy and interest.  I was a very, very, lucky son.  I still am, really.

Every show I saw while growing up was in it’s own way an ‘it’ moment for me.  I remember even going to see the same show multiple times, either to share it with a friend, or to figure out some theatrical trick by snagging a seat with a sightline that might let me catch a glimpse at the mechanics behind the magic.

But I think the actual ‘it‘ moment for me has less to do with design and more to do with storytelling.   While already in school at Emerson, I was able to see the touring production of Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife in Boston.  In this one man show, Jefferson Mays played Charlotte, an East-German transvestite who’d survived life in both the Nazi and Communist regimes, as well as playing dozens of other cursory characters.  Derek McLane’s scenic design was a pastiche of objects from this woman’s pack-rat lifestyle but remained so simple, clean, and bare-boned as the heart of the story itself.  The most inspiring moment in the production, which I will take with me forever, was so incredibly simple:  Charlotte sits, holding a small box with dollhouse scaled furniture, slowly and matter-of-factly describing each piece as she pulls these miniatures out of the box and sets them on a small side table next to her.  And suddenly, the rest of the world, hers and ours, has faded away and we are in this miniature space that she has created, living out moments from her life within this ‘apartment’ set entirely on a side table.

The moment was so intimate and the storytelling so simple and affective, even in a large touring venue that I couldn’t help but be taken into this woman’s journey.

Now, it’s connections like these that I try to create, with directors and other artists, to offer up those same fresh moments of storytelling and intimacy and powerfulness to our audiences.

What about this design for ‘Next to Normal’ do you hope audiences will notice or how do you hope they will feel in the space?

What do I hope people notice?  The floor! I think the entire story is told through the floor.  Really.

More importantly, though, I hope the design is able to help the audience feel fully immersed in the story from the beginning.  What is so brilliant about Next to Normal is how easily it sweeps us away on its journey.  We are instantly able to relate to each of the characters, to their lives and personalities.  We instantly develop a connection with them and their world.  That is what I hope my design is able to support for the audience: an inviting environment, a comfortable environment, but also an environment which doesn’t just stop there, it is an environment that is able to transform itself (with a lot of help from lighting designer Kirk Markley!) with the piece.

As they watch the story and the characters develop, I hope the audience is also able to feel and recognize the evolution of the design, the influence the environment has on the characters and vice versa.

Sure, it all sounds rather vague and ‘designer-y’, but if you’ve already seen our production, I hope you have a understanding of what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t see Next to Normal at Stages yet, I hope I haven’t spoiled anything for you!

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