Process And Profanity With Scenic Designer John Arnone


John Arnone is a Tony Award-winning scenic designer and, since 2009, a company member at Undermain Theatre.  He designed the set for Sylvan Oswald’s Profanity, now in its last week of performances.  Stephen Foglia spoke to John about his process and the ideas behind Profanity‘s memorable set.

Stephen Foglia: What is your first step when you are designing a show?

John Arnone: Well, I obviously read the play.

I remember Pat[ricia] Richardson, who I went to SMU with, was then on Home Improvement, became a big Hollywood star, was doing a play at the McCarter.  A Dario Fo play.  And he happens to be one of my favorite playwrights.  So when we were in a cab together, I said, “You know, Patricia, what was Dario Fo like?”  She said, “John, it was just the worst time I’ve ever had in my life.  It taught me one thing.”  I said, “What’s that?”  “Well, you’ve gotta read the play first, before you sign the contract.” [laughs] I think that’s probably true.

But you know the thing is I gain a lot of time in terms of internal research.  You have external research – go to the library, go to the web, go to your bookcase – but I also have a part of my process which is just internal research, and that’s sort of allowing the subconscious and my instinct and imagination to take fire.  And like any good boy scout, you learn how to use kindling and rub a few sticks together, and to ignite the imagination.

What do you use for kindling?

Reading the play.  Basically, paper.  Like you would.  For instance with the Len Jenkin play [Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel…], I’ve practically memorized it.  I studied it for a year and a half before I designed it.

Is that unusually long?

Very unusual.  But Len’s play is a very difficult play.  And because I’ve had a history of designing almost every Len Jenkin premiere, and Len has contributed greatly to my reputation for good or bad as a set designer…

How long would you typically take?

Sometimes I’m given weeks to do it.  Or a few months.

All of that interior work, I try and – not find the time for it, but buy the time for it.  And part of how to do that, to answer your question more directly, is reading and reading and reading the play.  To see if it will reveal itself to me.

Even before you come in to Dallas, you usually send Katherine [Owens, Undermain’s Artistic Director] a sizable packet of research.  Where do you get it from?

All over the place.  Because I tread the transitional waters from old school physical research (my apartment is basically a library) and now Google and the internet, the world is at my fingertips, as it is at everyone’s fingertips.

I remember Johnny Bellamy, a local artist, known more properly as Ashley in Dallas, but I know him as Johnny.  He’s a consummate artist.  A canvas painter.  And when we both discovered the internet, we were looking at it in terms of picture research. And for people who spend endless amounts of time cutting pieces of paper apart, and doing collages, and mixing color, Photoshop and the internet opened up a whole new world.  And Johnny said, because we’re both good Catholic boys, “this is an amazing invention.  We will become omnipotent.” [laughs]

Also, I save my three-ring binders.  I mean, you said, Katherine gets a big book of research, I do a duplicate book and number the pages.  So we can have a quick reference together.  I have all my identical copies in my library, so if I have a piece where I need some alchemical research or funhouse research, I’ll pull out my Len Jenkin binders, and I’ll scan it and put it in Dropbox and everyone can share my research.  Now what I do is create a Dropbox for every show that I do.  I’ll originate the Dropbox and create some categories and invite the director, the other designers, marketing and say take what you want.

How did you come to the design for Profanity?

I always try and imagine how the Undermain space is the location for the play.  OK, well imagine we’re doing a production of Three Sisters, and we need an exterior of the lawn, we need the interior living room where they’re having the dinner, we need the bedroom where we can see the flames…so instead of it taking place in these locations, I say, no, it takes place in the basement of Undermain Theatre.

So I begin to think, how is the space itself particular to the play?  Sometimes it works better than other times.  You can’t deny the columns.  They simply are there.  And they have to be integrated into the design or it’s a fool’s game.  So with Profanity it was a little bit easier because you can see how the company business could have been in a space that looks something like the Undermain.

I read the script, and I kept thinking about all these files, secrets, information hidden from the public locked away in file cabinets.  For me that became a very dominant image.  So I constructed the Undermain model.  I had all of [the file cabinets] in front of me and started playing with them like chess pieces.

There’s an expanded sense of history, biblical history, in Profanity.  I started looking at paintings, layouts from medieval artists.  I was looking at this radiating panel of the universe that showed the whole cosmos within these lines.  So I incorporated it into the floor.  And I started to move my file cabinets around.

While I was at my drafting table, I would pause, puzzling about Profanity, and be looking at my file cabinet that was sitting next to me.  It finally dawned on me, there were 32 file cabinets, and they had become like witnesses, like phantoms.

You figure the information in the file cabinet, is somehow connected with people.  It goes all the way back to the Holocaust.  And all of the nameless victims.  Nameless in the sense of you and I don’t know who they are, but we know people who do.

I thought a lot about biblical history.  I thought about the flight in Egypt and Jews being a nomadic, tribal civilization.  How, as far as ancient history is concerned, they’re always homeless, on the moves.  How important real estate is.  Their covenant with God is on Earth.  They don’t think of the Christian ethic of the reward after death.  The reward is here.  This is where you get it.  So geography and real estate are very central.

All of that is also reflected in the play.  I was trying to physicalize this in the set.  The way it took shape was with these rather silent file cabinets that somehow had a recorded history in them that was locked away and potentially going to be lost.

As we see in the play, with the generations of the three brothers, the patriarch is gone, he’s dead — the Abraham figure, I would think — and we’re left with the vestiges.  The oldest brother is attempting to write down some kind of history, and other people look at it, and it’s just nonsense.  It doesn’t make any sense.  We know by the end of the play that it, too, is going to be buried.  And as all the land is sinking, all the homes and houses, this great sense of loss arises that is one of the themes in the play, we know that all the file cabinets, all the information they store, is ultimately going to end up in a dumpster somewhere, as are all the lives of all the people who inhabit the play.  So I think that’s sort of what I’m trying to get across.

I think it comes across beautifully.  Thank you, John.