By Adam Gordon
A theatre designer working up a sweat in playland...
So, besides learning Afrikaans, what’s a theatre sets and costume designer from New York City doing in South Africa?
“Working... working,” says Susan Hilferty, designer and co-director of “Playland,” Athol Fugard’s latest play.
“And doing my mind because I’m trying to do design and I really need my studio and it’s all very difficult to do out of a hotel room, and I really need a day off, but it’s okay.”
Ms. Hilferty, a costume design lecturer at NYU, has been closely associated with Fugard’s plays since she worked with him on a US production of “A Lesson from Aloes” 12 years ago.
This is the third time she has designed for Fugard in South Africa.
Says Ms. Hilferty: “The designer’s challenge is to interpret and augment visually what is in the script. I read and re-read and search for the essential elements, that core or kernel of images which I can make into costume or a set.
“The challenge is to support and refine the choices the writer and actors make.
“The audience is the major participant. What happens to them in the one-and-a-half or two hours they sit there is the major event in the theatre.
“Our role is to guide that experience—not to decorate, or prettify or distract from it, or to close off possible interpretations of the play,” she says.
“I read and sketch until I have a kernel of ideas, enough to make a rough model of the design. Then I fit the pieces into a scale replica of the theatre. But you don’t tell the design when you’re finished—it tells you.”
Next project on her list is a redesign of the “Playland” set for a different-shaped theatre in the US.
“After that I’m booked until next March. And I can’t turn any of it away, it’s all such fantastic work. But then I’ll probably need a six-month sabbatical in the Karoo,” she says.
And the Afrikaans?
“Well, I plan to spend a lot more time here. And Athol is teaching me his love of the language... I’m learning all the songs first.”
“Playland” opens at the Market Theatre on July 16.
Threading the boards... Susan Hilferty with her model of the sets for Athol Fugard’s new play. Photographed by Jacoob Rycliff