DC Theatre Scene

Tony-Winner Susan Hilferty on designing The Oresteia at Shakespeare Theatre

by Sarah Scafidi on May 29, 2019

Currently in its final weeks at Shakespeare Theatre Company, The Oresteia is Michael Kahn’s swan song after over thirty years as the Artistic Director before Simon Godwin takes over next season.  The modern adaptation of the Aeschylus trilogy by Ellen McLaughlin was commissioned by Shakespeare Theatre and features an all-star design team and cast.

Sarah Scafidi spoke with Susan Hilferty, the costume and set designer of The Oresteia, about her designs, working with Michael Kahn, and the state of the American theatre.  Susan Hilferty is a designer and director with credits and awards spanning Broadway, the American regional theatre, and the world, including a Tony award for Wicked and Tony nominations for Present Laughter, Spring Awakening as well as many other nominations and awards.

Tell me about the production in your own words … what it’s about – what’s going on?

The Oresteia, a Greek play, is at the heart of, I think, all theatrical literature, and a play that I’ve always wanted to do but always understood the depth and complexity of doing. When Garland Wright was the Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theatre back in the late 80s through the 90s, I did sixteen shows with him. It was amazing to work on the range of plays that we worked [on] whether a musical, a new play, or a classic play. I would say that my time with Garland at the Guthrie is at the heart of the kind of work that I love to do – which is company-based, exploring a huge range of the theatrical body of work.

As a designer, I feel like our role is to create a culture.

At the Guthrie, I worked with Garland on two [Greek plays.] We did a Medea and then we did a cycle called Clytemnestra. In both, we worked with a chorus. All of us understood how hard it is to understand and take on the language of the chorus and the relationship of the chorus to the work. All of the theater people that I work with believe they know why there is the chorus, but it is really hard to find a group voice in a play.

When I was asked to design this play at the Shakespeare Theater, there were four magic reasons to say yes. One is the play – to be able to look at a play like this through a modern lens. The second part is the fact that it’s a contemporary adaptation of this play as compared to the Greek plays that I did at the Guthrie, which were “translations” of those plays. And that has to do with Ellen McLaughlin.

Ellen has been a friend of mine for a long time, and I’ve also had the joy of working on two of her plays. One of them called Helen about Helen of Troy at the Public Theater, directed by Tony Kushner, and Iphigenia and Other Daughters that I did at Classic Stage Company here in New York. Watching Ellen as an artist and writer wrestle with these texts has been joyful.

I’ve been part of a women’s group of theatre artists getting together to talk about many subjects about once a month. JoAnne Akalaitis had gotten this salon of women together, and we spent many sessions talking about Greek plays and reading adaptations. And so then, in this particular adaptation that Ellen has done, the thing that has moved me the most deeply is that in our time, these contemporary complex times, that the end of the play deals with mercy and forgiveness. It’s really deeply moving. Right now, there’s so much animosity in the world.

Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lina, set and costume design by Susan Hilferty for Signature Theatre, New York. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lina, set and costume design by Susan Hilferty for Signature Theatre, New York. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

I’ve spent a lot of my time working with Athol Fugard, the South African writer. Believe it or not, I’ve done forty-eight productions of Athol’s plays: thirty-nine of them directed by Athol, many in South Africa. And one of the things that I would say in my lifetime that I’ve found the most moving, confusing, [and] compelling was the creation in South Africa of Truth and Reconciliation – which is how the country was able to move forward after the end of apartheid. I feel the same way at the end of The Oresteia, which is not saying it is hiding the past or dismissing the past but allowing forgiveness to happen, so that we can move forward. I watch political groups or friends get divided right now, really divided in harsh ways. I felt blessed to have this opportunity to get into that issue: forgiveness.

And then the fourth reason was Michael Kahn, who I’ve never worked with, but I’ve known for a long time. Michael was the mentor of many of the directors that I have worked with over the years, including JoAnne Akalaitis and Garland Wright. So, for me, it felt like it was a full circle of why I got involved in theatre in the first place – which is really to wrestle with political thinking and political action.

Do you typically do sets and costumes both at the same time?

It’s interesting. With Athol, I did sets and costumes. There’s another great American writer Richard Nelson that I’ve traditionally done sets and costumes [for]. Which is interesting in those relationships – these are writer-directors. Athol writes and directs his own plays. And Richard [too]. I’ve actually directed some of Athol’s plays, and with many of his plays, especially when he was in them, I was the co-director.

The way I love to work is to be deeply involved in the whole. As a designer, I feel like our role is to create a culture. And you can only do that by being deeply embedded in the text, deeply embedded in how the work is created in the rehearsal room and by connecting to the vision of the director. For me, designers need to be like actors in the rehearsal room. You can’t just say, “oh, this is it,” and go away. It has to be developed as part of the art. That’s how I like to work. So, it’s only typical [to do sets and costumes both,] if I’m working with a director who really wants to get in, thinking about this whole world, and is willing to have me participate in the whole.

The cast of Yaël Farber’s Salomé at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Set and costumes by Susan Hilferty. (Photo credit: Scott Suchman)
The cast of Yaël Farber’s Salomé at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Set and costumes by Susan Hilferty. (Photo credit: Scott Suchman)

I worked my first production with Yaël Farber, the South African director: Salomé [also at Shakespeare Theatre]. That’s a whole new portal for me and my work, working with Yaël. With her, I absolutely do the sets and costumes as part of the package. It’s impossible to think of them separately. She’s a fearless political animal, and the subjects that she wants to take on, and will take on, are thrilling and often times connected to the classics. So, it goes back to the work that inspires me. We just did a Hamlet in Ireland that’s coming to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn where Ruth Negga played Hamlet. She’s an Irish film actress, but everybody thinks she’s American. She was in Loving. She’s an incredible actor. We’re getting ready to do a Blood Wedding at the Young Vic in London, adapted by Marina Carr who is an Irish writer. She also has taken on the Greek plays, and Yaël has done some of those.  So, as I said, it’s part of my passion and my drive.

This was your first time working with Michael, and it’s his last show. Was that present throughout the process? That this is his big last gesture?

Two things. One, I thought that Michael had shown so much courage when he said for my last show, I want to do it differently. I want to do something different. Now, most other people would have said I wanted to go out with the confidence of knowing that I know how this is gonna work. I know I can do that.

He hadn’t worked with any of us before. Jennifer Tipton the lighting designer, Ellen McLaughlin, myself, the choreographer, the composer, the sound designer – none of us had worked with him before, but he wanted the challenge. So, every meeting was going into new territory, where he had to trust that he was doing something new. But he has a huge pool of experience to draw from: the range of plays that he’s done, the fact that he’s been a teacher for so long, the kinds of artists that he’s inspired. When we were working, there was never a sense that, “oh, this is my last show. It’s got to be something.” He kept the room and the process focused on this play.

The hardest part was that everybody in D.C. seemed to want to find him and celebrate and say goodbye, so just walking through the theater lobby, he was constantly reminded that it was his last show. We were at dinner once, people wanted to have their picture taken with him. So, for me, [it] was to witness the incredible connection that he as Artistic Director has made to the community in D.C. As I said, a lot of my work has been in the regional theater. I just love what theaters do to a community. I mean, he’s done things like open up the tech rehearsal for people to observe, and a thousand people signed up. It’s just insane.  The community felt like they were part of the work. There are a lot of directors who find that completely unnerving, like, “wait a second, where is the safety of the room.” I was constantly aware of the generosity that Michael has toward his community in D.C. It was a beautiful, beautiful moment.

Tell me a little bit about your actual designs. What was your inspiration? How did those conversations go with Michael?

It’s always interesting to have the writer in the room. As I said, a lot of my work has been with writer-directors. I’m always aware of writers having to take off their hat to allow them to direct so that they can do both at the same time. So, once again going back to Michael’s generosity as a director, is his relationship with Ellen, who has a very strong voice, and who he had never worked with before. But being able to balance that relationship, so that she could see her vision happening, at the same time allowing Michael to really be the one to lead the whole. So, it was always stimulating, because none of us went into the meetings with any preconceived notions about what it should be.

There were many, many variations, trying to essentialize the relationship of the chorus to the storytelling. Where are they? What is their relationship when they’re observing? Are they present? Are they not present? Where? What’s the line? That relationship. We had a workshop back in the late fall with the chorus, so we were able to try things, but without a set it was one of those “chicken and egg” [situations]. You can’t design the set until you know what the actors are going to do. But you can’t have them move until you have a set.

The Oresteia, produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Set design by Susan Hilferty (Photo credit: Scott Suchman)
The Oresteia, produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Set design by Susan Hilferty (Photo credit: Scott Suchman)

But I would say ultimately, the design really focuses on the House of Atreus. So, the House of Atreus is in the center of the stage. And I would describe it as a brutal facade which should feel like an oven or a reliquary in that you should have the sense constantly that it might explode, and it does. It bleeds. It cries. It moves. It reveals the violence at the center of the history and the violence that ultimately requires mercy again. It’s a house in a place that when Cassandra arrives, she knows right away. She’s burdened with the fact that she can see into the future, she can see the truth, but nobody believes her. That’s the curse that Cassandra carries.

The place of it, I felt, had to be connected to the earth. But whenever I did dirt or stones, it didn’t feel violent enough. So, the landscape is a volcanic, lava-like, burnt environment. It’s as if it’s on another planet, or if the world that we recognize is once again in a moment [where] nothing can grow.

 … don’t let people convince you that you have to choose what you want to be. None of us turn out to be [what we expected]

It was an all-female design team, correct?

Yes, it was all female design team. But the way I would describe it – it was a design team of great designers who happen to be female. Michael’s really interested in embracing the future and breaking patterns of the past.  But if it was an all African-American team, I would say the same thing: it is great designers who happen to be African-American. The only surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Sure. But with all of your experience, have you ever worked on an all-female design team?

Well, no. Not all of the designers. With Jennifer Tipton – Jennifer and I work with Richard Nelson together – so we’ve done a lot of work together, but I just realized, “oh, the composer was a man”.

I run the graduate design program at NYU Tisch. I’m the Chairman of the program. I have been for 20 years. But as somebody who’s Chair of the program, I’m the one who interviews and brings in candidates. For me, it’s deeply lucky, because I’m dealing directly with the emerging generation. I meet them when they are still in undergraduate going in. I am really aware that the world is completely different than it was before. It’s changed. And that in my own self, I actually never questioned that I could do scenery or costumes or direct or do whatever I wanted to do.  My goal is to create an environment at NYU Tisch where everybody trusts themselves and finds their voice – instead of limiting their voice because of their gender or their race or whatever. That they can find their own voice in their own place. I’m aware, just because of my experience. I’m aware how shifts are happening.

Look at the beginning of the not-for-profit movement in this country, in which women were the driving force. If you look at the Alley Theatre or Zelda Fichandler at Arena Stage, you realize that we are standing on the shoulders of those giants. They made something happen at the time when nobody thought it should happen and at great cost to themselves.

I worked with Zelda. She talked about how people thought it was sweet that she had a hobby, and then she turned out to be this unbelievable powerhouse. If you look at what Zelda did, it paved the way for Michael to come to D.C.. It’s only because Zelda had done that work before. There should be ways that we allow everybody to find their voice.

You sort of touched on my last question. You’ve had this incredible career, and you have worn many hats. You don’t see a lot of designers who do multiple design roles or who also direct. How were you able to do that? So often, I feel like we are asked what our focus is as theatre artists.  Sustaining multiple disciplines is challenging.

I’ll try to be really brief because you touched on something that I worry about a lot. Yes, I’ve been able to work with the artists and at the theaters across the country and the world that I wanted to – places that you don’t imagine but you know about. I’m passionate about text, which is at the heart of my work. So, I would say I follow the text first, and the director. To me, if it’s on Broadway, or in Washington, D.C., or in Dublin, it actually doesn’t make any difference, because what I’m interested in is the text and in the director. So, following that has been for me the great joy. I turned down the musical Tommy to go to South Africa and work on one of Athol Fugard’s plays. Some people would say, “you’re crazy.” No. I would have loved to do Tommy, but if I had to choose, I choose the work that for me was the most important.

Every year, I do a keynote speech to fifteen-hundred Girl Scouts, and at the heart of what I talk to them about now is: don’t let people convince you that you have to choose what you want to be. None of us turn out to be [what we expected]. You can’t do it. You just don’t know. It’s so heartbreaking when I watch people that feel like they have to make a decision – that they have to limit what they’re going to be because somehow you’ve got to make a decision for them. And I’m like “No!” Let one step lead to the next step to the next step. Who knows if you are a writer or a designer? We just don’t know. I think all undergraduate programs should be liberal arts programs. Because to radically make yourself make a choice, it’s just too limiting.

I come from a big family with not a lot of means, and one of the things that my family had in common was a passion for books, and books have always been the gateway for me. The freedom. I understand the past, the present, the future; I’ve learned how to make things. For me, the passion for always learning something. Opening yourself up is the critical thing.

One of the things that has concerned me about the world of the not-for-profit theater, which is off-Broadway in New York and the regional theaters, the LORT theaters, and the smaller regional theaters, is that when we began, it was a core group that was all about presenting the art on the stage, and the administration was actually very small. When I did Garland Wright’s The Tempestat the Shakespeare Theatre in 1997, we presented our designs to the Shakespeare Theatre community. There was a small group of people that we presented our work to. When we did the presentation of The Oresteia, there was a huge group. So, my only fear for the future, for everybody, including the artisans and the artists, is that the institution is becoming more important than what’s happening on the stage.

You know, I also used to do the poster [for my shows]. Sometimes you’d run a show or you’d paint your own show. You were so involved with the event of what’s happening on stage. And now, not that I want to go back to that because it’s so overwhelming, but that’s the thing that we always have to watch out for.

But in D.C., that’s the other thing I would celebrate, like Maria Goyanes coming to the Woolly Mammoth. I’ve worked with her in New York. She’s got such a drive and passion for what happens on the stage, in the world, in the community. I think Simon Godwin, the new Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theater, has the same vision and passion. I think that is one of the things that makes Washington, D.C., such a great theater community.

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