An Interview with GALILEO Set Designer, Adrianne Lobel

A Cosmic Blast
An Interview with GALILEO Set Designer, Adrianne Lobel

Is this your first design for a Brecht play?

I designed a much lesser-known play called THE VISIONS OF SIMONE MACHARD. It was the gala opening of the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985. Peter Sellars directed and we threw it together very quickly. I remember that it was very revolutionary. The opening night was packed with celebs and a wealthy San Diego crowd. Peter had stagehands throwing Styrofoam cups down from the overhead grid onto the audience while the actors shrieked, “Birds of a feather flock together! Birds of a feather flock together!” It is a play about World War I seen through the eyes of Joan of Arc. They loved it!

You’ve designed new operas like NIXON IN CHINA, plays like the recent Broadway production of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, and musicals like Sondheim and Lapine’s PASSION. Does your approach vary from project to project and how would you compare that to designing a piece by Brecht?

A complex question that requires a book-long answer. In brief: the approach is always different – but my philosophy about theater design is always the same. Like Brecht, I believe in telling the story simply and with economical means—that is good design as well as good storytelling. It is wonderful to design a Brecht piece because his philosophy about theater folds so nicely into my own: show the seams, show the artifice, make the audience use their imaginations and they will be more compelled by the action—and more completely transformed by a different “reality.”

Have Brecht’s theories on theatre had an impact on your thinking about this design? Or do you feel it is important to approach this work with none of the theoretical baggage that has made up so many past productions?
It is dangerous to approach a play by Brecht in an academically Brechtian way. That will lead to stereotypical solutions that will not be moving or compelling – you need to find fresh imagery for a modern audience that has seen it all. But Brechtian rules still apply: have the actors and the scenery work together in making a brand new world—that is an expansive theory that gives everyone a lot of room to be creative in the same way that Shakespeare’s rules still apply.

You’ve worked on Broadway, The Metropolitan Opera, lavish dance theaters in Europe and intimate spaces like CSC. Do you have a preferred scale that you like to work in and what are the benefits and challenges of a small space like CSC?

I do think big! (though very simply) and there is no difference between working at the Met and working at CSC (except the pay scale!). I have always wanted to design this play—I even used it as a student project when I taught at NYU. I love the idea that it is what Galileo sees that changes the view of the universe, that what we see everyday can be reinterpreted by one person, be that an artist or scientist, looking at it in a new light—the sun shining on the ever-changing orb of the moon for example… Brecht is really flexing his muscles—not content with remaking the world, here his ambition is to remake the universe. So I had to design the universe.

How do you design the entire universe Off-Broadway?

Brian Kulick and I lovingly remembered the solar system mobiles that we both had made in fourth grade. I looked at a multitude of pictures online of children’s’ solar systems and bingo – we had our idea – remake the CSC auditorium into a break-the-fourth-wall Brechtian planetarium! What fun! I also incorporated the more formal and elegant Renaissance models of the solar system. Lighting will be crucial in the control and focus of what we see and what we don’t see in our CSC sky. And projections will help to animate this universe. These elements will be incorporated during tech rehearsals and that should be a cosmic blast!