Playground for the performers

Brown's set for "The Lily's Revenge" Set designer Sara Brown creates a collective in her Wintersession theater intensive.

By Olivia Munk '16

For some, winter vacation is about skiing or basking in the sun. For others, it’s about creating an Sara Brownoriginal performance in the space of one week, using a collective of performers, designers and musicians. (Seems like a sensible dichotomy.) For those who enjoy the latter, welcome to Wintersession at Harvard and to set designer Sara Brown’s January Arts Intensive at Arts@29 Garden, “On Exactitude in Science.” I spoke with Brown, who is based at MIT, about what her intensive, what excites her about set design, and where she finds her inspiration.

Tell us about your January Arts Intensive.
The intensive is going to be a week, and in that week, we’re going to make a performance. I’m a set designer, and so that’s how I typically work in the theater. But I also will be doing some directing in this project, so I will be mining the students for what they bring to the table – performers, musicians, artists, designers. It depends on who comes to the workshop. They may be asked to step outside their usual role and to take on something else. If they’re a designer, they may have to be a performer; if they are usually a performer, they may have to think about design in a way that they haven’t before. We’re going to be creating as a collective.

When you were a student, what drew you to set design as a medium?
When I was a student, what drew me to set design was the fact that it is a synthesis of a lot of different areas of interest. It brings together visual arts, architecture, philosophy, literature in one art form. It is a collaborative art form. I often tell people that when I work alone, I want to take a nap. I get a lot of energy from other people, and I really believe in our ability to make something greater than the sum of ourselves when we work as a team.

When you’re approached with a project to design, from where do you draw your inspirations?
There are a lot of different artists that I always go back to ­– such as Sol LeWitt, and Donald Judd – a lot of minimalism and conceptual artists. There are a lot of architects that I go back to as well, and other theater practitioners. I also see a lot of theater, which I encourage anyone who is a theater artist to do. Go see a ton of theater, and get a sense of what you like, what you don’t like, and get a sense from people who are tackling the same creative challenges that you’re working with.

Your January Arts Intensive combines aspects of theater, such as directing, design, and performing. Do you think it’s important for a theater practitioner to have experience in all of these areas of theater?
Yes, I do. I think it’s very important, especially when you’re in your undergraduate career, to be a diverse artist. Even if you end up focusing in one area or another, it gives you perspective about what everyone else on the team is doing. As a set designer, I’m not just thinking about what the background looks like. I think of my job as making something more like a playground for the performers. When I was younger, I also did some acting and performing, and I think that helps to give you some perspective about how these things that you’re making are going to be used.

What advice do you have for students who want to go into theater, or specifically set design?
Go see tons and tons of theater. Look for things that aren’t necessarily what you would consider in your wheelhouse. Then make lots and lots of theater. Stay as active as you can, to challenge yourself with things you’re afraid to do. You should probably do that all the time. Do things that scare you or are not in your safety zone, especially in college, because that is the time that you have the time to explore those things.   

Sara Brown’s January Arts Intensive will take place 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Jan. 16-25 at Arts@29 Garden. The intensive will not meet on Sunday, January 17 and Monday, January 18 in observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Click here to apply. For more information about the OFA January Arts and Media Seminars Jan. 19-22, click here