A Space to Tell the Story

A Little Conversation About Art
In this illuminating new series of lively conversations,
Founding Artistic Director Ian Gallanar exchanges ideas
with Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s leading artists.

No. 1: “A Space to Tell the Story”
with Technical Director Dan O’Brien, resident scene and lighting designer

Dan O’Brien

IAN: You have multiple roles with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, but for the sake of this conversation, I’m mostly interested in your roles as scenic and lighting designer. In your view, what does a scenic designer do?

DAN: Designs the scenery. Just kidding. A scenic designer comes up with the visual and physical pieces that the actors will be interacting with onstage. In my view, the initial ideas or direction need to come from the director, but then the scenic designer’s job is to take that direction and give it a shape, a form, and a look, and to give the actors spaces in which to tell the story. Sometimes this means you’re trying to create a very realistic, historically accurate setting, and sometimes it can mean you’re just trying to come up with a more abstract design whose main function is to give the audience something cool to look at while the story unfolds in and around it.

IAN: As an artist, how do your ideas about scenic and lighting design intersect with CSC’s aesthetic?

Macbeth (2016)

DAN: I think CSC’s aesthetic is about not hiding things. It’s a very honest aesthetic that usually lets the audience see a lot of the process in the final product (although I hate the term “product” when discussing what we do). So, I think in terms of the scenic design, it means that we let the audience see a lot more of what’s happening behind the scenes, and that we treat everything that’s happening in the room as something worth looking at and paying attention to. We tend to be interested in playing with the idea that the audience is aware that they’re in a theater watching a play, rather than trying to transport them to some other place for two hours (although I think that both things can be happening simultaneously).

IAN: I think our aesthetic doesn’t exist by itself. The aesthetic is from the people who created it and their collaboration. You’re one of those people. Since you’ve been here since the very beginning of CSC, how do you see your work changing over the past 15 or so years?

The Taming of the Shrew (2017)

DAN: The biggest moment of change has been, of course, when we moved into the theater downtown.

IAN: Yeah, but I’ve seen a change in your visual style. Maybe that has to do with the new theater. But even since we opened the theater, I’ve seen the visuals become more complex. Do you see that?

DAN: Part of it is due to the fact that we get to play over and over again in the same space, so we’re trying to stretch and grow rather than just put up the same thing over and over again. I’m a minimalist at heart, but seeing a minimalist set for every show would get pretty boring very quickly. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve been bringing in outside designers as well as just relying on the things that I do well. They can really shake up how we look at the space and the things that are possible in it.

IAN: Some of my favorite designs for CSC happen when it seems like the designers are building off each other’s ideas and one cohesive design evolves along the way. I think of our productions of Much Ado About Nothing from last season and The Taming of the Shrew from this season, in which the overall design had that quality. Can you speak to that process of collaboration with other designers?

DAN: It’s the best. It’s something that I think we can take for granted sometimes until the feeling isn’t there. A lot of the designers and actors at CSC have worked together frequently in the past, and after doing a few shows together, designers can develop a sense of what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are. When everyone’s ideas gel, it is a very exciting thing to watch and be a part of.