Scenic Wonder

Details, details, details.  Scenic designer Erik Flatmo spends a lot of time thinking about details, looking at details, perfecting details.  How exactly do pipes fit together?  Taking pictures of window mullions.  (What are window mullions?)  Which paintings or photos would be right on the walls of this restaurant? And lamps.  And desks.  And colors.  And filing cabinets and wall paper and industrial lofts and offices and kitchen appliances and . . .

Erik Flatmo

Erik Flatmo

Erik Flatmo is a graduate of Columbia University (architecture) and the Yale School of Drama, has worked extensively in New York and returned to his native California and now teaches set design at Stanford and designs for theatre, dance and opera.  He has designed at virtually every professional theatre in the Bay Area including many memorable shows for A.C.T., TheatreWorks, Berkeley Rep, Magic Theatre, San Jose Rep and Marin Theatre Company.

Flatmo says the key is to “get the details right”.  Whether creating a complete and specifically decorated space, or working in a style sometimes called “selective realism” where a box or void is empty but one or two specific details can suggest everything, Flatmo’s goal is to “not upstage the play” but to work with the director to create the overall mood.  “It’s not just how the stage should look, but how the play should feel, how it should resonate with the audience.”  Flatmo always does his homework and usually comes to his initial meeting with a new director with a bag full of ideas.  But he says, “the director drives the ship . . .  if my bag is full of green ideas and the director is thinking red, I don’t open my bag.”

Before he starts a design, Erik Flatmo spends hours doing background research into the time period and all the relevant details. Hours of what he admits can be sometimes boring research can often lead to an “AHA! moment” where he gets a pivotal idea for a set.  In a lecture he gave at the California College of the Arts last year (available on YouTube) he gives a good example of this in describing his process working on the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s play The North Pool at TheatreWorks.  This two-character play is set entirely in the Vice Principal’s office in a High School which the script makes clear was built during the Cold War period of the late 1950s/early 60s.  During his hours of research, Flatmo came across a photograph of a school office with a half-glass wall which gave him a set idea which solved several issues he had been thinking about.

North Pool Set TheatreWorks

The North Pool

North Pool Set TheareWorks

The North Pool

It allowed the one room set to be significantly more interesting by having an outlet and sightlines to a locker hall beyond the room, and it allowed the actors to be lit through the glass wall – all while fitting perfectly into the mid-century architecture required by the story.

One thing that sets Erik Flatmo apart from some other designers is that not only is he expert at creating the look and feel of a space based on the time period and action, he also thoughtfully evokes a mood and tries to elicit something from the audience they may not even be aware of relating to the meaning and content of a play.  Here are two examples of how the content of a play influenced his design:  For California Shakespeare Theatre’s Richard III, his stark construction site set acted as a metaphor for the political and social upheaval and change in fifteenth century England:

Richard III California Shakespeare

Richard III
California Shakespeare


For A.C.T.’s 2007 production of Moliere’s play The Imaginary Invalid, Flatmo designed a circular set, which sends the audience a subliminal message because the work revolves so completely around one egomaniacal central character:

Imaginary Invalid A.C.T.

Imaginary Invalid


(Actually, this latter play was Flatmo’s personal big break moment since he said he got that job because he just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the designer A.C.T. originally hired was unable to do the project.)

Great craftspeople are indispensable to great sets according to Flatmo.  Even after many years of seeing them come through, it still shocks him when they create furniture and scenery based on his sketches.  He says this is his best advice to other designers:  “If you can draw it, they will build it.  Even if they say they can’t, they will.”  But he doesn’t just sketch.  He sketches, and draws, and re-draws, and drafts, and builds models.  The technical steps of the work of a scenic designer are impressive and the more I learn about it, the more I start to wonder how a set comes together in the time frame allowed by most theatre company schedules.  This is yet another great example of how important teamwork is to building a beautiful piece of theatre, and how much goes on behind the scenes that the audience is mostly unaware of.

Earlier this season Flatmo designed the sets for TheatreWork’s production of Wild With Happy by Colman Domingo.  I had the opportunity to be present at the design presentation for this play — the time when the production designers, including the scenic designer, present models and drawings of their design to the actors, artistic team, staff, and producers, usually just as rehearsals are beginning and set building may be about to start.  His enthusiasm for the work was palpable and infectious.  The last scene of Wild With Happy is set in the Cinderella Suite at DisneyWorld.  Flatmo explained, with some dismay, that when he saw photographs of the actual DisneyWorld Cinderella Suite, his immediate reaction was “that’s wrong!”  He describes the real Cinderella Suite as “17th Century French.. . very brown. . .very sober.. . like something out of Moliere, not an animated Disney movie.”  He said “Wild With Happy wants something bright and something shiny.”  So the Cinderella Suite Erik Flatmo created was “all curtains and glitter ”– a frothy blue concoction including  glass slipper and  pumpkin furniture.  Stunning and perfect.

Cinderella Suite A

Wild With Happy, TheatreWorks
photography: Mark Kitaoka & Tracy Martin

You will notice when Flatmo does his job well (which seems to be always),  but you probably won’t really notice how very well he does it.  His attention to every detail, his thoughtful approach to creating an overall background ambience, his insistence on getting it right and supporting the director’s vision — all are part of his artistic signature. Maybe that’s why he has become first choice scenic designer for so many directors and theatre companies.

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