“Andreas Feininger’s photographs of Chicago at mid-century were a source of inspiration for our set design process. As Augie described Chicago, and how he experienced Chicago, it is not necessarily a warm and friendly place. It is more like what Feininger captured here: the city has an industrial quality, a bustling quality, but it is also gritty. We were attracted to the high contrast in Feininger’s pictures, to the light and dark, to the shafts of light cutting through space, and to the industrial, active feel of the street scenes. In our final set design, the framing of the El train not only defines the edges of our space, but it also says ‘Chicago’ without being too overt. So, the set is able to convey that the frame of our story is indeed Chicago, just as the first lines of the novel tell us that Chicago is the frame.” –John Culbert
“Books play an important role in the world of Augie March. Clearly, one of the things that informs and empowers Augie is that he has read all of the great world literature, voraciously, it appears. So, I asked, ‘Is there a way that we could incorporate that idea into our world?’ I had an early version of the set with a floor that was composed of a bunch of pages of the novel, just as if you had ripped up the book and thrown it across the floor. It’s not as if someone would go up and read the floor—though at Court Theatre someone from the audience probably would do that—but the pages gave a texture and quality such that you’d know language is important in the world of the play. But in the end, instead of papering the floor with pages from the novel, we decided to use Bellow's own handwriting, taken from the archives, as a design element. We superimposed passages from his Augie March writer’s notebooks onto the El tracks that frame the stage.” –John Culbert
Why did you go for a more abstract representation of Augie’s family home?
You can build a house, you can’t build a home...we don’t want the audience worried about the details, we want them worried about Augie.
How does Augie describe Chicago and how do you capture his vision of the city?
Chicago, as he described and experienced Chicago, it’s not a warm and friendly place. It has an industrial quality, a bustling quality, a hustle-bustle quality. But it’s also gritty, so we’re attracted to the high contrast, the shafts of light, the industrial feel, not warm and fuzzy, but active.
Why is light so important to your stage design for Mexico?
One of the things that struck Saul Bellow about Mexico was the light, the sort of strength and clarity of the light.
What is the general concept for the stage design and what inspired it?
It’s going to be theatrically open...it’s more like a dance space. One of the key influences on our thinking was Pina Bausch and the way she used ensemble and people to tell pretty complicated stories with big gestures, scenic or physical on stage, but not literally representing a place.
How does the eagle fit into the abstract style of the play?
It’s the only thing in the script that’s not sort of human-based...it’s suddenly people interacting with a bird. That automatically moves it from being literal...in the play the eagle plays a very theatrical role where it becomes a character...when characters speak the Bellow language/music...it’s actually Augie’s mind that’s making the characters speak those words...if we’re going to have a vocabulary we want to let the audience know ahead of time.
What is the greatest benefit/gain of using a more abstract design style?
That’s one of the things about not doing it literally is you allow people to put themselves into it….we hope that by telling the story this way everyone can bring their life experiences to it...their imaginations engage and that will help them be engaged by the journey...don’t lean back, lean forward and engage...