Friday, September 11, 2009

Five Questions with Melania Lancy

"Five Questions" is a new SignalEnsemBlog project that will post brief interviews of our ensemble members and artistic associates. General or artist-specific questions are submitted by members or friends of the company, and will be posted every couple of weeks. In addition, if you the reader have anything you'd like to know about a member of Signal Ensemble, or about the company in general, please leave your query in the comments section and we'll make sure it gets answered in this space.

We kick off the series with ensemble member and resident scenic designer Melania Lancy. Since 2004's "Catch-22," Mel has designed the majority of Signal's sets: everything from a desolate beach in "Seascape," to a cozy pub in "The Weir" (for which she earned a Non-Equity Jeff Nomination) to the titular "character" in our current "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," and many more. Mel recently received her second Jeff nomination (in the Equity category) for her work on Shattered Globes "The Little Foxes." Check out her website at
You graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, focusing on architecture. How did you end up going into set design?
Originally I attended RISD as Architecture major, yet after the first two years it became clear to me that architecture was not versatile enough to satisfy all of my artistic inclinations. Wanting to be free of the conventions and limitations of the field, I switched my major to Illustration, where I hoped to express myself though paintings and drawings. However, I was quickly reminded that I am a three-dimensional thinker and that illustration would not allow me to work with the sculptural qualities I craved. Rather than switching majors or schools, I convinced my teachers to allow me to build my paintings. I began to create what I called immersive environments. The first project being a giant, tented egg that the viewer could pull open to step inside of and/or lay beneath to view the painted mandala representing the human psyche. Working on installations helped me to discover a unique blend between my illustrative and architectural passions.
Upon graduation, I explored the commercial scenic industry creating sculptures and scenery for zoos, theme parks, museums, etc. In 2004, I stumbled upon an ad for a scenic designer needed at a local college and decided that I'd like to try designing for theater. Again a transformation happened; I immediately recognized the value of the captive audience and how the design can affect them. As the lead scenic designer, I had control of the total environment in which I immersed the action, story and the audience. In addition, I really enjoyed collaborating with other artists to tell a story through a combination of visual expression and performance. Designing for theatre demands what I have grown to love: creating immersive environments, interesting storytelling, and has offered another stimulating way for me to express my talents.
Is there a designer or artist who has most influenced you the most?
Making art is a very personal journey that any artist must learn to allow to happen. As most experienced artists will tell you, a young artist must work towards stepping out of the way of their artistic insecurities and inhibitions to finally give the artistic self permission to create, to finally call oneself a true artist. The discipline needed comes in not only mastering the technique of the craft, but the desire and open commitment to it. Therefore, whether or not inspiration comes through words or in a dream, whether it be triggered by viewing fine art or just waiting for the bus, or whether or not the stimulus creates a positive or negative response, as artists we are constantly in a state of being creatively influenced in just carrying out our daily lives.
Having a visual art background rather than theater has altered my perspective of artisans who have influenced my work and makes it hard for me to pinpoint just one. There are so many fellow artists that have spoken about their work and why they do what it is that they do, whose intentions have inspired me along the way and pushed me to keep making art. Of course, I am always attracted to beautiful imagery; yet I am more moved by artistic courage, impeccable craftsmanship and strong conceptual development as a whole, more so than any one artist or designer. But if I had to list a few visual artists I greatly admire for the magic they have added to this world, I'd say... Antoni Gaudi for his play upon flowing shapes, geometry and scale; Lucian Freud for his expressive use of texture, color and evocative portraiture; Maxfield Parrish for his remarkable rending, brilliant colors, attention to detail and composition; Kelly Freas for his humor and versatility; and Walt Disney for his persistent drive, ambitious imagination and extensive influence; to name just a few.
Do you think you have a personal stamp or trademark to your designs, or do you let the content of each play reflect in your designs, giving each its own unique look?
There is no specific brand to the look of my designs; yet glancing back at my work over the years I do see that there is a certain character to the finished product that produces a unique imprint that seems to be mine alone.
As for my approach towards developing the design, I do have a method to my madness. First, I will read the script once through highlighting any notes specifically related to the setting and any oddities that may prove to be inspirational, but not focusing too much upon them. During the next read through, I begin to form more keen opinions about the set references in correlation to the story while jotting down notes of any essential scenic elements. Maybe even pausing as I read to sketch out very rudimentary ideas such as: rough drafts of floor plans, to giant chandeliers, to colors, as they come to mind. I try envisioning the space as I read while generally tracking the movement of the actors through the set. The set becomes a large puzzle made up of conceptual, theoretical and logistical elements. From here, I begin weighing the elements against each other and developing any strong ideas with research, brainstorming and sketching. It is process that can take weeks to hit its mark or mere days.
Theatre is not a solo enterprise, so phase two consists of sharing my drafts with my collaborators and developing a unified vision for the overall production. It can be an exciting time in which the various designers' and the director feed off of one another's ideas. The set may or may not go through some major changes during this process while I keep watch so that the integrity of the set's main design objectives remain intact.
One of your greatest gifts is, after the set is up and painted, you always spend a day or two on "finishing touches." For you this means a sort of free-flow improv that really makes your sets what they are -- no more drawings, no more planning -- just you and your set. Is this something you always mean to set aside time for, or does it just come to you project by project?
It is true that I always reserve time for final touches on each of my sets. It is an essential component for achieving the desired look and intention of each set I design. As an artist, there is a personal investment in my artwork and relationship with my designs that requires my attentive eye for the project as a whole. There is no amount of pre-planning that one can do in advance that can fully anticipate the effect of the actual built structure in the space and how the other design elements will interrelate with it. I use that time to interact with varying elements of the design and to make adjustments to what is working and what isn't. It is my last opportunity to directly connect with the work, get my hands dirty and refine the overall design.
What play, or style of play/project do you think would challenge you the most? And what type of show would you like to see Signal take on, that we haven't touched yet?
Seeing as I am a fan of symbolism and the surrealism, I would welcome the opportunity to respond more fantastically to a script. Although Signal has chosen shows that allow for some stylized representation of a set, overall many of the plays Signal tends to mount are inclined to be set realistically. I am itching to create a more dream-like, irrational world, although not necessarily complimented by an Absurdist or Dadaist script.
Also Signal Ensemble has the ability to be very funny onstage (and off, I might add). I am very interested producing a few more full-on comedies that allow the set to play a role in the story. It's time to step away from some of the heavier dramas for the moment and just make the people laugh.

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