An Interview with James Maloof , Scenic Designer, conducted by Jane Barnette
JB: Can you talk a little about your design process—how you came to this idea about this particular set, from concept to model?
JM: Well, for this work … in reading … you know, I didn’t come [to this project] knowing Flannery O’Connor well at all, and in reading the short stories, the text is so rich and there’s so much there, and knowing that –I read the stories before I read the actual play—
Right, me too.
But I knew that the script wasn’t changed at all from the original text. So I knew from the beginning that it was kind of an epic theatre, you know, literary work.
So in doing that, I knew that whatever I did had to be deeply connected to that work, to that text. And so, I was reading [Erwin] Piscator when I knew I was doing this, about his idea of the conveyor belt, and how when he was reading his script – I forget the novel – The Adventures of … -- all these people are coming in and moving back and forth – and he realized that idea for the conveyor belt and that was it for the play and that was all he needed and it fit so well. And, so I read the scripts and I (laughs) and I was scared. It’s really … you have to do it right. And it’s really deep, intense material. And whatever you do has to be really smart, because if it’s not, then you’re not doing the work any justice. And that’s great, it’s a great challenge, but it’s also like, oh my god, you know, can I do this? (Laughs.) And one of my favorite designers, Robert Edmond Jones, his favorite plays to work on were Eugene O’Neill’s plays. He would do a lot of operas, and he loved operas, but as far as playwrights go, O’Neill was the only one that he felt like was worthy enough to have real artisanship in design, because it was the only thing that had the breadth of possibilties, and the deepness. And the same way that opera has that kind of epic scale and artisanship. And this way, I think Flannery O’Connor is very much that same way. You know, she’s this little tiny woman –
I know –
With really a very high voice, and she’s vicious, and she doesn’t pull a punch at all, and hearing it I thought it would just be –not knowing the material, and knowing that it was from a woman like Eudora Welty, I expected a kind of softness. And it’s not.
But with that, and then, discovering the work on my own, and I knew what I had to do, and working with Karen, and describing the analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s work, from people who have woirked and studied and found themain themes in her work, which was really kind of a short-hand into what these plays were about. The ideas of spirituality (spirituality being Catholicism), the idea of pain, of lupus, the soil, the cultural resonance, those things really came out to me, and the two stories we have, “A View of the Woods” and “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” to me there’s very much … “A View of the Woods” is very spiritual—very rooted in pain, and also in the soil, but the idea of spirit, and what we see, is that play to me. But Mary Fortune—or Mary Pitt—sees the trees, sees their beauty, and in a way sees God, Nature, and all that can be. And that’s that kind of idyllic child energy. But Mr. Fortune does not. He only sees a line of trees, and he only sees something that’s in the way of progress. And so, the idea that we can be looking at the exact same thing and, in an instance, they are both, and yuou can’t deny that they are both. But they are also neither. And then, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the idea of soicety boundaries and what is acceptable and what is not, and if this world is going to change in this way, the old world has to die.
And our ideas of, of, you know, in the same way it’s a view of what life can be and what life is and how we observe and how we interact and how we think the world is. And in that way, you know, I think the stories are very much connected.
That’s –you know this is the first time, in this conversation, that I’m seeing a throughline? And so, I’m going to thank you right now for that, because I just saw this whole past and present, with Julian’s mother and Julian? Julian thinks he represents the future, you know, he’s so full of himself and being like this liberal-minded guy…
Right? And you think that you’re going to sympathize with him, and yet, you end up sympathizing with his mother, who still reprsents these bigoted perspectives, and yet she’s got a truth to her that Julian feels like he’s kind of “put on” from outside, and he’s just, you know, putting on airs. But he represents the future in some ways and she represents the past … in the same way that Mr. Fortune, in some ways, is trying to be the future, even though he’s older. He’s trying to see the future, with the earth moving machine…
I would say Julian is the one that’s really lost more than anything else.
Because he’s the one that can’t—he doesn’t know who he is…
Yeah, at all.
And she does, you know, in a way she realizes she has to die.
While Julian is kind of stuck in a world that’s still racist
In a world where there’s bigotry, and there’s things he says he would do that he would not do, and he thinks that he’s within talking distance of African-Americans, but he’s not. At all. And so he thinks he knows how to act but he doesn’t. And she does. And so Everything that Rises Must Converge I think in a lot of ways is I think everything on both sides—must rise. Um, African-Americans and whites—um
The past and the present slash future as well, it’s not… you know that’s the thing that I have begun to appreciate and that I didn’t see at first—at first all I saw was just black and white, so much of the race issue, espeically with the language, just really
Shouting at me and feeling unconformtable even just reading these stories. But now, I’m starting to see how well A) truthful, spot-on these portraits are
Even though I’m from Mississippi and that’s a little different, but there’s a similarity in terms of the South, she definitely has her pulse on that, her finger on the pulse, but then the other beautiful thing is that it’s no longer completely attached to a specific time and a specifiic racial tension?
It’s more human, it’s more a human putting on airs versus being genuine
Even if what you genuinely are is no longer for this world.
Right. I’m from Conyers GA, which is 35-40 miles from Millegeville? And there’s a difference –it’s not the same town, but (laughs) there’s a similarity in the people, and some of the same things happen. Even, I remember being on a school bus and the racism and I remember the first time I encountered racism was in middle school and when the lines were divided and I didn’t even know why … like my old friends weren’t my friends anymore and I didn’t really understand why, for a long time and today, I can still say that I don’t understand why. But … oh! About the process of designing the play—
Yeah, details. (Laughs.)
So, having to do something smart and for a long time, I didn’t know what to do. And then I went to research, you know I’d been reading a book by an artist named Robert Irwin, who’s a Californian, you know space and light … you know in some ways he’s like the polar opposite of Flannery O’Connor, but in other ways they’re right on the same path. And I was doing this research—there’s a photographer from the ‘30s whose name is Herbert List? His work is stunning. And Robert Irwin’s work influenced me, in that it’s okay to be simple, and it’s okay to have an abstract, and it’s okay to do something that really—how are you really seeing this? You know, besides defining what objects are. Besides saying that this is a chair, that’s a table –really that’s a shape, that has light coming on it and there’;s a shadow on this side and there’s a pattern and it curves. So really looking at things, and trying to go beyond that objective nature we’ve put upon the objects around us. And there’s a particular Herbert List, there’s a series of photographs that he took from a particular angle and he’s above, above people and it’s of a mass of floor –there’s a street scene where it’s just like a sea of bricks. And it looks flat. It looks like it’s a wall. It’s a flat wall, but there’s two women skipping and it’s done in such a way that you can’t really tell if there standing parallel with the wall or if they are actually standing on the floor. […] And it messes with our perspective, with our eye.
Getting us to look at what we think we know, but it’s so close up that we can’t put it in perspective and then all the sudden it clicks and we see –oh, wait a minute! This is racism, or this is grace, or whatever it is…
To think we know something so well, you know like a chair, but how do we really know this? We know it because we have defined it for ourselves, but is it really? So, I was working with those kind of ideas and formats and it became really important for me to get rid of the horizon line for this play.
And Karen was really into doing this as well, because she felt there was so much importance on the floor, on the ground, and with “A View of the Woods” with these vertical woods, really crecending to that heavenly state. And so at some point, I don’t know when, I came in and I basically drew a large sheet from the ground coming up. And that was our—I’m getting rid of the horizon line and making—if you look at it, the ground looks like it’s vertical and that’s like Herbert List’s image, you know, these ideas are simple and ambiguous and you know, “what is that?” well, it’s not anything, and then it started to really come together. I had to find it really, I made a particular curve—and there are reasons I did that for the space and the arrangement, but… Robert Edmond Jones talks about a set, that it’s the first thing that people see—they come into the space and they see the set. And there has to be a tension […] it’s almost about to fall apart, but it doesn’t. So it just holds you. Well, a set must hold the tension. And at the same time, when people come in, it has to let go, and let the play take over. If a set becomes overwhelming, then the actors have nothing to play on.
And anyone who’s read The Dramatic Imagination, which all designers should, in fact I think all theatre practitioners should [laughs], ….
Can you talk about Andalusia and how that influenced your process?
Talk about primary research, it’s probably the most primary research I’ve ever done. You know, people talk about the spirit or whatever that’s there but it’s really – the thing that struck me about Andalusia, and it’s really true of any place that’s sacred or a safe space, that’s out in nature, out in the country, when we experience spaces, spaces affect us—what we see, what we feel, the temperature, how air gets stiff, things affect us. And when I go to places that I think are going to be key research areas, I try to let that space affect me. I did the play The Shape of Things and I wanted to set it in a museum and I went to the High Museum, I went to the basement of the High—one, there was no one there, no guards, no one. And the walls were too big, they were stark white, stark stark white, and it was cold, it was an extremely suffocating room. In Andalusia, I tried to find … what about this place made it definitely Flannery O’Connor’s home? And we went on a beautiful fall day, and we walked around, we did a nature hike, we went to the house, and I went out to the front yard and sat and just watched. And really it’s the wind, more than anything else? A kind of live energy of that, coming up? The stillness of that? And yet it’s so active, and if you think about it, you know the wind is coming from miles and miles away, and it’s blowing in, and there’s so much life and energy in something that feels so still. And so that was probably the most influential aspect of it, as far as the actual place goes. When you go inside the house, and when you talk to the person that runs the Flannery estate, you know, very Southern, a Southern man in his early forties, very educated, and there’s this kind of … old town South, and there’s a mystique about it, a slowness, a respect, and a great social appetite, really. And there’s there’s that world there, and I’m trying to capture that, and it’s hard for me to capture, because the words capture it more than anything else. And I’m having pieces—realistic pieces, like the car seat and the bench in “A View of the Woods,” the bus seats, you know trying to bring that real world into it, into this ambiguous large space. Because that’s what really might make it – I hope it works. I’m taking a large risk, and to say that I’m not nervous about it to see if it all works, um, I don’t know if it’s going to work.
What do you think it would be helpful for the audience to know about the short stories before they come in to see the show?
Well, in a lot of ways, I wish they knew Flannery O’Connor’s work, but I would like them to know … I’m nervous about “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” because if you don’t know the material, and you just hear it … it’s still to this day, the n-word is a hot button, and people don’t like to admit how the South used to be, especially college students and people who don’t really know … people who aren’t from small towns, people from the suburbs, don’t really … especially in Cobb county, where there’s a ton of friggin’ white kids, who are like …. I just don’t want them to blindly judge without knowing. Because I’ve heard people at the university say that Everything that Rises is racist—but it’s not racist at all, well, but it talks about an honest story about what was going on in the South.
Right—what they really mean when they say that is, Gosh the South is really racist.
There is rampant racism in the South
And it’s not just in the South, that’s a key point. But it’s different in the North, you know, they are both very harsh, but having lived in both places, my feeling is, there’s something about the whole smiling and kind to your face, and yet what you really mean is something quite different in the South. That’s the part of it that’s so difficult in the South. To me, it’s such a nice bookend to Margaret Baldwin’s new piece Night Blooms, because … it’s that same basic time period, picking up on those same tensions. …. It’s brutally honest. // What are some of the challenges of working in the Stillwell space?
Well the Stillwell is a weird theater, because the proscenium is very very wide. It’s very wide, it doesn’t have much depth there, and the seats are really bad. They’re down down down , and all the way on the ends, and it’s not the best theater. And acoustically it’s terrible. But it’s different and the mainstage is so much larger. It’s uh … it’s … one thing about the black box show, especially here, because the black box is so small, you can get really into details. In the Stillwell, one thing you have is a lot of room. So things can be adjusted, it doesn’t have to be quite as perfect—the black box show I had to do like three or four groundplans, because things have to be really tight, like on-spot. But in the Stillwell, I did one groundplan. I can give them plenty of room, and it’ll be fine. Karen’s never worried about room. But things are important –the interpretation of the script, the set having conflict and tension, and then being able to let go, those are the same. You create an aesthetic world, a vocabulary, those things are the same, just on different scales. I don’t know, I’ve worked a lot more in the black box, and I enjoy the black box space, because I feel like I’m creating the entire world. And a proscenium hosue can be the same way, but we don’t have the resources, and I don’t think Dean Meeks would let us. So I feel very much—it’s like a Renaissance painting? Everything’s on the frame, and I can’t go beyond that? While in the black box, you’re making sculpture, really.
Exactly, if not performance art. […] How does the fact that you are a performer as well as a designer affect your work?
Well—they affect each other. I think because I’m a scene designer, I know my place, as an actor.
And also I know that, how little things, like, if I’m in a position right here and I’m holding or making my costume look a particular way that the desinger wants … I’m very much willing, because I know how much work they put into it.
And also at the same time, aesthetics for me as an actor become very important. You know, and what’s the overall vision of this show going to be? And how can I lock into that? Because you know, as an actor, there are various styles of acting, and if there’s a design, then the acting has to be the same way. And as a scene designer, you know, the focus of theatre and as Appia says, at the top of the pyramid is the actor. I can have the best design in the entire world, but if the actors are not good, it’s not going to be a good show. And you know at the same time, a really amazing actor can be on a black stage and be fine, and that’s the best design in the world. So, as an actor I know my place as a scenic piece.
Were you drawn to any of the characters in Everything That Rises Must Converge in particular?
The only one, well, Julian has a lot of qualities of … I don’t have the same relationship with my mother at all, but you know, come on, and having to wait, and I’ve definitely felt like, “well I’m not racist so I can be in this club, when really I’m not in this club at all.” And I’m a little bit more mature than Julian—well, I like to think I am—[laughs]—I’m probably even less.
Well I’m glad to hear that you’re not like Mr. Fortune or Mr. Pitts.
No. […] But I will say that the part I identify with most in the entire play is the part where Julian says, when his mother dies, “Oh mama, oh mama”—that still gets me. I’d be able to relate on that.