An interview with the set designer Scott Pask

Set designer Scott Pask talks to Mandy News about his experiences working on Broadway on shows such as Mean Girls, The Pillowman, and The Band's Visit, plus he reveals up and coming shows that he is involved with. 

20th December 2018
/ By James Collins

Introduce yourself and tell us how you got involved in theatre and scenic design?

I’m Scott Pask, I’m a set designer - mostly filming on Broadway for Mean Girls. I trained as an architect in the South West of the United States. Whilst I was doing that degree I became interested in building and I became fascinated with performance, theatre and narrative structure. Storytelling was shaping spaces so I pursued that while I was in the undergraduate programme. I wanted to pursue it in grad school, ideally at Yale because the school of design was so great and there was a professor there who I really wanted to study with.

I was established in New York - I’m the kind of person who has to jump off the snowball now and get that degree and pursue that direction. I would happily be in another career that’s similar but I really wanted to study theatre so I did.

How did you get involved with The Band’s Visit?

I’ve done some shows with the director David Cromer and the artist director Neil Pepe is someone I’ve worked with quite a lot. They both reached out and asked me to read it then asked if I would consider designing it. I read it immediately and I knew it was special, and just working with David at Neil’s theatre, I would have said yes to anything. I trust both of them so implicitly so I jumped on board immediately.

What was the process of working on the show when you first met the directors?

David is very visual, a storyteller with a great love for detail. The Atlantic space has its challenges as you share a room - the audience and the stage. This was one of those shows where I felt like I needed to be poetic about what I was doing and create an installation there, which is what I did. In the second song in the musical, there’s a lyric, ‘around and around in a circle seeing the same scenery’. The director just laughed and said let’s maybe consider a slow lazy turntable and he was totally right! You have to sort of charm and laugh with the idea of that.

Dina’s cafe is such a central location, and have that become the centre of the galaxy there - a town in the middle of a desert. Largely, the big thing for me was conveying the desert, which was a place I grew up in - it has the same quality of endless skies and horizon lines where the fans meet the sky. That horizon line is something that I use as a personal creative fuel. I have a home, a sanctuary of sorts, in the hills in the Tuscan dessert. It’s where I reboot and it’s really important for me to convey what that is as much as I can on stage. Also the notion of isolation, which is an important theme that repeats here. They are in the middle of nowhere and they are very aware of it, living their small life with aspirations of seeking outward of that boundary. It’s not a cultural city but a place where concrete has been raised in the middle of the desert. That’s kind of where it started and so it was important for me to take the community and present it simply and accurately.

I wanted to take the layers and gratification of the desert and paint that across a sandwich of buildings and then the cafe of Dina’s which had multiple personalities. Also to keep the optimism of these beautiful skies and these star-filled nights because you are telling a story or creating a story visually. 

What sort of time frame are you giving to create that world? Do you change anything as you go along?

The Atlantic was a pretty rapid process. I think it was established in four months from rehearsal, maybe a little more. In rehearsal I’m paying as much attention as I can to the rehearsal room and what’s happening there, as well as keeping a check on how construction and paint finishes are evolving. I was so passionate about translating and creating my experience in the desert to the stage which was shown through sculpting materials and compounds.

I wanted all of the scenes to arrive almost like mirages - the wall would turn around and there would be the dining room and the next time you saw it, it was the living room. Then the next scene one side would be the child’s bedroom with its crib and the other would be a sitting room, it had this transformation quality where you didn’t see where the furniture was coming from. There was one little door upstage where we were offloading furniture and loading up with other things - we constantly kept shifting its personality in a surprising way. This is a big part of how the set evolved.

When we shifted to Broadway, I got to expand upon that more but the architecture of the theatre was very different. At the Atlantic theatre the audience position is looking down on the floor and in Broadway, you’re looking up in the proscenium we had to adapt installations for that. This is where my architectural background came into play, I get a lot of joy and fun out of these adaptations. Reaching everybody in the room with these songs that had such beautiful messages became gratifying when we saw all the work come together.

How big is the team that you worked with on something as big as this?

I have a design studio where I am designing with the director and there’s a leader on my team who I call my associate. That person is in charge of keeping up with the design process and keeping a model evolving. I work in three dimensions on a computer and in many cases, it’s also in three dimension models - that way the directors have a stage and all of the figures in there. It’s like an elaborate dollhouse with functioning parts and moving walls. There’s a team in the office that’s building those models and creating drawings that we then ultimately present to the scenic shops that are signed to build the show. We’re working with an engineer while we’re doing that. There’s a lot of backstage work that’s happening that usually goes unsung and also unnoticed but it’s so important for the onstage show. It’s like complex backstage ballet - and this is certainly an example of that!

It’s just won 10 Tony awards and you’ve worked on other plays that have won Tony awards too. You said when you read it that you knew it was something special. What is it that you see when you read these scripts that make you realise they’re going to be a success?

I didn’t know it was going to be a success. I just knew it would be an interesting process and I knew I was interested in working with the people that were making it - David Cromer, Neil Pepe, David Yazbek, Itamar Moses. That assembly of people was what I was signing on to be a part of - that collaborative, creative process. The success of it? Who knows! None of us had any idea that it would be something that would be so celebrated. We did it downtown in a small theatre with a lot of love and creativity - paying attention to a story that we were telling in the most honest, creative way that we can. The success downtown was astonishing! There were a lot of people who thought that the show was such a beautiful gem and having it move to Broadway could damage it. Which is why I held so tightly to the vision I had for downtown - I can liken it to almost carrying water in your hand and making sure you don’t lose a drop. I also knew that it had to be expanded for that theatre, not much, but the vertical space that crossed the design was a lot larger than the one that we had off Broadway so it was keeping that vision intact.

What are you working on currently?

I am doing a musical with the director of Mean Girls and Book of Mormon, who is a longtime collaborator friend. I’m doing a musical called The Bomb which will hit Broadway in the fall. I’m also in the early stages of a process for an adaptation of a film called Local Hero. I’ll be doing the first stage in Edinburgh in the early part of 2019 with the director John Crowley. 

We did The Pillowman together and many other shows on Broadway in England. He directed the film Brooklyn and is currently working on The Goldfinch so while he’s editing here we meet on the weekends - his son is my godson so we’re kind of like family. Those are the two big ones on the horizon so it’s going to be an interesting season.

What advice would you have for an aspiring set designer?

This is going to sound so cliched but follow your instincts. That’s something that’s served me incredibly well and something that I still rely on. When you feel something is special, it usually comes - having a gut instinct that you trust and listen to is important. Also, it’s important to see things and go out and discover, go to museums, see parks, travel - do all of that stuff and then just keep an eye on what’s making you happy. What are your interests that are most gratifying? It can be a pathway to finding out what you’re excited about doing so keep pursuing the things that are interesting to you.

My education was built in architecture and theatre design was really rigorous. These things can be taught but talent and all of that are discovered. That’s the process of self-discovery and having the people - educators, family and people who are around you - that are supportive of that process. Reach out to the people that you admire and do an internship or shadow that person for a day or work on a project in some capacity. Whatever part of those experiences you have, however small, it’s always going to be a window of insight and something you’ll learn. That’s the important thing - what did you learn today? 

Every day there’s something to learn, whether it’s in a conversation or someone did something fascinating on stage. Keep learning! We can all become incredibly accomplished but there’s still always the opportunity to learn and discover something new - in order to keep pushing the art form of theatre ahead in a progressive way.