by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Set and Costume Designer Ken MacDonald is based in Toronto, Ontario Canada. Over a 30+ year career Ken has designed for American Conservatory Theatre (San Francisco), Mark Taper Forum (Los Angeles), Shaw Festival, Stratford Festival, Vancouver Opera, Theatre Calgary, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Canadian Stage, Tarragon Theatre, Pacific Opera Victoria, Opera Quebec, Arts Club Theatre, Vancouver Playhouse. We caught up with Ken during tech week to discuss the secrets behind the 800 boxes that make up the set of The Shoplifters.
I went to Loblaws in Toronto where I live, which is like Safeway here, and I asked if I could go back into the store room. I looked at a lot of pictures online of stock rooms, too. They all had these metal shelves and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun if it was just so magical, that there was no way of seeing how they were stacked, to not see the shelves?” So I started off by drawing a very realistic lunch room — I had a great big ventilator fan, a sink, a table, some cinderblock — it looked very real. But it was boring. And then I came up with the idea of stacking boxes and drawing them and it became an art installation. It became larger than life and theatrical. It’s funny, you start to accept it, don’t you? When you first see it, you think, “Oh my God!” but then you think, “Yeah they’re just in that back room.” And the boxes are hanging from the ceiling, piled high.
Are they all actually boxes?
Well, they’re boxes but they’re not boxes that assemble like you’d find in a store. We bought them from a box company. They’re flat, and you pull them together, staple them together, and then we hand-printed on 4x8 sheets of cardboard, all the logos that we had determined we wanted to use. Some of them were almost like silkscreen and a bit paler than normal. Then that piece of cardboard is cut out, put on, and folded around the top and re-glued on. Not every box is done – about 225 of the 800 boxes, or I would say more — have logos. I knew that I wanted them randomly staggered and that they weren’t all flat, and then I just took a box cutter and went around and cut them in different places and started opening them up. I really liked that look. Then we started putting stuff inside. It’s very cool. I think people will think, “Oh well you went to the Safeway and you got a lot of boxes,” but no. Every box is chosen for its size, where it goes, and what’s printed on it, whether it’s taped, and whether it has a logo on it, and a stamp, and a barcode, all that detail.
You designed both set and costumes for The Shoplifters. What do you enjoy about designing multiple disciplines on one project?
I like that I have total control of the color palette. At first, Jayne [Houdyshell]’s dress was yellow and now it’s purple. I really liked it originally but when we moved onto stage, under the lights, it was brighter than anything else, and it wasn’t showing up properly, so the costume shop did a huge amount of dyeing samples of everything from blue to gray. And [Costume Director] Joe Salasovich said “What about purple?” and it was a really good idea, so now it’s this violet color. Jayne likes it better, too. And there’s also a book called When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple.
We’ve been together for 35 years as partners — we’re married now. When we first started out, Morris was acting and I was writing music a bit. One day he came home and said “We’re going to write a musical.” I wrote the music, because I play the piano and sing, and he started writing the show, which we called Last Call: A Post-Nuclear Cabaret.We wrote about ten songs, and our landlady at the time was a producer at a theater company in Vancouver, where we lived. So we played it for her and she liked it and her company said, “If you complete it, we’ll do it.” So we did it and it was a huge hit. We traveled across the country with it, it was made into a CBC television special, and it started us writing musicals. We wrote two or three more musicals after that, and that was 25 years ago!
When you’ve been together for so long, do you develop a short hand?
Oh totally! We get along fantastically. We do argue about design, because he’s very specific and so am I. I’m a little impractical. He’ll say, “Yes, but how does an actor get offstage?” While I’m saying, “But it looks so great!” In the last 30 years I’d say we’ve done at least three shows a year, together, and there’s 90 just like that! We do have a shorthand in that we both love the same kind of look — we both like to be really theatrical, we know we want a twist to it in some way, we know that we like monochromatic things, and we like things to look quite classical, in terms of, it could be 1950, 1960, 1970.. I did a show once where I was working on a bank of windows and I crumbled it up, and then we both looked at it and when I put it in the model box again, it was like Frank Gehry. So then I made a model where it actually twisted where I wanted it to twist. It was for a Noël Coward play, it was very cool. It took place in Paris, London and New York. So when we looked out these windows, in Paris we saw a red Eiffel tower, but in London we saw this blue Big Ben.
Is there a show that you have always wanted to design that you haven’t designed yet?
No, there really isn’t. I like working on a new play more than anything. Like this. Because no one — you know I’m doing a production of Sweet Charity right now and its fun and it’s a whole new take on it, but it’s been done for forty years. There are hundreds and hundreds of productions where you can look online and see what other people did. I would much rather invent it from scratch. I would much rather be the first person to do it. So any dream play I have is a new play that I have yet to design. That’s the fun for an actor too, to be the first person to premiere something, because from that time on, you’re the reference for it. I like that, having been the first person. So that’s my dream play.
(Photos: Delaney Williams, Adi Stein, Jayne Houdyshell and Jenna Sokolowski in The Shoplifters. Photo by Teresa Wood. Ken MacDonald and director Morris Panych at first rehearsal for The Shoplifters. Photo courtesy Arena Stage.)