by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Life is very different on Kwemera Island (a fictitious locale inspired by Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia) so when set designer Michael Carnahan approached the design for the world premiere of Katori Hall's play, The Blood Quilt, he set out to create not only the Jernigan family home but the history of these strong, vibrant women. During tech, Michael shared his design process in creating what Clementine Jernigan calls "our own little country on this side of the sea."
What was your inspiration for the set of The Blood Quilt?
I was lucky enough to live in this area of the country for three years during art school, so I was very familiar with the people, the landscape, the architecture, the smells, the heat and humidity, and the food, and it all came roaring back when I read Katori's play the first time. The lowcountry never leaves you. You could say memory was my inspiration. If I had to choose one visual memory that inspired the design though it would be the live oaks and Spanish moss that canopy the air.
A tree was the first piece I designed for the play because I knew it would help create the language of the design and it drove the sculptural quality of the set. The very first version of the set was a giant tree and faded quilts hanging like Spanish moss from the branches. Director Kamilah Forbes and I used that image to further develop what you see on stage. The final version of the tree was built by a terrific scene shop in Queens called Paper Mâché Monkey that specializes in sculptural/art pieces. Grady Barker at Paper Mâché sourced all of the reclaimed lumber that was used in sculpting the trunk and branches, and the Spanish moss was made from cotton scrim, netting, and backed with RP screen.
The feel of the set is that the house is dripping with the history of the Jernigan sisters. Your design “lays the pieces” visually, just as Katori lays the pieces in her script. How did you capture that time-worn and hand-touched quality?
When you have a play that deals with generations of women who tell their stories through their art created by fine hand craftsmanship you have to create a set that reflects that. I felt a real connection to the Jernigan woman because I spend my days using my hands building models that tell a visual story. I felt the set needed a real hand quality to it, that every piece had been touched, worn, and cared for like a quilt. Layering the pieces in came naturally on this play.
How many quilts are in the show and how are they being constructed?
That is a very complex question because we have traditional quilts, scenic quilts, prop quilts, and set dressing quilting blocks and they all needed to look like they could hang in a museum. The featured quilt that is built by the Jernigans during the play is seen in four stages of construction: it has blood soaked on it, is drenched with bleach, has pieces of costumes ripped apart onstage and incorporated in the design, it’s thrown in the water and slowly sucked under. Plus we needed two of these quilts for two show days. That is a prop challenge! Our props team tackled each challenge and created a beautiful quilt.
We also have quilts that create the walls of the home and I wanted these to be more scenic in nature and not a traditional quilt, so they could glow when backlit and be painted into the blue world of the home. The Red & White Quilt Show at The Armory in NYC several years ago was the inspiration for the hanging quilts.
The quilt artwork was based on the famous Gee's Bend quilts and various historical quilts that I altered in Photoshop to change the colors and symbols to suit the needs of the play.
Water is such a huge, symbolic part of the play. How deep is the pool of water surrounding the house?
The pool is about 30" deep and holds roughly 5,000 gallons of water.
Katori’s script includes moments of theatrical magic and otherworldliness. Without revealing any secrets, how are you approaching the design of these elements?
It's definitely a collaboration between the designers and especially all of the production departments: props, scene shop, costume shop, and lighting. Beyond that I find that when you have a script that goes to the otherworldly you have to design a set that allows you to break out of realism and lets the audience know that we're going on a journey to somewhere they've never gone.
Do you have a favorite part of the set? Maybe something the audience wouldn’t immediately pick up on but it’s significant to you?
There is an attic gable vent that I particularly like. It started out as a standard round gable vent with louvers, and then I came across an image in my research where the motif in the vent reminded me of a symbol slaves stitched into their quilts called a Wagon Wheel. The Wagon Wheel was a way of letting a runaway slave know that there were compartments to hide in the wagon or the wagon was ready to board. I thought this was an opportunity to use the symbols outside of our quilts and incorporate them into the design of the house in a subtle way. The vent in the final design took on this shape:
(Photos: The set of The Blood Quilt designed by Michael Carnahan at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Caroline Clay with Meeya Davis in The Blood Quilt at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photos by C. Stanley Photography. Blueprint drawing by Michael Carnahan.)