Theatrical design is a keystone in the experiential world of live performance. Drawn from numerous backgrounds, designers collaborate with directors, choreographers, and the rest of the production team to transform not only the stage, but the production itself. And whatever they create—be it something large and dramatic or small and understated—is often the key to unlocking the audience's imagination, immersing them in the world of the story.

A large abstract painting filled with slashing and curving shapes is a seemingly a solid creation. Then the light changes, and it is revealed to be translucent...and inhabited by a ghost, who emerges from within. In Only the Sound Remains, painter Julie Mehretu's work transforms from a singular piece of art into a landscape that creates a conceptual landscape for Kaija Saariaho's opera.

While you might look at Mehretu's paintings in a museum or a gallery for a moment and then move on, when a visual artist like her becomes a scenic designer for a play, an opera, or a concert, she creates a work of art with which the audience lives for an extended period, a piece that must vividly enhance and illuminate the larger whole without overwhelming it. It can be something as imposing as Mehretu's painting; or as simple as a tree, a road, and a stone for Waiting for Godot; or a sculptural installation that serves as an interactive, kinetic object in Akram Khan's solo dance piece, XENOS.

The White Light Festival brings together a unique blend of talent from around the world—and that's as true of the people designing the sets as those performing in front of them. While Godot's Francis O'Connor is a veteran scenic designer, Julie Mehretu is a painter who had never designed for the stage before Peter Sellars invited her to create the visual world of Only the Sound Remains. And Mirella Weingarten, designer for XENOS, describes herself as "a combination of several people within me." She was an actor who became a sculptor before moving into performance art, and now into design for theater and dance.

When it all comes together just right, the audience can be transported to another world, and maybe even transformed when they return to their daily lives.

Theater designers aren't looking to be scene stealers. Their work is not there to tell its own story so much as illuminate the work created by others—to help convey for audiences the production's themes and emotions, even as the energy and attention is focused on the performers. When it all comes together just right, the audience can be transported to another world, from which they emerge transformed when they return to their daily lives.

"Design is often overlooked, but it isn't just the background, it creates the world we inhabit," says O'Connor, adding that he sees the set as another performer. "It can capture an entire world and have its own vivid identity. It also impacts the way figures stand in it and move in it—the distances between things, the scale, have tremendous import in transforming audience."

Weingarten adds that the performers strive to create something new each day in interaction with the audience, not only within the set but also with the lighting and costumes. "When all that happens, the process transforms the audience. They have to make their own journey in their imagination and everybody is together, reaching another level," she says.

All this requires an artist's individual vision as part of a collaborative effort, one that serves a larger whole. That is often both an inspiration and a challenge. O'Connor is always "in dialogue with the director and actors about how far to go in interpreting the text and pushing the visual language of play. We have got to be in agreement, to come up with a world together."

For Godot, of course, O'Connor was not just working with Tony Award–winning director Garry Hynes, but with the words of the late Samuel Beckett, whose hyper-specific instructions remain in place, and which can feel limiting to a designer. O'Connor acknowledges the restrictions, but adds that they actually proved to be liberating. "They made us ask fundamental questions, to investigate those few things he allows and how they interact. We asked, What is 'tree?' What is 'stone?' What is 'road?'"

Interrogating Beckett's text this way sparked O'Connor's imagination: He created a tree out of six-inch boat nails because they leave an openness, yet create the texture of a trunk that meets the playwright's demands. The nails are covered in rust and the color and surface look like bark.

"The nails allude to the nails and the wood of the Cross," he adds. "It all seemed to connect beautifully with the play, even if a lot of people in the audience just see a tree. It is a tree, but one with presence."

Weingarten says that XENOS choreographer Akram Khan was aware that she had a stubborn nature, but believed it would yield better results. As an artist, she explains, "If I am deeply convinced about an idea, then I have to fight to hold onto it, so it won't be diluted." But as a partner in a production, she must also be "open to the ideas of my other collaborators, or things will not develop."

Setting the Scene
Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez

That tension between those two desires helps the creativity flow toward producing something truly artistic, says Weingarten, adding that she is more receptive than ever before, as years of designing have taught her to better understand her own strengths and weaknesses. "I know better what I can do and what I'm good at, so when I work with others I can be more open and be less stubborn."

Mehretu approached her project differently, never previously having worked for the stage. Creating original work for Only the Sound Remains was "a big learning curve." She studied Noh theater and its historical context, but did not try to specifically paint images from the two Noh plays on which the opera is based. Instead, she created works that seemed, in a more abstract way, "completely connected and 'right' in a sense. The paintings have the metaphorical aspect of being an open landscape and this other mystical space of the actual narrative."

Her initial impulses were "unnecessarily complex," but she eventually reduced her ideas to three spaces of paintings across the two sets. Then Sellars paired her with stage designer Marlies Forenbacher, "since I hadn't had any experience with that language. Together we thought through how many layers there could be, in order to keep the 'whole' translucent." During Only the Sound Remains, each painting evolves for the audience, as viewers engage with the story, the characters, the music, the lighting, and the staging.

She found the whole process fascinating. "It was incredible, because on the stage you see various artistic languages come together to make this complete work of art," she says. "From Kaija's magnificent score and listening to her work take form, the musicians playing it, and then the sound technicians bending it through the space. The layers of imagination, abstraction, ontological space, mark-making, to Peter's staging of the opera, the singers, the lighting, the dance. My work relates to those complex strata of existence and resonates with the language of dance, with music, the libretto and the manipulation of the singer's voices electronically. They are different forms of imagination, but there is an inherent, intuitive relationship. It was extremely inspiring." (She ultimately also found the experience "instructive" and says, "Color and ontological space took a new direction and form in my work after this experience.")

Creating art that will have a transformational impact on a viewer or reader or listener is tricky, because the inspiration must come from within, yet the work must be able to reach—and touch—hundreds or thousands of wildly disparate strangers.

O'Connor doesn't consciously think about the audience while he is creating—he stays focused on what the scene calls for—yet the audience's perspective is always in the back of his mind. "It's always there, an eye to how a work may be seen by others and how they may interpret it."

Setting the Scene
Photo by Ruth Walz
Only the Sound Remains

As a painter, Mehretu says she is consumed by the process and doesn't think about the viewer while she is working. "You can't think externally about [the] audience in the process of making, because that takes you a step outside of the very intuitive, if learned, process of mark-making. You really can only focus on yourself, on your own process, on what you as an artist are led to, how you respond from within the process."

Yet she adds that she is intrigued by the way people view a painting and how the work can change over time; having the painting placed in the context of a performance added another dimension. "I was very interested in how the painting could both hold the space and equally change over time, and what that meant for the opera itself," she says.

For all these artists, whether they are working individually or as part of a production, they continue striving to create a visual environment that avoids clichés or handing the audience all the answers in an obvious manner. Instead, they need to provide clues to the show's themes and ideas in a way that will provoke and stimulate. The goal, says Weingarten, is to trigger the imagination. However, she adds, "It's really important that we don't explain everything to the audience. If we open the door for them, then they can become part of the creative process."

Stuart Miller has written about theater for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre magazine, and other publications.