"I don't want an audience leaving the theater whistling the scenery," said scenic designer Cliff Faulkner. "A play should be an experience that is a whole, the audience should be enthralled: it should be all of the elements together that create that. But later , when people are recalling what they've experienced, I think they should enjoy lots of different memories. If one of those is a particularly nice visual moment, that's good too."
Since 1974, he has been creating more than his share of nice moments. Including about 30 productions at South Coast Repertory (where he's resident set designer), Faulkner's recent credits number the critically praised "Top Girls" and "Blue Window," SCR's just-closed "As You Like It" and the current "Common Pursuit" (through Sunday at the Matrix)--with on-the-burner projects including the April 25 opening of "Virginia" at SCR and summer offerings of "Henry IV, Part I" and "Love's Labor's Lost" at the Grove Shakespeare Festival.
"I usually have three or four projects going at once," the 32-year-old Pittsburgh native noted.
"There are always so many interesting things to do--and I have a hard time saying no. Also, doing more than one (show at a time) somehow fosters more excitement, gets the creative juices going. So I explore a project, then I set it aside. Sometimes, with just a little time away, an idea will come out of the blue that's very, very right. Maybe it happens because I don't get too intellectually lost in the idea, just let the intuitive parts work."
One such intuition-induced project was the multi-award-winning "Blue Window," which played at SCR in 1985 and later moved to the New Mayfair.
"The artistry in (author) Craig Lucas' writing, the way his speeches overlap and work in an integrated musical fashion, said that the scenery must not break that up," Faulkner explained. "So there can be no walls; all things must be allowed to exist at the same time, in the same place.
"The metaphor we used was a modern art gallery: a dark blue marble floor, a very large fiber-arts painting backdrop, several non-traditional abstract furniture pieces--and the people onstage as portraits in the gallery."
In contrast, his "Common Pursuit" set is not only traditional, but aggressive. Simon Gray's absorbing story (on the lives of seven Cambridge students following graduation) is mounted on revolving turntables, alternating between a dorm room and two offices.
Yet establishing an appropriate mood relied on more than mechanics: "In the beginning (dorm room), there's a bright window bringing in all the sunshine and light of their early years. In the next scene, it's a shabby office and there's less light coming through: The draperies are more opaque, the sunshine is filtered. In the last scene (years later), the window is covered with shutters and it's night--and the bleakness mirrors the characters' disillusionment."
He stressed that his choices are based "on finding the best expression to fill out the text, support what the play's about. So you open the doors, bring as much information as you can--and then pare away, exploring all the roots, all the dead ends. And you go on faith."
"Virginia" (about the writer Virginia Woolf) has proven to be such a journey.
"It's about her struggle to create her own literary expression: very new and--for her--very honest. The text, too, is untraditional, in that same stream-of-consciousness style. So we're trying to capture a sense of the contiguous whole and the ambiguity of Virginia's writing.
"Again, the setting is spare: a chaise, a desk, an indication of a tree outdoors--as well as some scatterings from Virginia's life: her writings, things she might have been fond of. And though the play is true to her own life (and moves in a linear fashion), you have a sense that it's not time-specific.
"The palette is so much broader when you're given few specifics to begin with," he said. "You're on your own, you have to make your own choices. So it's much more of a challenge. And it gives me the chance to really stretch the definitions of what design can be."