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Student, professor collaborate to tell stories with scenic design

  • Stage set model
    Scenic design:  The stage set model designed for "The Spitfire Grill."  Photo by Matthew Allar
  • Stage set model
    Scenic design:  The stage set model designed for "Detroit ’67."  Photo by Matthew Allar
  • Stage set
    Scenic design:  A photo from Virginia Stage Company's production of "Detroit '67" shows the final set.  Photo by Samuel L. Flint
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For Maloni Wright ’21, it was an opportunity to combine a passion for details, design and arts with preparation for a post-graduate path. For Associate Professor of Theatrical Design Matthew Allar, it was a chance to bring projects to their realization while investing in a future stage designer.

Together, their research collaboration in scenic design has brought stories to life. This year, Wright, a double major in theatre and philosophy at William & Mary, decided to take her classroom learning to the next level. After taking two theatrical design classes taught by Allar, developing skills in drawing, painting, drafting and model building based on hypothetical theatrical productions, Allar invited her to take on a role as his assistant. Now, she is aiding in the design of professionally produced work.

“Over the course of a couple of semesters, it was clear that Loni’s aptitude for design work made her a great fit for this kind of project,” said Allar.

What began as a final project assignment to design a set for an imaginary production of “Detroit ’67” transformed into Wright’s assistance in the scenic design for Virginia Stage Company’s professional production of Detroit ’67” just one year later. The key to Wright’s unique proclivity for research, model-building and theatrical design? It’s all in the details.

“On things like this, the details are key,” she said. “It’s the difference between having something be OK and something be perfect.”

Maloni Wright ’21 (Photo by Kristen Popham '20)In Wright’s role as an assistant, she begins by sifting through the script with Allar with what she describes as “a fine-tooth comb.” In her work on Detroit ’67,” she engaged in extensive research on everything from the type of Christmas tree lightbulbs typical of the period to the model and brand of washing machine most matched to the family’s class. Her research was a scavenger hunt to ask the right questions and to tell other people’s truths, she said.

“We know it’s set in 1967, but what’s this family like? What’s their socioeconomic status?  For this family, we’re not looking for new things from 1964, we’re looking for things from later on in the ’50s,” she said.

Allar emphasized the importance of Wright’s work in completing the picture of a performance’s story.

“One key takeaway is in this level of work in theatrical design, we’re really striving toward perfection – not just in terms of model building or drafting or technical drawing, but in terms of idea,” Allar said. “There’s a large number of audience members who have a very first-hand relationship to this, so it ramps the stakes up that much higher to get it right.”

After initial research, Allar and Wright dive into model-building, where their concern for detail endures. Wright transforms sketches into model sets that are delicately built to-scale. It’s this area of design work where Wright has confronted the most challenges and observed the most improvement, she said.

“My biggest challenge is cutting, because everything is so small. If it doesn’t work, you need to start over and do it again.” Wright said. “But one of the biggest rewards is — since we’re working with shops that aren’t near us — if there’s a problem with anything, we find it when we’re making (the models) before they use actual lumber and actual structures that can’t so easily be taken apart.”

Wright explained she is grateful for the opportunity to learn in a space where her failure is accepted and her improvement is fostered.

“This is the opportunity for me to learn those things in a safe space where if I mess up, it’s OK,” she said.

Matthew Allar (Photo by Kristen Popham '20)After this process of careful research, design and iteration, the team’s work takes to the stage. By the end of their year of research collaboration, Wright and Allar will have collaborated on three produced works. Wright will also speak on a discussion panel at the United States Institute of Theatre Technology’s national conference in April 2020.

“This is another outlet for her to feel like her work is not just being seen on campus, but seen across the country,” said Allar.

For Wright, the significance of her research extends beyond pre-professional preparation or national recognition. It’s about doing justice to people’s stories, she said.

“These stories are what people live through, and people are very particular when you’re talking about their lives and their experiences. We have to be careful that we don’t diminish those experiences or incorrectly portray them,” said Wright. “What we do in our research and in building the models is make sure we are taking the care to correctly tell those stories.”