experience + set design
To translate words and abstract concepts into experiences, and imagine a space for human interactions and performances.
Based on Sam Shepard’s play Action, I designed a performance space, incorporating elements of actions, inactions, isolation, conflicts, and tension. I also built a to-scale model of the space, imagining three frozen moments from the play.
Have you ever had a dream, with the feeling of knowing that something’s off, but not quite registering what’s exactly happening, as if you are trapped in-between the stage of being asleep and awake, not being able to fully experience either?
This is a lucid dream, a dream in which the dreamer “is aware of dreaming”, and could even “exert some degree of control over the dream characters, narrative, and environment”. It is the concept that I explored while designing a set for Sam Shepard's play - Action.
I want to explore the dynamics between the dreamer and the dream, as the dreamer has essentially created the dream, but is also trapped within it, seemingly unable to escape.
In my mind, Sam Shepard’s Action is like such a dream, where the characters are imprisoned, unable and unwilling to wake up. I started with this concept of a dream, and kept developing it as I keep building the scale model for this set.
Something that’s been very helpful throughout the design process is a Pinterest board that I’ve made, filled with images and other visual materials to inspire me as I design.
The play was written in the 60s, and with the context of the Vietnam War and the proto-punk era, people were distressed, frustrated, lost, and hopeless. Many submitted to a refuge, whether in music, art, sex, or drugs, and indulged in them as a mean to escape reality. Yet no matter how comfortable and stable these refuges seem, they still exist in that world that people are trying to escape from.
These refuges are fragmented, limiting, and just as frustrating, and the only way out is to wake up and take actions in the real world. This set represents that elusive refuge, a false hope that they can solve the problems by avoiding them.
Understanding the Characters
One thing that really stood out to me when I was reading the play is the tension amongst the characters. There were intense, at times violent interactions, yet sometimes, the actions seemed like they are not targeted towards anyone, not even the audience.
After reading through the script and acting it out myself, I realized that the tension is not amongst the characters, but coming within the characters themselves.
An Unanswered Question
An important question that I kept asking myself was: If this is a dream, what’s preventing the characters from escaping/waking up? They are obviously unhappy and frustrated by their current situation, and waking up seems like too easy of a solution to be not realized.
In fact, the only thing trapping the characters are themselves, and the answer to my question is - the characters are unwilling to wake up. Since the play is set in a post-apocalyptic world, a dream can seem to provide more stability and comfort than the crumbling real world outside. The characters were not unwillingly trapped, and deep down inside, they’ve always known that this safe haven in front of them is all but a dream.
The clash between this subconscious realization and their frustration with the situation is like a tug-of-war inside their head, provoking them to act in the way that they have in the play – whether that’s being irritable, frustrated, violent, bipolar, or just straight-out weird. This dream is the battlefield for a war fought against not other people or a bigger environment, but themselves.
A subconscious world created by the dreamer, but also constraining him/her - this is the world that I want to create in this set for Sam Sheperd's Action.
The stage is in darkness for a while with just the tree blinking. The lights come up very slowly downstage. Nothing happens for a while except the slight moments of the actors drinking coffee. JEEP rocks slightly in his chair. All the exits and entrances occur upstage into or out of the darkness.
JEEP: (leaning back in his chair and rocking gently) I'm looking forward to my life. I'm looking forward to uh -- me. The way I picture me.
He lets the chair come to rest on the floor again. Pause as they all sip coffee. Suddenly LIZA jumps up and makes a big gesture with her hands melodramatically.
LIZA: Oh my God! The turkey!
JEEP: … My body was shaking.
(JEEP begins to move around the stage. The words animate him as though the space is the cell he’s talking about but not as though he’s recalling a past experience but rather that he’s attempting his own escape from the space he’s playing in. The other actions continue in their own rhythm.) 
 Wikipedia Contributors, “Lucid Dream,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucid_dream  Cohan, Brad. “The Story Behind 1970s-era NYC Proto Punks Jack Ruby,” The Village Voice.  Shepard, Sam. “Fool for Love and Other Plays,” Dial Press Trade Paperbacks.