Broadway designer Dane Laffrey and director Michael Arden often dive into conversations about projects long before a show is greenlit. Says Laffrey, who is nominated for best scenic design for “A Christmas Carol,” “We are extensively consistent collaborators.”
Having worked on shows including “Once on This Island” and the Broadway revival of “Parade” — about the lynching of Jewish American Leo Frank in 1915 — the two often discuss visual research and organizing space through “snatches of conversations.”
For “Parade,” which earned Arden a Tony nod for best direction of a musical, the duo was looking at visual reference points and political rallies from the period. Says Laffrey, “We looked at grandstands or viewing stands, and things that were constructed hastily. There were also contemporary reference points from Jan. 6, touch points that mean something to us because then they will mean something to an audience.”
Here, the two discuss their collaboration and how they pay homage to revivals and put in their creative stamps.
Michael, talk about how you bring Dane into a project and where that begins.
Arden: Dane and I will decide to do something together. People are realizing that we are a creative partnership. So, if something comes across my desk, it’s for both of us. I’ll say, “Hey, what do you think of this?” It has to be something we’re interested in doing. Have we done it before? We always like a challenge and we like to push the envelope of what people have seen before on stage. Variety is interesting, so we can keep expanding our artistic horizons. We start with the text available, and you start with the question, “What is this really about? And how does it apply to our lives today?” We’ll look at the visual gesture. So, with “Parade,” it was the idea of examination and the gallows being put in the center of something. With “A Christmas Carol,” it was about unreliability, darkness and isolation. Finally, we ask what we want the audience to experience. How do we want them to feel, and what is the emotional equivalent physically on stage?
Laffrey: A lot of it is impulse. The first thing we ever talked about with “Parade” was smallness. Could it just be on this little thing that is an abstract notion and edgy?
How do you approach a revival such as “Parade,” where you need to pay homage to this classic while also bringing in something new?
Laffrey: With “Parade,” neither of us had seen it, and it felt pretty far in the rearview mirror. It had been over 20 years. So our conversation began differently. The City Center concert presentation of “Parade” suffused its way through the whole process. Our first Broadway revival, “Spring Awakening,” was very different because Michael and I were big fans of that. We were at the opening and had a lot of imagery in our minds. And that was iconic. We wanted to be aware that people were coming into it with an understanding of a certain expectation. Our approach to something is informed by our interest in it. The big idea of “Spring Awakening” was the collaboration with Deaf West, and we had a hearing and a deaf cast. The show was being performed simultaneously in two languages, and that creates an entire vocabulary. “Once on this Island” had been done in a specific way, and that particular way had been repeated throughout its regional productions. So, we wanted to create a new touch point for a way to think about that piece of theater.
What inspired the design behind “Parade” and that elevated platform?
Laffrey: We were looking at what the visual reference points were for what we were wanting to make. We looked at political rallies from the period, grandstands and viewing stands, things that were constructed really hastily. There are also much more contemporary reference points from Jan. 6, a very crude gallow that was erected in front of the Capitol, and we thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” So, it was about figuring out those touch points.
How did the idea for the background projection of the newspapers evolve to show the passage of time?
Arden: We knew that we wanted to bring in history. It was figuring out how we could deliver both context and specific information through the use of chyron — and what was the background and what was foreground became the work that we wanted to explore.
How would you describe your working relationship, and how that evolved over the years?
Arden: We’ve developed a shorthand. We understand and challenge each other’s aesthetics and share an aesthetic to a great deal. We’re always trying to tease out each other’s definition of what is interesting. If I see something on stage, I will know immediately if Dane is going to like it. I feel like I bring a lot of design ideas and he brings a lot of directing ideas. We have a free-associative relationship in that way.
Laffrey: Because we are both confronting individual projects, but also confronting our shared body of work and collaboration, we are capable of challenging each other. Theater is a highly collaborative art form. Finding a primary collaborator is a sensible way of working, and I highly recommend it.