Losing Batboy to Ben Dibble & Designing Buyer & Cellar, from Chris Haig

I’ve been an audience member and fan of 1812’s since Box Office of the Damned. A year later, Jen Childs was my acting teacher at the University of the Arts and I always wanted to work with her and this company. I’ve never recovered from losing the part of Batboy to that damn Ben Dibble. (Who knows, if I had landed that role, maybe I wouldn’t be designing today.) But I’ve loved watching 1812 grow over the years and present the funniest theatre Philadelphia has to offer. So, when they emailed me about set designing for Buyer & Cellar, I didn’t have to think about it very much before saying absolutely, yes, please and thank you!

Getting that offer to work with 1812 really made my day and I’ve been having a great time developing this production ever since. The director Dan O’Neil and I got together a few months ago to talk over the play and hash out an idea for the set. The script is, of course, hilarious. But the first thing I realized when I read it was that it didn’t need a set. This play could be done on a bare stage as long as you had the right actor telling this absurd story. Obviously, we accomplished that goal by casting Dito van Reigersberg in the role of Alex More. But of course, we didn’t just want a bare stage, so we set about creating a playing space that really was all about the actor. A place where Dito would take center-stage both literally and figuratively.

One of Dan’s most important take-aways from the script was that this is a play about a guy telling a great story to his friends over a glass of wine (or maybe whiskey) in his living room. We both felt that the intimacy of the actor and the audience was key. Given the height and scope of Plays & Players’ mainstage, we started brainstorming ways to compress the space and get Dito closer to the audience. Pretty quickly into that first meeting, Dan and I both agreed that we needed a ceiling. This would give us the feeling of compression we were looking for and perhaps a little claustrophobia.

Inspired by Barbra Streisand’s book My Passion for Design (which is also the main prop in the show) and the pictures of her actual basement in it, I began to see the set as a long, low hallway. An expanse of space that runs upstage and downstage instead of side to side. I envisioned a room that could float out of the darkness of the stage, break through the proscenium and literally right out into the audience. We made some compromises for safety and sight lines, but I think what we’ve created provides that intimacy and makes the vastness of the theater fade into blackness so we can really focus on Alex’s story.

The set looks incredible already and I can’t thank Lance Kniskern enough for the great work he’s already done. We go into tech rehearsals next week! I can’t wait to see it all together with Maria Shaplin’s lights, Jill Key’s costume, Chris Sannino’s soundscape, and Jen Burkhart’s few but vital props! I know audiences are going to love this show and I’m so glad I finally have the chance to be a part of the 1812 family. Enjoy!

Buyer & Cellar  under construction at Plays & Players Theatre. Photo by Ben Levan.

Buyer & Cellar under construction at Plays & Players Theatre. Photo by Ben Levan.