Scenic designer Paige Hathaway gets her props
Scenic designer Paige Hathaway remembers the epiphany that led to the 31 skulls in her attic-style set for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” at Folger Theatre. She was sitting in rehearsal when director Aaron Posner requested “more death onstage.”
“I was like, ‘ Yes! We will have more death onstage!’ ” the 26-year-old Hathaway recalls in a jubilant tone, noting that she went on to enrich the set with two nooses, as well as more skulls and antlers. The macabre objects underscore the awareness-of-mortality theme that runs through Tom Stoppard’s dizzying philosophical comedy, a riff on “Hamlet” that places two of that play’s doomed minor courtiers center stage.
Stoppard’s script envisages its protagonists hanging out in “a place without any visible character,” but Hathaway devised an artful, meta-theatrical clutter that includes trunks, candlesticks, swords, ladders, dried flowers, model ships, upside-down lampshades, a bust of Shakespeare, a piano, a phonograph, a dangling moon and hundreds of dusty books. In his review of the play, Post critic Nelson Pressley called the set “ideal for the play’s waiting-in theq uality.”
Hathaway says the attic image came to her after Posner loosely described his vision.
“He wanted it to feel like a young person’s story — these two young guys who are completely lost,” she recalled recently at the Folger offices. Accordingly, the set needed to be “something that you can get lost in,” she says, and because of the implicit menace Rosencrantz and Guildenstern face, needed to have threatening overtones. “At the same time,” Hathaway adds, “it’s a comedy, so it needs to have some degree of warmth.”
A jam-packed attic environment seemed to fit the bill. “You can feel like a kid in an attic,” Hathaway says. The attic also would have room for many nods to “Hamlet,” including the dried flowers (alluding to Ophelia) and the skulls (poor Yorick). Ultimately, the set would feature three animal craniums; many human shaped skulls molded by props master Lauren Chilton; and a Yorick-style skull borrowed from Synetic Theater, which had used it for its wordless “Hamlet.”
The boldness of the look belies the fact that, a little more than a year ago, Hathaway was still an MFA student at the University of Maryland. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is her first production as a full-fledged scenic designer. (She also designed the props.)
Hathaway says she was thrilled with the assignment. She had read the text in high school, when she was already on her way to a design career, and was “blown away by it.” Growing up in Wisconsin and Texas, Hathaway began painting and drawing at a young age, and then fell hard for theater. She did some acting in high school but mostly worked backstage, finding those duties a much better fit, “without any of the scary self-hatred” that comes with acting.
Hathaway earned a theater-design-focused BFA from the University of Oklahoma, and subsequent studies at the University of Maryland have been a springboard for work in the Washington area. She has been an associate or assistant set designer on a number of local productions, including “Sex With Strangers” at Signature Theatre last year. As a full scenic designer, Hathaway created the sets for Olney Theatre’s “Godspell” earlier this year, and Studio Theatre’s new “Mary-Kate Olsen Is in Love.”
Posner first became acquainted with Hathaway’s work when she was in a class he was co-teaching at Maryland. Even then he was impressed enough to ask her to collaborate on the Stoppard play.
“Some designers tend to be stronger dramaturgically, where they’re really getting in the details of the nuts and bolts and nitty-gritty of the play. Some tend to be better about the grand gesture and the artistry of it. And the best are good in both areas,” Posner says. Hathaway falls into the good-at-both category, he adds, which “is not always common in a very young artist.”
It’s a testament to Hathaway’s balancing of grand gesture and nitty-gritty that she sneaked that bust of the Bard onto the set.
“It made me very happy thatwe were able to get Shakespeare himself onstage,” she says. “He’s able to watch over everybody.”
Paige Hathaway turned the set for the Folger’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” into “something that you can get lost in.” From left, Stephen RussellMurray, Romell Witherspoon as Rosencrantz, Ian Merrill Peakes, Jacob Yeh, Rachel Zampelli and Adam Wesley Brown as Guildenstern.