Joyful. That’s how I would describe Deb O. I invited her to the series on Designing Women because I’ve been a fan of her work for several years. She has designed for colleagues Tamilla Woodard and Melissa Kievman in very distinctly different projects. She has a great sense of humor and it is obvious that she loves what we do as scenic designers. I am fascinated by her sense of storytelling and narrative when she chooses furnishings and props, as well as color and finishes. She breathes the space in. Her work is beautiful. —Regina García

Regina García: Why theatre?

Deb O: I worked in a factory for many years, I kept on telling myself “I have no voice here.” Theatre has provided me with the space to say something—I have a voice.

Regina: Is there any particular project right now that you are intrigued by?

Deb O: I’m working with Katie Pearl on her thesis at Brown. She is a brilliant playwright, creator, installation artist, and director. It is a crazy wonderful play and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

people walking through individual rooms

Regina: Will there be multiple spaces in performance, like the hallway, where people and sound converge? That is really sexy!

Deb O: The audience can go wherever they want—they don’t have to wait. They can move around. The audience will even be invited to going out to the bar when one of the characters needs to clear her head. I’m excited to Skype with them this evening and watch rehearsal.

Regina: How do you tech a site-specific piece or non-traditional structure like this? Do you develop that process with your team as you go?

Deb O: Each space is asking for something different—each show reveals what it needs during rehearsals and tech.

Regina: What do initial conversations look like between you and your collaborators?

Deb O: At the first meeting, especially when I don’t know the director, I ask them about their lives, how they got to that seat. Then I like them to tell me the story of the piece in their own words. It helps me feel the shape of it or what it should feel like. I also ask them for their research, along with what they’ve been reading or even listening to. I do a lot through the music—feeling the movement of the music and putting that movement in the set. I then do research in response to all of this.

I must say, I do love having all the designers in the room for these meetings. When a director says, “Let’s just you and I have a meeting,” that scares me. I love having lighting and costumes there; we are talking about palette and space and how it all feels. And of course sound. The design has movement to it and, this way we are all on the same page. You know, I work with some really smart designers! So of course I want them there with me!

Regina: I have to say that I am always blown away by the insightful feedback I receive from sound designers throughout the tech process. We all have ideas on how we should end an act or even the show, but sound designers are able step back and really see what we have.

Deb O: I always feel sound designers can cleverly put in the punctuation marks—they put that question mark there, or exclamation point there, or they put the period in. It is good to be aware of those moments they are thinking of highlighting.

Regina: About Uncle Vanya, in Lake Lucille—as a designer and sculptor, when you did the project for the first time, what was the big discovery?

Deb O: It was 2007. I had just graduated and had a week before I needed to be in North Carolina. I was in the car and on my way. I pulled over in Baltimore at a gas station to find a crab restaurant when I got a call from Brian Mertes, telling me he was doing Chekhov at a lake and that I shouldn’t miss it. I really didn’t know who Brian Mertes was. I actually looked him up on the computer while we talked. It just sounded like something I was supposed to do! So I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” I turned the car around and went back toward New York. I answered the call, and turned the car around. That was a huge thing I learned—You must answer the call!

It was funny, because I really had no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t know it was a weeklong event actually. I thought it was a reading and I was setting up chairs. Then he said, “Alright, out on the east lawn, we will do Act I.” So I emptied the house out on the lawn!

That was so freeing and so wonderful. Just seeing the play in that landscape did something that shook it up for me. I didn’t know the actors invited to participate had always done the scene attached to the house, so pulling them away from it and into the yard—that shook them up in a good way. I had never seen their work so I had no preconceived ideas of what it needed to be; I just did it.

two actors sitting on a set outdoors
Uncle Vanya at Lake Lucille.

I scoured the whole neighborhood and found boats and things in yards, and put all of them in the sculpture. I think it was Act III, and I asked Brian to come out to the west lawn and take a look said, “Here it is,” and introduced the scene. And he started to tear up. I thought “Oh my god, I did a horrible job!” But his tears were full of gratitude. I have learned so many things while being there, from 2007 until now. I think all those years of devising space at the lake prepared me for the Chekhov’s Seagull at Lake Lucille documentary we are working on this summer. I grew into a person that could handle the movie.

a group of actors on stage
The Seagull at Lake Lucille.

You should come one time! You should come see what happens. Right now, I have a couple of thousand daffodil bulbs that were planted for the movie—there was a theme running throughout with these bulbs, and at the end, we all planted them. So there are 1,000 daffodils planted all over the grounds. I think that after we’re done talking, I’m going to go get a car2go and take a ride there and take it all in. People have been sending me pictures, but I just want to look for myself.

www.debo.nyc