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Industrial Design Meets Set Design

How 'Sweat' Scenic Designer Christopher Barreca Built a Bar at the Taper

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L-R: Mary Mara, Michael O’Keefe (background), Amy Pietz, and Portia in the Center Theatre Group production of “Sweat” at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

From both an urban development and stylstic standpoint, industrial design has become incredibly popular in American culture, embraced for both the history it evokes and its more utilitarian qualities. This trend provides an interesting juxtaposition to Lynn Nottage’s Sweat—onstage August 29 – October 7, 2018 at the Mark Taper Forum—a play that looks at the struggles and hardships of industrial workers in Reading, Pennsylvania in the early 2000s.

Through the story of a group of factory workers who gather at their local bar to commiserate, laugh, and drink, Nottage poses timely questions to the audience, as well as interesting challenges for set designer Christopher Barreca. Barreca, who has worked before with director Lisa Peterson and was last at Center Theatre Group for Los Otros, sat down to discuss his process and inspiration for the design of Sweat.

Barreca was already a fan of Nottage’s when he came on board. I’ve seen her work before, but it’s the first time I’ve designed one of her plays, he noted. She does such careful research; she kind of lives with the characters. There’s an honesty, a truthfulness to them almost like a documentary, but a fictional one. He also felt inspired by the play’s epic structure; it’s not following verisimilitude in a strict definition.

He added, I made a choice upon reading it: I—and Lisa Peterson—felt that it had to be grounded in one space, one sort of epic space. That space was the bar, but instead of following a purely realistic design, Barreca chose to hone in on how to anchor the set in what is sort of the elephant in the room: this end of the romanticized ideal of American industrialism. Whether you’re in Pittsburgh, or Cleveland, or Pennsylvania, wherever you are, these spaces are being repurposed and romanticized.

Barreca found inspiration in a little bit of everything: both research of bars but also just the mind’s eye. While working on productions for various theatres, there were several instances when the production staff kept taking me to these breweries that were always in these industrial spaces.

The big challenge was to make a set that was first and foremost a bar versatile enough to transform for the few scenes that took place in other locations and the best approach to making transitions part of the narrative that the audiences can follow. The perspective and experience of the audience was a large part of his consideration, especially given the design of the stage itself: I am interested in the architecture of the theatres themselves. I find in thrust stages—particularly like the Taper—that they are an immersive environment. The audience is part of the experience, and I like to try and look to the thrust stage and the space and find a way to make that stronger.

As some of the final touches and installations were being made to the stage, Barreca reflected on how bars serve as communal gathering spots, and therefore they end up reflecting the values of the community and the times. He hoped the central communal space he built for Sweat would impress weight of the human experience upon the audience: With the people in the play and what’s going on in our culture right now, we’re all in this together. I want it to be a space that can be warm and full of light, and can be at times extremely cold and hard.

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