The scenery of ‘The Secret Garden’
How Jason Sherwood transformed the Ahmanson Theatre stage in the musical’s new production.
The scenic design of a show is meant to transport the audience and help evoke the emotions of the characters on stage. In The Secret Garden, the characters are, in many ways, stuck between places—be it the world of the living and the world of the dead, or between the drab interior of a house haunted by grief and the wonders of a revitalized garden in joyous bloom. But how can those seemingly disparate locations exist on just one stage? We spoke with designer Jason Sherwood about his experience and vision for The Secret Garden at the Ahmanson Theatre.
What inspires you as a scenic designer? And what specifically inspired you for your designs for The Secret Garden?
With The Secret Garden, and any project, I begin by spending a lot of time with the script and the music, to understand the story and the characters. With this piece, Director and Choreographer Warren Carlyle and I spoke a lot about how it’s a ghost story, and the central theme is a sense of redemption, and rejuvenation. We wanted there to be a haunting sense of the living and the dead—and the possibility of life, reborn again in the piece. The elements—earth, wind, water, fire—were also a large consideration in our design process—and all four appear in the design.
What does your design process look like?
After doing a deep-dive [into] the source material, I typically turn to some visual research, and then begin working in my sketchbook to find a big thematic or architectural idea to bring to the piece. Then I begin sussing that out in a 3D model in the computer, and translate those ideas into a series of renderings. We then develop the design in those images, and then translate those images into drawings for price estimate, and eventually build. Then I work with the fabricators and artisans to execute the set construction so it aligns with the intent—and then make sure the show installs into the theatre in time for technical rehearsals with the cast. That’s where we make any finishing touches, and make decisions about movement and transitions, and integrate the other design departments. Once performances begin, we make some light tweaks, and then we let the show go!
Do you have a favorite scene and/or locale in the show?
Given the show’s title and themes, it was important to really deliver on a beautiful garden for the finale. It’s been a real pleasure and a privilege imagining and executing that with this team.
You’re an Emmy-winning designer—what would you say are the differences when designing for the stage and for screens? What are the similarities?
On screen, the camera is the audience’s view—and a design has to be detailed and dimensional in a way that appreciates close-up and wide-shots. The gestures need to be grand and intimate. On stage, the audience is typically more-or-less fixed, which allows for bolder, bigger gestures or shapes, sometimes. I find the immediacy of watching a live stage performance to be unlike any other medium.
What do you hope audiences take away from this production?
The Secret Garden is a timeless story, and I hope the audience finds in these characters and their journey a balm for the complicated and often sad world we live in. It’s a story about redemption and hope, and new beginnings, and I think it’s going to resonate with the audience in a very moving way.