An Interview with Jason Sherwood, Into the Woods Set Designer
By Brooke Owens
BO: How would you describe your work as a scenic designer?
JS: As a designer, I really love to read the play over and over again and have some sort of emotional and visual response. Then I’ll do drawing for myself, not necessarily of the play but something that relates thematically or I’ll do a mixed media collage of something that struck me. Then I like the process to develop from conversations between me and the director as the two of us figure out a way to tell the story in an immediate and magical way. Stylistically, I lean away from realism. I don’t think I’m the designer you would call if you needed a completely realized living room, kitchen etc. I like to push the abstract and work through a different lens. I love exploring the theatricality of the play.
BO: What about Into The Woods inspires you?
JS: Into the Woods is a collection of stories so Justin and I wanted to create a space for stories and he had this idea of setting it in a library. So our question was how can we take this hall of the greatest stories of all time and put it through a child’s imagination and then let that get a bit out of control? There are some elements to the set that appear as one thing then change or move in a way you didn’t expect them to. That’s sort of the scary and thrilling imaginative part of Into The Woods. That was our take on the story- to create a place that feels like you’ve got a handle on what’s going on and then things radically change. There’s an element of danger to the show that takes you by surprise.
BO: You are based out of New York and have designed all over the county as well as, off Broadway. What is different about working at Aurora?
JS: I love working in Atlanta in general. I designed a show at The Alliance and our work was nominated for a Suzi award and at the award party I met AC and Tony and we just had a blast together. So, when an opportunity came up to work here on 4000 Miles I was so excited. I have this theory- in theatre everyone works long hours and on multiple projects at one time and if you’re not working with people that you enjoy spending time with it’s brutal. I knew I wanted to be with these people here and that it would be a great experience. The thing I love about Aurora is that everybody carries that can-do energy and it starts from the top down. Everyone is fiercely committed to the story-telling and to making the best show possible. This is the first time I’ve been here in a year but it feels like I’ve been here the whole time. You just pick up where you left off because there is such a strong sense of community.
BO: You blew audiences away with your design of last season’s 4000 Miles in the studio; now that you are designing for the mainstage what can we expect?
JS: They can expect a show full of surprises. Into The Woods is about a group of people who identify something they want, they put that out into the universe and then they go out into the woods to find that thing. The woods are a place that’s alluring and redemptive all at the same time. It’s a place that you find yourself and our manifestation of that is a space that’s tempting and quite dangerous. I think the audience can expect a different kind of show. There’s a type of kinetic chaos to the set-it’s always shifting and changing. There’s that spontaneous energy that permeates through the show.
BO: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a scenic designer?
JS: I think there’s a tri-fold answer to this question. The first thing is that you need to be open to not always knowing the answer. If you’re the kind of person that needs to find the solution in a room by yourself it’s probably not the career for you. A set designer is in collaboration at all times- at every step of the design process because your decisions affect other’s decisions. It’s always ‘yes and’ at all times. Secondly, honestly, you have to be ready to work your tail off. It’s a competitive field and you have to take every opportunity to learn. You also have to seek out opportunity. You get what you want by asking for it. Everybody has been a beginner and wanted that first opportunity so seek out what you want to work on and who you want to work with. Be a yes person. Finally, you have to make sure you love it. It’s a hard lifestyle to have but for me it’s always been this intense love of theatre and visual storytelling and it came together in this one beautiful industry. It’s a privilege to tell stories so make sure that love is what’s driving you every day.