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Interpreting “American Life” in Scenic Design

  • Author(s): Chen, Hsi-An
  • Advisor(s): Brill, Robert
  • et al.

Theater has always reflected the life of the people that surrounds it. Therefore, being able to understand, absorb and expand the “American experience” as a first-generation immigrant was one of the main challenges during my time at UCSD. I start these projects assuming I'm distanced from the theme. Turn out there are multiple access points in each production. Those design processes are valuable to me as an emerging set designer in the US because they immersed me in the culture that is around me now and will always be part of American theater.

The three productions I designed that deal with “Americanness” the most are 53% Of, A Beautiful Day in November on the banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes and Balm in Gilead. Each of them presents different aspects of American Life. 53% Of is about 53% of women voted for Trump, a microscope on the grand US political scene. A Beautiful Day is a Thanksgiving dinner narrates by sports commentators, portraying the marrow of family in stylized acting. Balm in Gilead is about the low-life in the decaying 1960s New York City center, harsh realism poses the question of how to be compassionate in the bad times.

The world has become closer and relationships between people has always been universal. When designing A Beautiful Day, I relate Thanksgiving dinner to Chinese New Year: awkward conversations between generations and that Aunt who is always late. Globalization has also affected out collective memory. Growing up reading tons of US home decoration magazines, I was able to produce the stereotypical living space in 53% Of. One lesson I've also learned is that personal experiences are valuable research. The nuanced design of Balm in Gilead comes from early discussions with the director about her experience being an young artist in New York City and the fine-tuning during technical rehearsal when the whole team absorbs the space and developed the details as collectives.

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