Working the angles: Set design with Cameron Anderson

The theater arts professor is an internationally acclaimed scenic designer

Cameron Anderson sits next to a mini model of a designed set.Photo/Mike Lovett

Cameron Anderson with a model of the set for "The Niceties."

When Assistant Professor of Theater Arts Cameron Anderson designs a set, she strives for it to distill the psychological landscape of the story, and to create a visual metaphorical manifestation of the themes and ideas on stage.

"Sometimes that's overt," she said. "Sometimes it can involve a beautiful piece of symbolism."

Anderson is an internationally acclaimed scenic designer who has designed extensively for the world's leading theatre and opera companies. Her most recent work is for “The Niceties,” a play that is a debate about race and privilege between a college professor and student in the professor’s office during office hours.

The set Anderson created for the production, which just completed a run at Manhattan Theatre Club, is loaded with details – shelves packed with books, a large elegant desk crammed into the small office, and a wall full of posters and photos – but one particular piece stands out: A steeply-sloped attic wall that looms over the actors on stage.

"I wanted to create a room that expresses the fact that both of these women have so much in common but they are so far apart," Anderson said. "The angles of an attic interested me for their ability to express the tension and the widening gap between women of different generations and experiences. It is at once a realistic place for the play to take place, and a space infused with expressive meaning. It has this enclosed feeling, like they are both being crushed.”

Every set Anderson designs starts with a close reading of text and research. She then creates a digital model of the design and shares it with the director and other members of the production team for collaboration. Then she builds a ¼” scale 3-D model that includes every detail of the set and stage that is used throughout the production process by lighting designers, actors and the director as the real set is built.

A closeup look at the model of the set for Niceties.

The model set Cameron Anderson created for the Niceties.

Anderson got her start in set design during her senior year as an undergraduate student at Wesleyan University. She was an English major with interests in art and architecture when set design came to her attention. Anderson had never taken a theater course during college, but as she researched her thesis on Renaissance drama, she became interested in the psychology of the space of the both the architecture and the stage in the Early Modern period. She then realized that set design might bring together all her interests in one place.

Anderson connected with some theater students planning a production of an obscure play. They needed a set, so she designed it. Seeing it completed was a surreal experience.

"I felt like I was walking into my own mind," Anderson said. "I knew right then I wanted to do this."

Anderson moved to New York City after graduation and worked at the Public Theater and assisted another designer before heading to Cincinnati to pursue a master's at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. That’s where she got her start designing for opera. She moved back to New York and worked as a freelance set designer before coming to Brandeis to teach in the Department of Theater Arts 2012.

Since coming to campus, her professional work hasn’t slowed. Recent opera credits include work for Glimmerglass Opera, The Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera, Gotham Chamber Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, Minnesota Opera, The Huntington Theater, Trinity Rep, and South Coast Repertory Theater. She also recently designed productions of “Simon Boccanegra” at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, “West Side Story” for Vancouver Opera, and “West Side Story” for the Kilden Performing Arts Center in Norway.

Anderson’s upcoming projects include “Yerma” at the Huntington Theater, “Emmeline” at Tulsa Opera, “Madame Butterfly” at the Pacific Symphony, “Photograph 51” at South Coast Repertory, and "La Fille du Régiment" for Opera Saratoga.

She often incorporates her ongoing work into her courses. For example, in the spring of 2018 she co-taught a course with Associate Professor Dmitry Troyanovsky on director designer collaboration and they often shared their creative process designing their production of “The Rosenbergs,” a contemporary opera that was performed at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and Brandeis.

"Staying curious is so important. The professional world of theater is constantly changing." Anderson said. "Being an artist is all about continually learning."

The Niceties recently completed a runs at Calderwood Pavilion in Boston and at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York City. It will be performed at Princeton University’s McCarter Theater in January and February.

A look at the final set for the Niceties.

The completed set for "The Niceties."

Categories: Arts

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