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Imagine the World with Sarah Brandner

All the action in Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano take place at a church in a township of northern Uganda on New Year’s Eve 1999, then again inside the same church on the day of New Year’s Eve 2014. It was Scenic Designer Sarah Brandner’s job to convert the Boss Thrust Stage into this church within the two distinct time periods but without doing two completely separate designs. How would the world of the play look for the actors who must inhabit it and for the audience who must get immersed into it? To determine this required much research, collaboration and creativity.

“When I first get asked to design a show,” Sarah explained, “I read the script and do some preliminary research on such things as the time period and location, but not necessarily on past productions of the same play. Then I have a conversation with the director (Signe V. Harriday for Cardboard Piano) before going deeper. I want to facilitate the director’s vision, plus our conversation also leads to more ideas for exploration. I go off on my own again to let ideas percolate and do more research before putting things together.”

Set model of church in Part 1 by Sarah Brandner

For Cardboard Piano, a big challenge was the low ceiling of the Boss Stage, especially with a key scene in Part I occurring on the church’s rooftop. Sarah, Signe and the other members of the creative team bounced around many ideas on how to solve that problem, always keeping in mind: What’s needed to tell the story? What’s the best way to serve this production in this particular space? Finally figuring out the answer made it possible for Sarah to forge ahead with the rest of her design.

In 1999, the church in the play is still in its humble beginnings; in 2014, it’s a permanent structure. Sarah discovered that many missionary churches in Africa began as “pop up churches.” They’d put up something for shelter, such as tents, and people would bring in blankets, crates or whatever was at hand to create as inviting place of worship as possible. Sarah’s design shows the church as an unfinished structure, definitely still a work in progress.

Adelin Phelps (Chris) and Michael Jemison (Pika) in Part I of Cardboard Piano
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

In 2014, the church is now a finished building, so the set shows more fully realized architectural elements, such as a stained glass window, pews, an altar and some brick walls. But for creative and practical reasons, Sarah did not need to design a completely new set to switch out for Part II.

“I like to involve the audience so I often provide the essence of an idea to allow them to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks,” said Sarah. “This is a surreal, dreamlike piece so apropos for the audience to use their imagination and become a part of the story.”

Also be sure to look out for symbolic motifs, such as the flowers, in the set design for Part I that simply get repeated in a grander way in Part II. They either mirror something similar or reflect a difference between the two parts of the play.

Set model of church in Part II by Sarah Brandner

Asked why and how she’d come to her profession, Sarah told me her story:

“I have a sister who’s five years older. I looked up to her and wanted to be just like her. She did theatre in high school and attended a summer theatre program that had theatre classes–tech, acting, dance, scene work, and I’d tag along to classes like her little shadow.

When I was old enough, I went to all the summer school classes. I didn’t like the pressures in the auditioning process but just thought I had to do it. Others would be overjoyed or depressed depending on the outcome. It was not my thing.

Kiara Jackson (Ruth), Adelin Phelps (Chris) and Ansa Akyea (Paul) in Part II of Cardboard Piano
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

But I found another way into theatre by taking design and tech classes. Initially I wanted to be a lighting designer. As an undergrad, I was thinking of doing that; but my advisor also pushed me to try scenic design. I ended up falling in love with it as well. Now I love to do both equally. If I ever had to choose, I’d choose both–not one over the other.”

Sarah holds both MLA and BA degrees in Theatre through Minnesota State University-Moorhead as well as a MFA in Scenic and Lighting Design from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Since her undergraduate years until just a few years ago, Sarah was a designer for MSU-Moorhead, including its summer theatre company, The Straw Hat Players.

As part of her MFA program at UMN-Twin Cities, Sarah did an internship at a museum. To this day, she continues to do exhibition and lighting design for museums in addition to her work for stage productions. For those who’d caught last year’s Penumbra at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, you’d experienced Sarah’s work.

Through the years, you may have also seen Sarah’s work at Park Square Theatre,  Mu Performing Arts, Penumbra Theatre and many other stages. In Sarah’s words, “With each new production I work on, I get the opportunity to work and know more of the amazingly talented artists around Minnesota and beyond.”

In her profession, Sarah gets to do what she loves: to inspire the imagination and create an environment to tell a story. Of Cardboard Piano, she had this to say: “I love it, and it breaks my heart. I hope that people really embrace the story.”

 

Tickets and information here

 

Ting Ting Cheng, Blog Author, Park Square Theatre
Ting Ting Cheng

Ting Ting Cheng joined Park Square Theatre's Front of House staff in 2014. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Los Angeles, she became a Minnesotan after graduating from Carleton College with a B.A. in English Literature. She loves live theatre and has a passion for writing.

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