If you’ve ever been to West Philly’s Curio Theatre, you’ve been impressed by artistic director Paul Kuhn’s work. Sure, he’s acted and directed in some of the troupe’s best loved plays, but that’s not what we’re talking about: Paul is also the set and prop designer for Curio, and he’s perhaps the finest designer in Philadelphia’s independent theater. He’s created shipwrecks (The Tempest), country pubs (The Weir), and Irish homesteads (Dancing at Lughnasa). His recent work on The Handmaid’s Tale—a large and adaptable moving platform—was impressive even by his standards.
Photographer Kyle Cassidy’s upcoming stage (and film) production of HEDDA GABLER needs no such elaborate set design: this site-specific staging of Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece takes place in historic Physick House. Nonetheless, Paul contributes to the production with several props, including a fireplace piece and an elegant presentation case of General Gabler’s dueling pistols. Kyle talks to Paul about his design process, the technical challenges he faces, and Gilligan’s Island.
HEDDA GABLER runs December 10-20, 2015 at the Physick House [321 S. 4th Street]; tickets are now available at philalandmarks.givezooks.com.
Kyle Cassidy: You design a lot of set pieces, furniture, houses and things like that. When coming up with something very personal, like the presentation case for General Gabler’s dueling pistols what inspires you? Do you imagine what the person was like? Or is it entirely practical?
Paul Kuhn: First of all, there is very little out there about Norwegian weaponry and, more importantly, pistol cases but that didn’t stop me from trolling the internet for countless hours and in the end, as suggested in the question, I did step back and started focusing on General Gabler. Most historic pistol cases seemed to be quite practical and simple in nature and I imagined General Gabler to have a far more ornate pistol case given his wealth and the fact that his self image was so tied to the military and weaponry. I then jumped to furniture from the 1800′s and after seeing many images of beautiful ornate carbriole legs and boisiere carvings (just love throwing that word around) I biked to Delaware County Supply and procrastinated as they have the largest supply of custom moldings in our area. I then stopped daydreaming and went back a week later. I got the last piece of a beautiful Ovolo stock Ovolo and length of reading board. The reading board makes up the sides and is beaded to provide depth and the Ovolo makes up the lid and really makes it ornate and, I believe, is something General Gabler would be proud of.
Kyle: What comes to your mind first when you’re designing sets and props? Do you imagine a final product and make it happen or do you find inspiration from materials along the way? Do you, for example, find hinges or locks or wood and come up with a concept from there, or do you find those things after you’ve already imagined the final piece?
Paul: For something as specific as a pistol case, I approach the design in a very different way than a set design. With a set design I always ask the question “what or who is our audience?” In many cases the answer is simply “they are the audience,” but I always ask that question and consider their experience all along the way. A prop design is almost more exhaustive. The prop has cast itself. It knows what it’s role is. To a certain extent you are backed into a corner. To get out, I imagined General Gabler speaking to his craftsman and showing him molding profiles and insisting that this pistol case reflect his status. This pistol case was clearly of enormous importance to him as he left it to Hedda. One almost wonders if he didn’t want to be buried with it.
Kyle: You’re also creating a fireplace piece for the production of HEDDA GABLER. Could you tell us about what that is and let us know about any special challenges it presents (without giving anything important away, of course).
Paul: The fireplace is a unique challenge. The Physick house is architecturally perfect in every way and nothing can be disturbed. I have been given the task of designing and fabricating an insert that is both practical and blends into the existing fireplace. I’m deep into research about what frontage can be associated with a fireplace that is both practical and aesthetic. In the end, I’ll probably think of Hedda for influence. Oh, and the fireplace may or may not have to appear to burn but you’ll have to come to the show to find out.
Kyle: How often do you use ready-made solutions for things as opposed to inventing something from scratch?
Paul: Yale technical briefs. I am a huge fan of Yale technical briefs. I was introduced to these technical briefs by Jared Reed. These are a series of journals that contain submissions from Yale designers, technicians and other theater professionals all over the world on how to solve technical problems that you may encounter in design challenges. This is my bible. Once we have settle on a design, I am almost certainly hit with one major technical hurdle per show. I immediately search the Yale technical briefs to see how they have solved a similar challenge. These technical briefs have been kept for well over forty years now and 9 times out of 10 someone out there has solved a similar problem and had a “Eureka” moment and was kind enough to share it in the journal. This journal has saved me more times than I can count.
Kyle: If you were the Professor, trapped on Gilligan’s Island and charged with making all the sets for Ginger’s plays, what are the essential tools that you’d want to bring with you?
Paul: If I was trapped on Gilligan’s Island and challenged with designing Ginger’s sets…. I’m taking buckets with me. Buckets for sand castles. Sand. It would be my solution for everything. And no bamboo on my sets. You have given up if you bring bamboo on a set. Bamboo and lattice, that is.
Kyle: Do you get attached to the things that you make for plays?’ What has been the most difficult set piece or prop to see go at the end of a production?
Paul: The prop I’m most proud of is from Cat Among the Pigeons at Hedgerow Theatre well over twenty years ago. It was a french pistol that turned into a fan when you pulled the trigger. It got a laugh every night. I was so sad to see it go that I stole it. Shhh. don’t tell anyone.
Kyle: What can you expect from my designs a Curio this year?
Paul: Curves. Seems to be curves all year long. And traveling. Lots of moving pieces. I seem to be getting more complicated the older I get.
[Physick House, 321 S. 4th Street] December 10-20, 2015; philalandmarks.givezooks.com.