Kate Sutton-Johnson | Set Designer & Director

Kate Sutton-Johnson | Set Designer & Director


[violins play
in bright rhythm] ♪
♪ (Kate Sutton-Johnson)
In theater, you start
with a story and that story is sort of
the guiding principle of all of the choices
that you make. So living inside
of that storytelling space and trying to serve it
as an artist is really motivating for me. I actually always feel this
sort of rush of excitement about the fact that
we’re going to do something and it’s going to exist
in this live format. Every night will be
somewhat different because it’s about
live performance. And then when the show’s over,
it’s gone! ♪
♪ [bass & guitar
play syncopated jazz] ♪
♪ (Kate)
I would say from an early age I showed an interest
in visual arts, also in singing and performance and
theater and things like that. Then I went to the North
Carolina School of the Arts and I studied set design. I was a senior,
I was about to graduate,
and the Guthrie Theater came to a job fair, and I was
hired to come out to the Guthrie as associate prop manager
and I was at the Guthrie
a couple of seasons and then I launched
a freelance career here. ♪
♪ After I left the Guthrie I took
on a lot of work at Mixed Blood. I also began doing some work
at Park Square. Eventually I began working at
The Children’s Theatre Company, the Ordway, Theater Latté Da,
at this point I’ve worked at most of the sort
of mid- to large-size theaters. ♪
♪ After I started designing a lot
for different theaters, I also started working for
some corporate clients doing event designs,
and then I also got into
this museum exhibit world, both as a painter
and as a designer. And now, my career has evolved
so that I really am just doing theater work
and museum work. This is a scale model
of the “Sportsology” Exhibit, a new experience
that will be permanent at the Science Museum
of Minnesota. This is a great example of the
kind of design work that I do for other museum exhibits
that are created here. So one thing that goes
into decision making about materials in exhibit
design isn’t just the color and the glossiness and so forth,
but there’s a lot of sensitivity and durability issues that
factor into these exhibits, so it really limits the
materials that we can use. Museum design work and theater
design work are similar in that I’m
designing environments that are about an experience. I think space is a huge part
of that, making people feel like they’re in a space
that is beyond what they can do
in their own bubble. They want to sort of
access something that’s bigger than them. [plucked strings play
in bright rhythm] ♪
♪ I love modeling;
I don’t hand-draft any longer. For years I hand-drafted
my shows and now I draft everything
on the computer. ♪
♪ Having a 3-dimensional model
and really being able to sort of understand what it’s
like to be inside that space, it is just not the same
in a digital version, it doesn’t feel the same. ♪
♪ On this project, “Six Degrees of Separation”
with Theater Latté Da, it became apparent early on that the set dressing
for this project was really critical
in setting us in a very upscale apartment
in Manhattan. So I got the idea
to contact some friends that have beautiful art and see if they would be willing
to loan us some things. Hi Wyn, Hi Bob.
Hi. Thanks for having us. Come in.
Hello, welcome. (Kate)
Peter and I and Abby are going to my friend Bob
and Wyn’s house to check out art and also their
plants and all sorts of things. The play takes place in 1990,
but we wanted to give the space a feel that was very sort of
mid century, very classic. Abby’s with us today because
she is the brainpower behind all of this, and she’s
going to keep us organized, and Peter is here because
Peter has excellent taste and after all,
he’s the director. Okay, this is the one
that I was talking about going in that alcove.
That is cool. This feels like tons of texture
here, but onstage actually everything is going to get
so much more locked down. This would be
a good hanging one. Yeah? So it’s just a hair over 7 feet. (Peter)
A cactus makes so much sense,
it’s New York in the wintertime. I mean,
it’s clearly not indigenous
to their neighborhood. Theater Latté Da is a company
that I’ve had a relationship with now for a number of years, and Peter Rothstein is certainly
a major artistic partner for me. A diptych is
interesting I think… I know.
I have one in there, yeah, and I was imagining the one
that’s in the living room ’cause I like the colors in that
one, but I like that as well. (Peter)
You know what I love
about working with Kate is that she brings to the table a ton of research
at the beginning. I’ve met
with some designers where
they bring a model of the set the first rehearsal
and like, whoa,
whoa! then I feel like what I’m doing
is, I’m critiquing
the work they’ve done, rather than collaborating and
creating something together. Oh, I want to measure
that tiny one. (Bob)
In the kitchen there’s
a better one. I’m not sure that’s even done. Well, we will decide!
[all laugh] [synthesizer plays softly] (Kate) 1, 2, 3. Great. Today we’re going to spend the
first part of the day onstage doing a bunch of notes. There’s going to be lots of
departments sharing the space, electrics and sound
and scenery, paint, props, and then the actors
will be on our tails showing up around midday and then we’ll begin
a rehearsal. This is just a little cover that’s going to go over
all of the feet of the sofa. This is a good lesson in how
to use tricks to make things look way more expensive
than they really were. In the role of set designer,
I provide the schematics to the people
who are going to build
the set, and I also provide a lot of information
to the scenic artist
and the prop manager. And in those two departments
in particular, it’s really fun when you
can collaborate with people that have a real sense of play and sort of are artists
in their own right and really want to contribute
as well. [bass, violin
& piano play softly] ♪
♪ When I think about designs
that stand out in my mind as being really sort of iconic
images in my portfolio, I think designs that are overtly
sort of psychological or designs that feel like a bigger
gesture are probably designs that stand out
in my mind as being, I don’t know,
they just stand out. I don’t know that they’re
my favorite designs, but I think minimalism is
actually quite difficult. It’s easier to throw a ton of
layers all on top of each other and have it look like
something interesting. Tell them. I am shaken. You have to do
something! It’s open.    Is anything gone? How can I look,
I’m shaken! Did he take
anything? Would you concentrate
on yourself? I want to know
if anything’s gone? (Kate)
A few years ago,
Peter and I were talking about shows for the season,
and I had been kind of thinking about whether or not Peter
might at some point let me assist him as a director. So I approached him with it,
and he jumped on it, and the rest is history,
now that’s sort of how we work. [all laugh] We weren’t auditioning,
I just kept thinking $2 million, $2 million. It’s like when someone says,
“Don’t think about elephants,” and all you can think about is
elephants, elephants, elephants. $2 million, $2 million. When you’re on
a Kate Sutton-Johnson set, your work is elevated. My work is elevated;
I’m a better actor because that’s the environment
I get to perform and process in as we move through it
and move to a performance. He’s in
for 2 million! 2 million? He says the Cézanne
is a great investment. We should get it
for 6 million and sell it to the
Tokyo bunch for 10! Happy days! (Kate)
Working in this field ticks
a lot of boxes for me. There’s so many ways I can
immerse myself in these projects that allow me to grow. I think
the more experienced
I get and the more I feel like I can do
that well, the more
exciting it becomes.


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