By Caleigh Crow
“They have streets called Whacker Boulevard or Wabash Avenue,” Michael Eagan says, swinging his fist and chuckling, “Whacker!” We’re talking about Chicago, where Centaur Theatre’s current production Clybourne Park takes place. Michael, Set and Costume Designer for show, visited Chicago to help inform the design of the titular house. “Perfectly legitimate names, but they made me laugh because where else are you going to find Whacker Boulevard?”
With Clybourne Park, playwright Bruce Norris has created a unique opportunity for set and costume designers to demonstrate the passage of a significant amount of time to demonstrate the parallels and contrasts between two eras, the late 1950’s and the more contemporary aughts, to expound on the themes of the play. “During the 20-minute intermission, you have to get rid of that [set] and replace it with an architecturally identical unit that has had 50 years of pretty serious living and a lot of abuse near the end,” he leans forward in his seat. “It wasn’t as if you could just light it differently. It needed more than that.”
Later in our conversation, Michael recounts his time teaching at the National Theatre School, and as I write this now, I am reminded of what he said about his approach to design. “I have quite an architectural approach to designing; the built environment has always been a source of inspiration to me,” he said, “There’s a certain vocabulary to it. Even subconsciously, it affects my work.” For Clybourne Park, that approach strayed from subconscious to very intentional as he planned his trip to Chicago. The playwright gives the address of the house as 406 Clybourne Street, and though the street itself is real, there is no 400 block. “Not that I was going to copy the house, I didn’t even see the appropriate house,” he explains, “but I’m glad I went because I got acquainted with Chicago, which has a certain kind of muscular energy.”
So, Michael went to Chicago. “It’s a big city but different from New York City or Los Angeles. It’s a middle American city, and it seems much more American somehow, although there are many immigrant factions to the population, it seems more integrated than it does in New York, for example, where a lot of times immigrants stay in their own areas – the Italian neighbourhood, and the Irish neighbourhood,” he recalls. This is an apt observation, as the current homeowners in the first act of Clybourne Park cause alarm throughout their lily-white neighbourhood because they sold their house and the new family moving in happens to be black. “In other words, the idea of ‘there goes the neighbourhood’,” Michael explains, “They’re trying not to be racist, but their motives are racist, but the way they get around it is clever depending on which individual is doing the convincing.”
Michael based his design in the style of houses common of the post-war housing boom that spread across America as soldiers were expected to return from abroad and start having families. “These houses are not elaborate or very expensive,” he describes, “but they were designed by a lot of architects who were devotees of Frank Lloyd Wright and used a lot of his architectural principles. They were modest homes, but they have good bones, and nice finishes inside.” How does one show fifty years of life in a house without tampering with the original “good bones”?
“And, it’s not just the ground floor, but you have to do the stairs too,” he points out, “Part of it had to move off so the new part can move in, the staircase is central so that remains, but the balustrade is raised up, and I have another balustrade in its place, and the stage right part moves out so another part can come in, and it all comes together so it’s the exactly same architecture, it’s just a different color, and more broken down.” He uses a lot of hand gestures to sketch out on the table exactly which parts move in and out and where and how.
His inspiration for the design of the first act came from a much more personal place, this time the journey Michael had to make to inform his design was backwards in time, through his own memory to his childhood home. “I wanted to make the first act look like how a lot of people remember the ‘50s. I certainly remember as a kid growing up,” he recalls, “but the set that I did looks very much like my Mom’s living room. I just tried to capture the same ambiance, the same wallpaper, the same floor lamp,” he pauses, “I wanted it to be a very comfortable 1950’s house.”
The house in the second act was not meant to evoke comfort; in fact, the second act’s design is very much in contrast with the first. “The house is a wreck,” he says bluntly, “This house has even been abandoned for a while.” While we don’t know exactly how long the incoming family from the first act lived there, they didn’t stay the fifty years. Michael posits that the house changed hands several times over the last half of the 20th century. “It had homeless people living in there, and it has graffiti on the walls and no furniture left really,” he reflects, “It’s beyond repair in a lot of ways.”
Maquettes by Michael Eagan. Photos by Vanessa Rigaux.
However, it’s not just the house that’s changed. “Each [actor] has a massively different character to play, so it’s an interesting dramatic situation,” in Michael’s words. He was responsible for ensuring the echoes of act one are heard in act two, or more accurately, seen in the costume design. As he describes his costume design to me, his articulate speech turns increasingly onomatopoeic and gestures become more prominent. “The guy who plays Albert [in the first act], is now playing a really cool dude with shades, and the thing,” he gestures to his hip and hits a short pose, miming a belt, then quickly moves a hand to his head, to represent the shades finally he mimics a vest, “and the woman who played Francine [in the first act], the maid, is now a very hot, glamorous, activist, with hair out to here,” he shows me just how far out, “and she’s got it all going on, this woman,” he says boyishly, “You know what I mean?”
After we talked all things Whacker, Clybourne, and Chicago for nearly forty minutes, the National Theatre School for another twenty, Leonard Cohen for fifteen, Michael pauses. “Do you have enough stuff there now?” he asks me, smiling. I laugh and reply if he’s got nothing more to say about it then that’s enough. I never even asked him a question during our discourse and thankfully Michael, perhaps by virtue of being a designer, didn’t gloss over any details.
Clybourne Park runs until April 30th. For more information and to purchase tickets click here.