Mary Poppins Monday: Q&A with Set Designer Ken Goldstein

A new production is on our stage– Mary Poppins– and that means a brand-new blog series highlighting the various aspects of the show!

Our Dramaturg Robert Neblett had a chance to talk with set designer Ken Goldstein– the man behind the fabulous set– about his design process, inspiration behind the Mary Poppins set, challenges, plus tons more!

Here is what he had to say:

Q: What attracts you to a piece of theatre like Mary Poppins?

A: Simply, I love telling stories. The story of Mary and the children has always been interesting to me, but the story and evolution of Mr. Banks has always warmed my heart!

By Stephen Thornton

By Stephen Thornton

Q: Where do you begin when you approach the design process for a show like Mary Poppins, especially when you have to confront the fact that audiences who grew up with the film have very specific expectations?  

A: I always start with the text no matter what I am designing. In terms of preconceived notions or expectations that come with a piece like MP, or anything that is present in our culture it becomes a bit more complicated. We will never recreate the movie…so while I try to respect the source material, I try to create a world where the audience is willing to put expectations aside…to hop on board with “our” Mary Poppins.

Q: How do you balance your own creative vision with the influence of the source material?

A: I think it is important to nod in the direction of the source, but truly, I try to take a fresh look at the story, at the characters, the environment, and the atmosphere of the world of the play, and serve that.

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By Stephen Thornton

Q: Did you use any specific visual resources in creating the scenery for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre production?

A: I always do a lot of visual research—knowing the practical reality of our production, much of my research focused on the rhythm of Victorian and Edwardian city-scapes.

Q: Did you create a design statement that guided you through the process of creating the scenery for Mary Poppins? What was it?

A: ‘Design Statement’ is too formal to reflect my process. When I work in my studio, and the foundation of what I teach my students as the through line of the design process is one central question: What are you trying to do? In this case, my answer is to create a space that while fundamentally serving the action of each scene, allows the atmosphere and characters of this story come to life on stage and in the imagination of the audience.

Q: This is a fairly large show with many different locations. What is it like designing for a theatre space as intimate as The Reps, both in general and for this play in particular?

A: The intimacy is an advantage! I love feeling the breath of the characters on stage when I go to the theatre, and so the scale of the theatre at the Rep is a bonus! The challenge is the structure of the piece. It was created with a particular type of theatre in mind—the music, scenes, the transitions between locations are built in the text and typically dictate the kind of space you would create to stage this musical. Here, I designed a scheme—a theatre in the theatre—to facilitate the movement through the piece. The biggest challenge is the part of the theatre we aren’t seeing!

Q: Unlike a realistic play like this seasons Wait Until Dark or The Whipping Man, part of designing the set for a musical like Mary Poppins is creating moments of visual magic that leap off of the stage. Do you work with special effects coordinators to build these moments? How do you balance the practical concerns of the physical world of the play with the magical needs of the shows fantasy?

A: In this case there is a company serving some of the magical moments, but as a set designer, I am always counting on the collaboration with the director, lighting designers, costume designers, sound designers…and the work of the carpenters, painters, prop master, and technical direction to make my work come to life—and we all still relay on the actors to inhabit the space. So in this case there is an additional collaborator, but I don’t think that makes it more complicated then usual. That said, there is a practical reality to serving the SFX. It would be short sighted not to work to meet the requirements the expert needs.

Q: As a designer, what is the most challenging moment in the play and why?

A: In a practical way, the most complicated is the transition to the rooftops…but artistically, the biggest challenge is finding a vocabulary that serves the story when you only have relatively small units to use to define each scene.

Q: What do you think will surprise audiences about The Rep’s production of Mary Poppins, and why?

A: I hope the production excites the audience’s imagination…I think imagination leads to surprises.

Q: Whats the most impossible piece of theatre magic you have ever had to design, and how did you accomplish it?

A: It wasn’t a piece…it was a full production. A number of years ago, with Director Donna Drake, and Lighting Designer Annmarie Duggan, I designed Annie. The challenge was capturing an entire environment from the point of view of a bright-eyed child. I tried to make the entire city as exciting as a good book…with discoveries around each corner, and visually capture the scale and perspective of the city from Annie’s eyes. Each piece was drawn from a low perspective…and each unit came from an unexpected place or on in an unexpected way. Donna asked if I could turn a skyscraper in to a staircase. We did!

Q: Did you have a Mary Poppins in your life when you were a child? How did that person influence the adult you are today?

A: To me, Mary encourages imagination—for me, that would be my mother. Cliché perhaps, but growing up with an elementary school teacher as a mother, you can’t help but grow up in a supportive and creative environment.

A: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in theatrical design?

A: Aside from coming to school at The State University of New Paltz, where I teach…pay attention to how environments effect people and how people influence environments.

Pulled from the Mary Poppins study guide, prepared by Robert Neblett.

Check back every Monday to uncover a new aspect of this magical production and get your tickets to our biggest show ever by calling the Box Office at (501) 378-0405 or visiting TheRep.org!

Behind the Curtain Q&A: Set Designer/Technical Director Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols is The Rep's resident set director, designing such sets as last season's Les Miserables.

Mike Nichols is The Rep’s resident set director, designing such sets as last season’s Les Miserables.

With the start of a new MainStage season, we want to showcase the people behind the Rep stage in a series called “Behind the Curtain.” This weekly Q&A series will highlight staff members who keep the Arkansas Repertory Theatre running on a daily basis.

Memphis is starting this week and someone behind the cool set is our Resident Set Designer/Technical Director Mike Nichols, who has been with the theatre for more than three decades.

Here is what he has to say about his theatre experience here at The Rep:

How long you have worked at The Rep: 32 years

Education/training:  BSE in Speech/Theatre Arts at the University of Central Arkansas and a MA in Drama at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville

How’d you get into the theatre biz:  I fell into it when the scene shop foreman job came open at UCA.

Favorite Rep show you’ve worked on and why:  West Side Story and Towns Facing Railroads because of the design process and result.

One thing people would be surprised about your job:  I design every aspect of each set and those pieces are built, painted and installed under my supervision in The Rep’s scene shop.

Favorite seat in the house:  BB17

Be sure to check back every week to get a glimpse at a different member of The Rep staff. Buy your tickets to Memphis here!