2014 Best Set Design Nominee Interview: Brian Boruta for The Umbrella's "Angels In America: Part II - Perestroika"

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews.

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Photo by John Burke

Photo by John Burke

Brian Boruta, Director of Performing Arts for The Umbrella in Concord, Massachusetts, took on the behemoth task of designing the sets for both Angels in America: Parts 1 and 2 in 2014.  Not only did he survive the process, he thrived, creating a larger than life, spectacle-heavy set worthy of a 2014 ArtsImpulse Best Set Design nomination.  In his Interview, Brian discusses his creative process as a designer (he has also done lighting and sound design for other shows), the unique collaboration at The Umbrella, and his guilty pleasures (we promise that we won't judge, Brian). 

Brian, introduce yourself to our readers.  What is your role at The Umbrella and how did you get this position?

Well, I’m a Gemini with a double Capricorn moon and I have a . . . Oh. That wasn’t what you meant? Sorry . . .

Currently, I serve as the Director of Performing Arts for The Umbrella, a multidisciplinary arts center in the quaint ‘burb of Concord, MA. I came to the building six years ago as a performer, and, after doing several shows here, took over the program in 2012.

I guess I was just lucky. For many years, the program struggled to get going, and, in 2011, the Board voted to support an expansion of programming with some generous sponsorship. I threw my hat into the ring when they were looking for their first full-time Director. Right place at the right time, as they say.

I oversee all theater programming, as well as collaborating with some wonderful local artists on film and concert series.

What were some of the challenges of designing a set for Angels in America?  What was harder, Part I or Part II?

Well, simply put, Tony Kushner is an asshole. Not literally, of course. I don’t know him personally, but his script is incredibly demanding of designers, asking them to create this world in which anything is possible. Between the two parts of the show, there are almost 50 set changes including a trip to Hell, Heaven and everywhere in between. How do you fit all that on stage? How do you make a flaming book erupt from the ground? How do you fly an Angel in a theater with no fly space?

Kushner is kind enough to give the designers license to “let the wires show,” as he says, but, still, the level of production that he asks for is daunting and certainly added some new tricks to my bag.

If I had to choose one, I would say that Part 2 was harder. For one, it’s longer, and the evolution of scenes is less structured. The world has literally fallen apart around these characters, and you, as the designer, have to create that with them.

I also owe a whole lot of thanks to Sharon Mason, who played our Angel, for all her bravery. Nancy and I wanted this moment for the end of Part 2 when Prior is urging the audience to celebrate “more life” as he stands in front of the Bethesda Fountain. We thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if the Angel on top of the fountain was actually Sharon, in full costume and makeup as a living statue, and she reached out to him in the final light cue and the water started to run over her feet.” Poor Sharon was 13 feet in the air with a mammoth of a dress, standing on an 18 inch square platform and standing still for ten minutes. It must have been hell for her, but, for me as a designer, when that water started flowing, it was perhaps one of my proudest moments.

Have you previously designed sets?  What has been your favorite?  Did any prior set designs help or inspire you for your set design for Part 2?

I have! Prior to working for The Umbrella, I was the Technical Director and Events Manager at Wellesley Public Schools. I got to work with students to design scenery, lighting, and sound, and I also freelanced my time out to other groups as a lighting and scenic designer. All told, I’ve probably designed almost 3 dozen shows at this point.

If I had to pick one, I think I would say that Red was my favorite. It was a real ‘environment’ piece. We stripped the space of its soft goods, and installed seating risers on stage supported by some 400 paint cans and did our best not to hide anything in the theater, but to reclaim it, as Rothko would have done in his studio at The Bowery in the ‘50s.  The whole space just became this incredibly rich tapestry, almost a palette itself, which continued to evolve throughout the performance run since the actors were using it and painting live on stage.

I can’t say that any one set inspired me for Angels, but I think that I learned a little something from each one along the way and Angels pushed me to use just about every trick that I had in order to pull it off.

Talk us through the process from when a show is selected until when a set is built and complete.  How do you prepare?  Who else helps you?  What steps do you take?

I’m not very good at designing literal shows. I’m not shy about saying that, either. I think, as designers, we all have a specific approach and skill set which either helps us or hurts us when working on certain projects.

For me, I like to take the source material and find the strongest visual metaphor or symbol. For Side Show, we had these fabric panels draped from a center point on the stage out towards the wings which served as a sort of deconstructed cyc throughout the show, adding color and texture to the action. When you stood back and looked at them all fully lit, they resembled a tent under which the "Side Show" took place and, no matter where the Hilton twins went, they were always underneath that tent.

For Angels, it was Bethesda, the final scene of the show. Prior says that “this was [his] favorite place in the world.” And so it felt appropriate that this place should be carried with him on his journey to his ultimate destination, through destruction, despair, in the face of death . . . whatever.

Photo by Meghan Donnelly

Photo by Meghan Donnelly

I couldn’t very well just place a giant fountain on stage the whole time, though, so we decided to work with the archways and terrace behind fountain as the dominant imagery. Archways, for me, symbolize passages to new places, thresholds (of revelation), entry and exit.  It felt powerful and somehow correct. As the play progressed from Part 1 to Part 2, the structure actually disintegrated and fell apart, which was cool, and it allowed Nancy [the director, a 2014 ArtsImpulse Best Director of a Play Nominee for The Umbrella's Angels in America, Part 1 and Part 2] a lot of freedom in terms of movement on the stage while still maintaining this almost monolithic structure lurking in the background.

I really have a fantastic team. My Technical Director Al is a wonderful problem solver and The Umbrella’s own Executive Director, Jerry Wedge, is an architect by training who made a move into nonprofit arts management, so he and I have a fun time just wandering the stage sometimes discussing possibilities and hashing out ideas.

Are there any shows for which you would want to design the set?

After Angels, I almost never want to design a set again. No, no, I’m joking.

It’s hard to put my finger on any one piece that draws me in as a designer, but right now I’m really drawn to environment pieces, like Red, which allow you to create a space in which both the actors and the audience can co-habitate and create a really ephemeral experience together. Every performance ends up being different that way. I just think it’s such a cool paradigm to explore because you aren’t creating a picture as much as you are an experience. 

What other technical positions have you held?  Which do you find the most rewarding?  The most challenging?

As a freelancer, I’ve been a lighting, sound, and scenic designer. I’ve dabbled in props. Really, the only thing you’re not likely to ever see my name next to is costume design. I tried to sew a seam on a table cloth once and stabbed myself with the needles so I just stapled the damn thing together.

I think they all present unique challenges. The most exciting challenge of all is finding a way for them all to play together in a harmonious design. For the last 2 seasons at The Umbrella, the sound, lighting and scenic design teams have remained almost entirely the same which has been really fun for us. Seif, our lighting designer, and I have built a really great relationship working together. When I design, I have his aesthetics in mind too, and like to provide him with fun opportunities to integrate lights and scenery and every time I hand him a design. I like when he bounces ideas back at me for how we can up the ante a bit even more. 

What is the best play or movie that you’ve seen recently?  Do you have a top 5 of favorite plays?  Do you have a favorite production that you saw in 2014.

Tough call!

I really liked The Theory of Everything. Eddie Redmayne was amazing. Though, I may be biased. #swoon.

My top 5 is always evolving. Right now, I can’t seem to get enough Sam Shepard (The Umbrella will be doing True West this fall!) and The Color Purple is on loop in my CD player. Side Show will forever hold a place in my heart even though I thought the recent revival was a bit too cheap for my taste.

One of the absolute best things I saw in 2014 was Company One’s production of AstroBoy and the God of Comics. It was definitely not for everyone, but I like really weird shit, and it was maybe one of the most brilliant ensemble pieces I’ve seen in a long time. 

What is your guilty pleasure?

Real Housewives. I figure I get enough culture in my daily work that I’m allowed to go home, pour a glass of wine, and watch trashy reality television. #bloop

How do you see the Greater Boston theatre scene changing?  How is The Umbrella responding to these changes?  What is The Umbrella’s mission and how does it address the needs of the Greater Boston theatre community?

Big question! I could go on for hours about this, but the Greater Boston theatre is in a sort of renaissance right now thanks to the huge success and national recognition of our large professional houses, like A.R.T. and Huntington.

But the growth isn’t limited to the professional houses. There is so much support for our fringe scene, and even theaters in the burbs are drawing audiences out of the city.

I think if you look at the rhythm of theatre programming as a whole, not just now, but throughout the ages, it tends to ebb and flow based on the needs of its audience.

Today’s audience demands art as activism, leveraging artistic voices to create global discussions around relevant issues. Audiences aren’t afraid to engage with this kind of work which is really exciting. 

Brian Boruta 2

Here at The Umbrella, we pride ourselves on producing bold, daring, and innovative work. Informally, I like to say that we produce “shit that matters.” We like to push boundaries and really encourage those discussions to happen.

I think the only reason we can get away with doing this kind of work is BECAUSE of that renaissance. Audiences are trusting Boston theaters to produce strong, solid work that fulfills these needs and because of this, they’re buying tickets and we are developing artists who are capable of meeting and exceeding those challenges. It’s a really rich scene and it’s fun to be a part of.

The Umbrella was nominated for a number of ArtsImpulse and DASH Awards.  Why do you think that reviewers and audience connect with The Umbrella’s work?  What are some of its strengths?  How has the Umbrella grown in the past few years?

You know, we’re just not like anything else around here. There are many other local presenters in the area, but so many of them are producing time-honored standards and family-friendly shows. Mind you, I fully support them, but I felt that in order to really make a good go at it here in Concord, we had to take a different approach. It’s a fresh new voice, which I think audiences out here really like.

I think we really excel at being willing to take risks and having the technical team to meet those challenges. As I said, I’ve had the same design team for the last couple seasons now, and they have really gotten comfortable with what this tiny little theater can and cannot handle. You can’t put a price tag on that kind of knowledge OR the relationship that they have all built with each other.

I think it’s because of them and because of the incredible talent that has taken notice and started auditioning for our shows and joining our teams that we have been able to expand our programming so quickly. Back when I first got here, we were doing one or two shows a season and scrambling for audience members. Now we are producing four or five shows per season. Our current production of Tartuffe has sold over 90% of its total capacity. It’s all about building trust with your audience and trust with your team. If you build it . . .

What’s next for you?  For The Umbrella?

A vacation?

After Tartuffe closes (we have two shows left!), we move on to La Cage Aux Folles, which I am also designing and which has been just an absolute joy. We have a fantastic director (Peyton Pugmire, a 2014 ArtsImpulse Best Leading Actor in a Play Nominee for The Umbrella's Angels in America, Part 1), and the show promises to be all kinds of tawdry, glitzy entertainment.

I’m also really lucky to be working with a group of students at Merrimack College on a production of Next to Normal. Having done the show before, it’s been really great delving into the material in an academic setting.

After that, I honestly hope to be able to perform more. It’s been a while since I’ve laced up my tap shoes, so who knows.

Do you have anything else that you wish to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

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