2014 Best Set Designer Nominee Interview: Ghazal Hassani for Boston University's "columbinus"

Photo by Shaghayegh HZ

Photo by Shaghayegh HZ

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.

Ghazal Hassani boasts an incredible raw talent and hard work ethic as a scenic designer, excelling in her work as an MFA candidate at Boston University. In her first production, Ghazal reinforced the isolation and haunting reality of Columbine and its aftermath in her set design for columbinus. In her Interview, Ghazal tells about her experiences moving to the United States for graduate school, her research to prepare for columbinus, and some of her guilty pleasures.

Hi, Ghazal, thank you so much for interviewing with us.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m an international MFA candidate for Set Design at Boston University, originally from Iran, and this is my second year here in the United States. I’m actually new to theatre; columbinus was the first ever show that I designed. I have a BA in Russian Literature and a minor in Interior Design. I started a very long journey that ended up here and I couldn’t be happier; I think this is it, theatre is my new home.

What is the play columbinus?  How did you get involved in the BU CFA’s production?

Well, imagine this: You just got here to a foreign country, English is your third language, you barely know what proscenium arch is and they ask you to design a show on the Main Stage. I was so scared, I asked them “But aren’t you going to teach me how first?” They said “No! You’ll probably die doing it but you’ll learn!” And that’s how it started.

I was so lucky to be part of a very caring and passionate team, the amount of love and generosity was unbelievable. Special thanks to design and production team; they were with me every step of the way and I learned a lot from them. We were in rehearsals every night, the collaboration between design team and director and actors was one of the most special aspects of this production and I believe it shows perfectly.

columbinus is talking about a lot of issues. It brings the attention to the gaps in different social systems, and it targets all the relations, starting from the smallest groups, between high school kids, the parents, the teachers. . . . And it goes up to show the same disconnection among bigger parts of community, like the educational system, judiciary system, etc.  It’s brave in showing us all sides, not judging.

What are your memories of the Columbine shooting?  What research did you do to prepare your set design?

I was back in Iran when the Columbine shooting happened. I’ve heard it in news but I actually have more vivid memories of Virginia Tech shooting. I had to learn a lot before I start designing for this show. I researched in detail about the shooting itself and anyone involved, along with the history of mass shootings in the US, Columbine High School, gun laws, psychology, high school life in US, and anything else related to story of the play. Then I had to start research for the design aspect, buildings in Colorado, architecture, corporate and commercial buildings, educational buildings, construction and different types of concrete and many, many more. The list is endless but it was so important to know all of this. 

Talk to us about your process as a set designer.  How do you begin?  What steps are involved?  Who else is involved in this process?

I begin with research; I have to learn as much as I can about details of what makes the story, and the playwright him/herself. After I feel that I have a good grasp of what is going on in the story and why, then I can start thinking about the space. I usually find it very helpful to look for something that resembles the story for me, it could be a work of art or a photo or a piece of music. Then, I study the similarities to realize what are the features that are standing up for me. Most of the times the director is the first one with whom I talk. The first conversations with the director and design team are my favorite part of the process. It’s just so rich and helpful.

Photo by Ghazal Hassani

Photo by Ghazal Hassani

Describe your set for us.  What themes or ideas did you try to reinforce in the physical set and its presence?  How did this support other technical elements for this production?

After reading the play, I immediately knew that I was not going to design a typical high school; it needed to be more of a general yet commercial architecture since I believed the story is more than just high school, it talks about different systems in society. You could feel the coldness and the isolation, as if the building was frozen at early stages of an explosion, there were gaps in between all the walls and the ceiling. But my favorite part was the explosion vortex itself which was hidden until act III. The audience gasped every night as we started lighting it while actors were walking through the aisles to get on stage. That explosion was the open wound that’s still bleeding today. It was ugly and unsettling and the power was to sit and have it open in front of you as the story was moving on.

Have you designed other sets?  Have you designed other technical elements for other productions?

This year, I designed the set for BU production of W;t by Margaret Edson which was staged at The Roberts Studio, Boston Center for the Arts; and The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca, and a new play, The Tall Girls by Meg Miroshnik, both at the CFA of Boston University. I also designed the costumes for both last shows. I also assisted in our production of Angels in America, a collaboration between School of Theartre and The Opera Institute. I did props for The Adding Machine, another production on our Main Stage at BU.

Of what are you most proud from your stage work?  How about in your personal life?

Although I deeply love all the shows that I worked on, columbinus has a very special place in my heart.

In my personal life, the fact that I’m here, following my dream, is my biggest achievement in life. I didn’t grow up in an easy environment; life is hard in my country, especially for women. There’s nearly no room to grow, hope considers to be a dangerous illusion, freedom is a myth and dreams are luxuries that no one can afford. But I just couldn’t settle down, I had a dream and I worked my way through all the adversities to get here, with no money, no connections, and no one to show me the way. I’m not gonna hide, I’m pretty proud of it!

What do you like to do on a rainy day?

I really prefer to stay inside on a rainy day, have a nice cup of tea with sweet treats, read or watch movies. Just lying in bed would do perfectly as well, considering sleep is such a luxury in grad school.

What is your guilty pleasure?  Do you have any bad habits?

Oh, I have lots of them, and carbohydrates are the main ingredient in all of them! I don’t know if having sugar cones filled with peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, and Nutella for breakfast considers a bad habit or not! 

What is different about designing or working under a university rather than an independent theatre?  What is similar?

Well, I can’t really answer that question since I’ve only worked inside university.  I assisted some of my teachers and friends in shows last summer, but I have not design by myself. But I can say our program at BU is very vigorous and by that I mean very hard core. The goal is to make us ahead of the game and ready to work in all diverse types of theatre industry.

Do you have any idols or mentors?  Why?

Yes, there are a lot of people mostly artists, poets, writers, journalists, and social workers that are a symbol of resilience for me. Ahmad Shamloo, Samad Behrangi, Iran Darroudi, Zaha Hadid, Oriana Fallaci… are just a few to name. Looking up to them, I learned how to fight for my beliefs. But my mentor here is my professor, James Noone. He is the head of Scenic Department in our school, and it’s a privilege to have him as my advisor; he taught me how to design for theatre from scratch. 

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

It’s hard to plan for future when you are an international student on an F1 visa. I take life as it comes, which is thrilling and nerve-racking at the same time. I might have some projects for this summer, and I know I’m designing some shows in our next season of BU.   

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

Thank you for having me and many thanks to ArtsImpulse for acknowledging the university productions of different shows.