“Ravaged But Being Rebuilt” – A Talk with “Once On This Island” Scenic Designer Dane Laffrey

Noah Golden

“You cannot begin to describe the effect that trip had on me as a person but also in feeling equipped to responsibly bring this work to Broadway in 2017 in a way that was true to the piece and what it portrays.”

Dane Laffrey

Dane Laffrey

That is what scenic designer Dane Laffrey told me near the end of our 45-minute phone conversation about the research trip to Haiti that completely changed the way he designed the current Broadway revival of “Once On This Island.” In fact, Laffrey said that expedition changed a lot of things, along with a few other meteorological events that coincidentally happened during the rehearsal process. “Hurricane Maria happened in Puerto Rico and the storms that affected those tiny little islands in the Bahamas. We continued to collect and pull those images because it felt like ‘Island’ is ultimately dealing with, at its core, how you survive in the face of something like that and the restorative power of storytelling. You feel that connection of the human spirit threaded through all these places.”

That love of storytelling and the power of coincidence are two things that have followed Laffrey throughout his career. Originally from Michigan and growing up “around the mid-West,” Laffrey was a self-described bad student. But, like so many, he found an outlet in community theater, a passion which finally led him to Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school where he would spend his junior and senior years. “I always knew I wanted to participate in theater, that kind of storytelling felt right for me,” he said of a life-changing decision made at Interlochen, “but design really felt like the thing that I could offer to that narrative.” During his senior year, his roommate was an acting student named Michael Arden. “We've always been very, very close friends,” Laffrey recounted, even when their paths diverged for many years. Arden went on to gain acclaim as an actor, in shows like Deaf Wests’ “Big River,” and Laffrey moved to Australia to study design.

“From the moment Michael had the impulse to start directing, I became a core collaborator for him,” he said of how their creative relationship began. The two have worked on many projects together, including the 2015 Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening.” What started as a “really, really great idea Michael hatched with his husband [Andy Mientus]” in a small Skid Row black box, began to really come alive, design-wise when the production moved to the Wallis theater in LA. “The Wallis space is cavernous and would have drowned the piece. So, we needed to contain the space,” which proved a tricky task given the unique requirements of the bilingual production. His solution was a “quiet,” multi-level set that was based on a boiler-factory-turned-theater in Germany that “had a personality, a coldness, a murky history that would resonate for that piece but also a fundamental theatrical neutrality about it.”

While “Spring Awakening” and “Once On This Island” (also directed by Arden) have wildly different aesthetics, they share an economic sense of utilizing simple props and set pieces to create the world of the story. “What it boils down to is truthfulness,” he explains when asked about the simplicity of his design work, “It's about acknowledging the space you're in honestly, what you're putting into that space in an honest way. The things that space would reasonably contain and then what the imaginative leaps are that tie all of those things together. Things aren't just entering that space because you need them or think you need them.”

With “Spring Awakening,” that truthfulness came from utilizing tables, chairs and the actors themselves to create different spaces and tableaus. With “Once On This Island” they took a different approach. “It's louder. It wants to be genuinely overwhelming,” but more than that, the playing space was totally different. “You can't hide the lights, you can't pretend you're not in a performance space,” he said, speaking about the in-the-round space of Circle In The Square, which meant the set and theater had to become one. “[There’s stuff] on the ceiling, on the walls, it goes out into the wings passed where you can see. There’s a large, jackknifed 18-wheeler truck in the space and a fallen power line that goes into the audience. There's one vom in the theater and that's flooded with water and is held back by sandbags. Depending on where you're sitting, some people can see things that only four or five seats can see like a tiny wooden chair or a rotten pineapple.”

The core set, which all takes place in a large sandpit, strives to capture the core message behind “Island” – how you survive in the face of disaster and the restorative power of storytelling. “When the audience first comes in, the stage is completely wrecked and covered in trash and downed palm fronds and stuff everywhere. That stuff becomes the musical instruments and the props.” It’s a busy set, eye-popping set that’s the result of hundreds of images pulled by Laffrey and Arden of places like Haiti and post-Katrina New Orleans.

The set of "Once on this Island"

The set of "Once on this Island"

The design really came together when Laffrey and Arden went to Haiti for a research trip which was “an incredible, life-altering experience in every imaginable way and invaluable in creating this place.” In Haiti, he spent time in Port-au-Prince, went to open air-markets, worked with local artists and was even invited to a secret voodoo ceremony. His biggest takeaway, which is seen throughout “Island,” is the hodge-podge, anachronistic style he so often found during his trip. Streets are lined with original art, traditional clothes, supplies sent from aid relief organizations and “church hats sent by a group in Idaho by the shipping container.”

“So there's nothing in the space that's truly just ravaged,” he says, “It's being repurposed. It's being rebuilt. It's been decorated, painted, colored. It's been given life no matter what form it is in. It's ravaged but being rebuilt.”

The trip was “extraordinary” and impacted not just the scenic design of “Island” but redefined the impact this show could have. “Haiti at this moment in the contemporary period in relation to natural disasters. That’s something we have a responsibility to be honest about. There can't be a folkloric glossing over of the truth about that place and also it has so much to do with this show.”

Noah Golden is an associate theater critic and columnist for OnStage based near New Haven, CT. Throughout his life, he has been involved in many facets of theater from acting to directing to writing to playing drums in the pit. When not involved in or writing about theater, Noah is a video producer and social media specialist. Twitter: @NoahTheGolden