A set designer’s job is about overcoming a series of paradoxes: First, transform a familiar room into a completely new universe, without blowing the budget. Second, reconcile thematic relevance with physical limitations (and hurry up already). Finally, create something that both surprises the audience and feels totally appropriate within the context of the play. No wonder local theaters hire set designer Matthew Smucker so often; he makes all of that look easy.
Perhaps it’s a side effect of parenting twin 5-year-old sons, but Smucker, 40, comes off as quietly witty and patient, the kind of artist who doesn’t have to upstage anyone to show how good he is. Raised in a Mennonite family in Indiana, he came to Seattle in 1995 after studying theater and visual art at Goshen College. Days into his new residence, Smucker was already designing sets for fringe mainstay Annex Theatre on Capitol Hill. Eventually he pursued an M.F.A. in scene design at the University of Washington, and ever since has been in high demand among local theaters, including Intiman, ACT and Seattle Repertory. He also teaches scenic design at Cornish College of the Arts.
Designing six to eight shows in any given year, Smucker is pulled in many different creative directions at once. In the last year, he fashioned the Restoration era set for Or, at the Seattle Rep; crafted a canvas to capture every kid’s imagination in Harold and the Purple Crayon at Seattle Children’s Theatre; and updated the landscape for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic Oklahoma! at the 5th Avenue Theatre. This season’s production timelines required that he design the holiday movie turned musical Elf (at the 5th) and the ancient Indian epic Ramayana (at ACT) simultaneously.
To keep it all straight, Smucker begins with a consistent but flexible process. Often working with the new app Paper (which turns the iPad into a sketch pad), he makes his way from script reading to set building with a series of rough thumbnail sketches organized much like a film’s storyboard. Once he understands the physical flow of the story, he builds a sketch model, with paper cutouts of furniture, scenery and backdrops, which he moves around until he sees how all the puzzle pieces need to fit together.
Although a script offers certain requirements the set designer can’t ignore (if the leading lady lives in a tree, he can’t base her in a submarine), Smucker tries to stay as open-minded as possible while conducting early visual research. “I liken the artistic process to letting yourself be lost in a new city,” he says. “Pure craft is knowing what you’re going to make before you start making it. That’s not necessarily as interesting to me.”
Often, Smucker generates a complete design after stumbling upon one particularly evocative theme or phrase. Early concepts for Ramayana were inspired by a discussion in a design concept meeting concerning Indian skyscrapers covered with bamboo scaffolding. The whimsical world of Elf grew from something even smaller: a snow globe, which, Smucker had noticed, kept reappearing in the script. For Oklahoma! Smucker interpreted Curly as seeing a wide-open future for himself, whereas Jud felt the exact opposite. Accordingly, the design became a set of “allowances” of how much Oklahoma sky is visible, depending on which character is on stage. The girl-crazy cowboys dance under a big blue expanse, but in Jud’s cramped shack, no sky is seen at all. Building on visual associations like these, Smucker expertly fashions what he calls “a machine that can tell a story.”
NEXT UP: See Smucker’s sets in Ramayana at ACT (10/12–11/11); The Wizard of Oz at Seattle Children’s Theatre (11/15–01/06) and Elf at 5th Avenue Theatre (11/30–12/31). Visit matthewsmucker.com.