Oklahoma! will have an innovative and inspired set design.
By Luis Fernando Rodriguez
When it came time for Professor Marie Anne Chiment to design the set for Oklahoma! she looked directly to the source material to get her initial inspiration.
“I always start by listening to music, and I let the music tell me what I’m feeling and then I look at the words,” Chiment said. “Some of the words kept coming back to me. One of the lines is, ‘all of the sounds of the earth are like music’ and I thought, ‘well that’s interesting.’ They’re telling us all of the sounds of the earth creates music, and that’s interesting for a musical because that means the earth is the origin of where the music is coming from.”
Chiment, head of the department’s design program, added that she then began looking at pictures of Oklahoma to gather inspiration for her design but it wasn’t until she got to the grocery store that she got her most innovative idea.
Marie Anne Chiment’s quarter-inch model
“It was summertime in Pennsylvania and when you live in Pennsylvania in the summer you realize there is a lot of fresh corn,” Chiment said. “I enjoy eating fresh corn so what I would is go to the grocery store and I’d buy my corn, shuck it – take the leaves off of it – and cook my corn. I thought rather than throw away all of these beautiful leaves I should save them and see what happens, so I left them out on the table and day by day they dried, and as the dried they curled and twisted and became all of these beautiful shapes, and I thought, the part that we throw away is the part that’s often the most beautiful thing.”
Chiment began to see a correlation between the drying cornhusks and the music of Oklahoma!
“I thought, well maybe these corn husks are telling me something and the more I looked at them the more I realized the dry corn husks started to look the way the music sounded,” Chiment recalled. “So as I started looking at these beautiful twirling corn husks I thought that’s a metaphor for me, these beautiful shapes are indeed the earth’s sounds.”
The dried cornhusks along with lyrics that Marie used as inspiration.
The dried husks eventually became the inspiration for the clouds that will hang over the Oklahoma! stage in Tomlinson Theater.
“Something that was important to me was the idea of the sky and how important the sky is in a land where you count on rain and air to grow your crops, also the feeling of vastness you get when you look out over the plains and see clouds in the distance,” Chiment said. “That’s when it occurred to me that some of these corn husks I had been looking at curling on my kitchen table reminded me of cloud forms. As my technical director, Andrew Laine said, ‘this is one of the craziest things I have ever built.’ And it is crazy, there would be people that say it’s impossible and I have to be honest and say I wasn’t sure it was possible. It looked great in a quarter-inch model but turning a quarter-inch model into a real life full-sized cloud was going to be interesting. It took some planning but we all worked together, that’s one of the exciting things about theater. You all collaborate and you put all you heads together and figure out how you see it and how you think this could happen and indeed today we have a 40-foot cloud that hangs over our stage that looks like a dried cornhusk. I think the lighting designer is going to have a lot of fun with this.”
Chiment also looked to one of the few memories she had from when she lived in Oklahoma for a year when she was 5 years old.
“When I lived in Oklahoma as a child, corn seemed like it was huge, it was enormous,” Chiment said. “I wanted to go back to that feeling of childhood of going into a forest of corn,” Chiment recalled. “We actually [created] the forests of corn with a crew of volunteer [students] and Philadelphia artist Simone Spicer. She just so happens to make sculpture out of cardboard and I saw one of her sculptures was rows of corn and I asked her, she’s a friend of mine, ‘Simone, could you teach us to make your magical cardboard corn?’ so she [came to Temple] to show us.”
One of the challenges for Chiment was, she said, trying to be innovative while trying to stick to dirctor Peter Reynold’s vision of having a traditional Oklahoma! but it eventually all clicked for her.
Sustainability artist Simone Spicer came to teach a workshop on how to make corn stalks out of cardboard.
“I think looking at the cornstalks twisting and turning was my moment,” Chiment said. “Very often when I work on shows I don’t do a traditional approach, I do something very different so being told right up front there’s going to be a farmhouse and a bunk, it’s like oh, really? And I understand the musical needs that, but I wanted to do something that was a little different so when I figured out the earth-sky dichotomy and the corn and the clouds [came into play] that’s when I realized I had something to offer the show that hadn’t been done before.”
While students may be familiar with Chiment through her costume work – she is currently the head of design and costume design – she has had previous experience set designing outside of Temple.
“It’s interesting,” Chiment said. “I started out as a costume designer, I went grad school for costume design, did a little set design on the side. I hope it shows people there’s really no boundaries to what you can do if you have an imagination and are willing to work hard and try new things.”
Chiment gave a lot of praise to the team that has helped bring her design to life.
“I know my limitations,” she said. “I know costume design from the ground up, I can’t say that about set design. I haven’t worked in a lot of set shops because I was always in the costume shop, so I made sure to surround myself with very good people to make sure my work manifests. On this show I have a very good associate designer in Randall Parsons, I have a very good assistant designer in John Eddy, a very good technical director in Andrew Laine and very good scenic artist in Marka Suber.”
See Professor Marie Anne Chiment’s innovative design during Oklahoma! running from October 9 – 20. Tickets and information: templetheaters.ticketleap.com/oklahoma.