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Slicing the Kellers’ World Open

Mike Fink on designing the set for All My Sons

By Production Dramaturg, Cohen Ambrose

Back in November, I sat down with the Scenic Designer for Montana Rep’s 2016 National Tour of All My SonsMike Fink. I wanted to offer the Rep’s audiences some insights into Mike’s process as a designer, how he approaches a new design, and what his reactions were to Arthur Miller’s classic drama.

Midwest Mansion wclr-1. 10x7.5CA: What were your first reactions to the script?

MF: When I first read the play I remember really identifying with Chris Keller’s outlook.  I myself am terribly idealistic and being so tends to strongly define my perspective at times. Issues can become so polarized that everything appears in pure black or white. I think there’s a sort of starkness to that perspective that elevates the play – to that idealistic realm. It creates the possibility to make a show that focuses more on who we want to become rather than creating a portrait of who we were.

CA: What kind of initial research did you do to get inspiration for your design?

MF: For this production, one of the first images I started with was this watercolor by Wyoming artist Dean Mitchell. In the back you can see other houses and sort of get this sense of encroaching suburbia. The color is subdued and the house is a little off-kilter. I’m reminded of artists like Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. I like the verticality of the farmhouse – this kind of big, monolithic structure out there standing in opposition to the ground. In my mind the house takes on the personality of Joe [Keller].   

The 1/4″ scale model of Fink’s design

CA: What kind of architecture did you research for the Kellers’ house?

MF: I really wanted to find that iconic image of American architecture. What I ended up with is kind of an amalgamation of American Foursquare and Gothic Revival.  We’d know which for sure if we actually saw the roof, but I really like that we don’t. These houses now – compared to Modern Architecture – are bastions of American character and charm. What’s interesting though is that, at the time, they were being commercially distributed – you could buy houses in the Sears catalog! Something about that resonates with what Miller might be saying here about Modernism – the Keller’s factory, the industrial, the machine of war.

CA: What other aesthetic elements did you want to incorporate into your design?

The nearly complete set standing in the Montana Theatre in Missoula

MF: When I started sketching I was really attracted to the fence. The fence is the thing that we see all the neighbors through and the thing that Joe puts up both to keep others out and to hold his family in. The downstage portion is angled the way it is to make the entire scene feel a bit off-kilter and exciting. I love the straight cut line – an obvious line – like our gaze is slicing their world open. My design makes use of realism to create a sense of texture and weight but it departs from the convention at its edges.  It’s ethereal but tangible.  With the sky I wanted to create a sense of depth, continuing thought, legacy, or horizon. I also liked the idea of these characters entering the stage in a really two-dimensional way. It’s somehow alarming in its efficient plan for movement with all these strong and straight lines of attack.

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