Written by the artist’s friend Edward Albee, the two-character play focuses primarily on another one of Nevelson’s creative achievements: the myth-infused and sometimes contradictory stories she told about herself. Known for cultivating an idiosyncratic public persona, Nevelson (1899-1988) was born in what is now Ukraine. After her family immigrated to the United States, she grew up in Maine, then found her artistic calling in New York City, ultimately persevering in a male-dominated field and earning critical and commercial success.
But the play reckons with Nevelson’s artistic choices, too. To underscore one of her pivotal creative epiphanies, for instance, the script calls for sculpture to materialize, until the stage is filled with Nevelson’s work.
One snag: Theater J does not have the rights to reproduce Nevelson’s creations. So crafting the production’s visuals became what director Aaron Posner calls “a very interesting puzzle.” Posner puts it this way: “How do you create a sense of her work without replicating her work?”
For a solution, he turned to Nephelie Andonyadis, an accomplished set and costume designer who recently returned to her native Washington after a stint on the West Coast. Andonyadis reveres Nevelson, characterizing the play’s subject as “an extraordinary artist, a master of composition.” During an interview at the lumber- and ladder-filled Theater J scene shop in Beltsville, Md., Andonyadis described the sculptor as someone who excelled at “creating a world” — finding life in inanimate objects.
To create the 10 Nevelson-esque assemblages that are used in the show, Andonyadis collaborated with prop designer Pam Weiner and lighting designer Jesse Belsky, as well as Theater J’s technical director, Tom Howley. Echoing Nevelson’s M.O., the “Occupant” sculptures consist principally of wood and encompass such recycled ingredients as chair parts, ornamental and architectural gewgaws, fragments of older Theater J sets, and a decommissioned spice rack.
Nevelson scavenged art materials from New York streets and “spent years accumulating pieces of wood in her studio,” according to Andonyadis. But the “Occupant” team had to work a little faster than that. Weiner sourced some materials from Community Forklift, a local nonprofit that sells salvaged home-improvement items.
These found objects were layered onto structural frames, alongside smaller pieces of wood cut out specifically for this production. Some of these bespoke components are digital tracings of what Andonyadis calls some “really odd shapes” found in Nevelson’s oeuvre. Others were merely inspired by the artist’s work, notably “Sky Cathedral” and a suite of sculptures known as “Dawn’s Wedding Feast.”
To achieve the right complexity and volume, between 120 and 140 smaller shapes have been attached to each of the sculptures, by Andonyadis’s estimate. Fortunately, she and her colleagues had access to a CNC router — a computer-controlled saw that enabled them to avoid the herculean labor of carving more than 1,000 wooden tidbits by hand.
A key aim of the designers? To “make sure that there’s enough variety to keep it interesting,” says Weiner. If they achieved this goal — while at the same time evoking Nevelson aesthetic — Weiner says their success “really speaks to the strength of [Nevelson’s] vision.”
The team also had to make sure the sculptures looked right under stage lights. After all, Andonyadis says, Nevelson was an “architect of shadow” — one who was “making negative space, as much as she’s making positive space.”
The demands of lighting informed the ultimate choice of paint color. Nevelson called black the only “aristocratic” color, noting that, because it encompasses all colors, it “means totality.” Although Dark Secret is technically a shade of deep gray, Andonyadis says it will register onstage as black, when appropriately lit. Under different illumination, it may look paler, allowing for a range of theatrical effects.
In addition to overseeing the scenic design, Andonyadis also designed the costume that actress Susan Rome wears as Nevelson, a figure known for her eye-catching attire. As with the sculptures, the goal of the costume design is to capture the uniqueness of Nevelson’s style, Andonyadis says, without cloning a specific outfit.
How do you channel the essence of an artist as distinctive as Nevelson without resorting to the showbiz equivalent of a photocopy? For Andonyadis, it’s not that different from how she prepares for any stage production. The trick, she says, is “to figure out how we’re constructing the world of our play,” without “reproducing or re-creating, or retreading something that’s been done before.”
Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. 202-777-3210. theaterj.org.