September 28, 2018

Theatrical Certainty vs. Theatrical Ambiguity: A Conversation with Intractable Woman Set Designer Marsha Ginsberg

Home / Behind the Scenes / Theatrical Certainty vs. Theatrical Ambiguity: A Conversation with Intractable Woman Set Designer Marsha Ginsberg

In this series, we meet and speak with those involved in the making of PlayCo’s current production of Stefano Massini’s Intractable Woman. Marsha Ginsberg is primarily a set and costume designer, though her expertise spans disciplines. Following completion of a Masters at the Tisch School of the Arts, Ginsberg has continually developed local and international understanding of scenic design. She previously taught such subjects as an assistant professor at Parsons’ School of Design, Wesleyan University, and Swarthmore College, to name a select few. Her work on the Off-Off-Broadway production of Habit, by David Levine, earned her an Obie Award in 2013, and her larger portfolio has been commended by platforms like The Los Angeles and New York Times. We spoke with her regarding her contributions to PlayCo’s production, and how former experiences such as her’s can inform her current decisions.


Can you tell us a bit about your background in set design?

My background is as a visual artist. I went to art school at Cooper Union and a post-grad studio program at the Whitney Museum where I focused on photography, installation/conceptual art. As I got more and more interested in the relation of installation and performance I shifted my work into the area of scenic design for performance and attended graduate school in this area.


Do you feel, over time, you’ve developed a unique visual vocabulary? What have you learned in your previous projects that you carry over to this enterprise?

I suppose because of my art background I’ve always viewed making spaces for performance in the most interdisciplinary way and the span of my work is in narrative theater, opera, new music and art/world performance. I am not sure I’d say I have a unique visual vocabulary but would say my work is an ongoing exploration of the following concerns: the aura of historic and contemporary spaces and architecture; how people inhabit these spaces past/present and how those may be translated (successfully or unsuccessfully) theatrically; issues of theatrical representation and real/virtual/fictive spaces and the use of unorthodox non-theatrical materials. While I often see a thread from project to project, I am interested in making things or using materials I am unfamiliar with. It’s important to me to have a certain level of the unknown or risk.


In Stefano Massini’s original text, he doesn’t describe an exact setting. What factors in the writing influence your design process the most? Are there certain keywords that shape your ideas for different sets? Are there other factors that influence your understanding and your design choices? How do directors and playwrights contribute to the result?

It’s always both exciting and tricky to design an open-ended text. By not having a location specified, together with a director, you can be quite conceptual in approach. The space is obviously framing the theatrical event, but moreover framing how the text and our dramaturgy is translated to the audience. We began the process by Lee sharing articles that resonated with her about and by Anna and the situation for journalists in Russia during the periods of the first and second Chechnya wars. Of course it’s quite apparent how linked the issues of press freedom and “truth” vis-a-vis what a government wishes it’s citizens to know to our current situation in the US and our discussions often explored truth/realities/fictions, both in real events in the world and how we represent events and ideas on stage. There were two key images that we found which embodied our ideas and lead to the design: an image of a press room in the Central House of Journalists in Moscow which had been turned into a temporary memorial for slain journalists whereby a portrait of slain journalists was singly displayed on chairs of an empty press room; and a series of photographs by Gregor Sailer of fake towns entitled Potemkin Village (“an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition,” fittingly the first use of this term is in Russia 1904 after Grigori Potëmkin, who supposedly built impressive fake villages along a route Catherine the Great was to travel’). More research revealed some Potemkin villages still in use in Russia today to literally cover deteriorating building facades with printed ideal architecture to clean up a town in anticipation of Putin’s visit. This led to looking at the work of the Soviet dissident artist Ilya Kabakov who staged fake room installations about Soviet characters and situations in art galleries and museums. So we always discussed our set being a Potemkin Village stage set that was layered inside an existing space. The design reveals these layers, as the real theater is revealed above our set and because this theater has the unique element of a bank of windows that face the rear view of apartments, we reveal this as another layer of reality into our sandwich of representations.


The set for The Play Company’s Intractable Woman is a press room, a distinct space from the arenas where the stories take place (in Anna’s case, Chechnya), where reporting and analysis of events may take place. Yet, as we’ve seen unfold in the small theater of the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, the delivery of news is rather dramatic. How, in your view, does the set of a newsroom invite theatricality?

The placing of the table whereby the dignitaries would address the journalists in our instance is directly in front of the audience and serves as a kind of missing fourth wall. The table has an empty chair behind it and a microphone and this to me, creates a very powerful yet pregnant statement. We’re unsure why these women are in this empty room. Who they are addressing? Are they rehearsing? Are they in a private moment enacting an event, or a ritual? Are they exorcising? That ambiguity for me is deeply theatrical.


What projects will you design for following this?

I am currently designing sets for Annie Dorsen’s latest project called Slow Room, presented by Performance Space NY, which coincidentally is on the 4th floor of the PS122 building (27-29 September). [PlayCo’s Intractable Woman is performing on the 2nd Floor of the same building.] Annie often composes performance material with found/algorithmic texts. In this case, the texts are from transcripts from an online chat room. It’s been quite challenging and enlightening to imagine how to turn a virtual space into a realized physical space that 30 actors (who have no spatial awareness) must inhabit. Another dream project I am working on is Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Ted Huffman at Opera National de Montpellier in France.

Intractable Woman is currently in production on the second-floor theater of 122 Community Center (122CC). For more information, please visit:

Author: MelissaHardy
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