In the final part of this three-part series of interviews with Bernard Havard, president & producing artistic director of the Walnut Street Theatre, America’s oldest continuously-operating theater, Bernard shares his experiences with his creative team for A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde: Scenic designer Dr. Roman Tatarowicz, lighting designer Shon Causer, sound designer Christopher Colucci, and costume designer Mary Folino.
Scenic designer Dr. Roman Tatarowicz
What was it like working with this “crazy talented” scenic designer?
Bernard: We found him through our production manager, Siobhán Ruane, who was aware of his work. Having Siobhán on our staff has been a tremendous asset for us. She introduced me to Roman, and I saw his portfolio. I thought the work was amazing, and we immediately got him under contract for a show in the studio, and it just grew from there.
The only thing that I had to talk to Roman about was the final act set for A Woman of No Importance. He was doing it in the same design as the grand mansion, and I said, “No, it’s a different world altogether. She lives in a cottage. It has to portray purity. There has to be a great change. All the flowers have to be white, absolutely white.” And I said, “I want a crucifix on the wall, because she has devoted so much time to religion and her church.” So with that collaboration, he came up with that wonderful set for us.
Henrik: When you shared your interpretation of the last act with Roman, how did he respond?
Beyond collaboration with me, Roman is also a great collaborator with the costume and the lighting designers. He doesn’t need to collaborate with the sound designer, although I’m pretty sure he would’ve told me if he thought it was wrong.
Roman’s hands-on. He goes down to the shop to make sure the scenery’s being built properly. He’s there the whole time the set’s being put in the theater. How he finds the time to leave the hospital and be at the theater for as long as he does, I’m not sure. Maybe he’s got great assistance at St. Mary’s.
Henrik: I have never heard of a physician who also creates some of the finest stage designs.
Bernard: Same here. I believe Dr. Tatarowicz is the only set designer I’ve ever worked with who delivers babies. He brings such a vision and precision to his work that I can only think that these skills make him an excellent obstetrician.
You know how Leonardo da Vinci was able to encompass the scientific and the artistic worlds—that’s what Roman does.
Lighting designer Shon Causer
Bernard: Shon and I have collaborated on a number of plays that I directed at the Fulton Opera House and then moved to the Walnut, and he also worked on The Humans with me. He’s a sensitive and aware human being and artist. He understands light and the importance of it.
Bernard: Hester is overhearing these women prattling on about men and about society, and she’s off in a corner by the bookcase, and she’s sort of in a very dim light, so nobody really pays any attention to her. She’s just there. We know she’s there, and at the moment that attention is drawn to her, we slowly bring the light up on her, not so fast that the audience realizes what’s going on, but to focus the attention on her now.
Shon understands that, so we don’t have to have a long discussion about it.
Shon and I discussed whether they had electric light at that mansion, and we decided they did not. They were rural people, and they were probably still working off gas light in that building. Whatever adjustment he made to the color or the temperature of the lighting, it conveys gas light.
Henrik: You and everyone involved in this production must have spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy, let alone money, to make every moment work for your audience.
Bernard: True. We had the footlights at the front of the stage to convey gas light, and to heighten the fact that it’s theatrical. We’re not trying to fool anybody. A Woman of No Importance is a theater piece, and we hope audiences enter into it as a theater piece. We’re not trying to create reality as such; rather, we’re trying to convey the truth and the honesty of the situation.
Sound designer Christopher Colucci
Bernard: Yes, Colucci and I, we’ve been on the same wavelength for a long time. We think, “What is the mood that we’re trying to set?” I wanted a pastoral mood, because they’re in the country. We also had to deal with that big melodramatic moment when Hester comes screaming out after having been kissed by Lord Illingworth.
And at that point, it’s so melodramatic that I thought, if we cover this with a sound effect in the music, it will help the audience. If there’s nervous laughter in the audience, it’ll be covered to a certain extent. And it was successful, I think, in doing that.
Henrik: What music did you play during those tension-filled moments?
Bernard: The two composers that I was focusing on were Vaughn Williams and Gustav Holst. As soon as Hester comes on and says, “Lord Illingworth tried to kiss me,” and then the seducer appears onstage, and young Arbuthnot goes charging across the stage to punch him, Mrs. Arbuthnot makes a shattering revelation.
At that point, the music chords strike. Badoom. It helps deflect, I think, nervous laughter from the audience, who may find this scene either tragic or overly melodramatic.
Costume designer Mary Folino
In this production, the men are dressed in dark outfits that represent their social and professional status. The women are wearing exquisitely elegant Victorian outfits with various colors and shades, with two exceptions: the American visitor dressed in white, and Mrs. Arbuthnot dressed in all black, almost like an angel risen from the dead (played by Alicia Roper, demonstrating a wide range of feelings).
Could you describe Folino’s work at the Walnut and her costume design for this production in particular?
Bernard: The first costume you see the young American in is pale off-white, slightly yellow, and the last dress she wears in Oscar Wilde’s Act 4 is white, white muslin. It’s also informed by Parisian fashions at the time, because of Wilde’s reference to “American women always get their clothes in Paris.” So when Mary researched the period and the costumes, she also researched what costumes, what dresses were being designed in the early 1890s in Paris.
The black dress, worn by Mrs. Arbuthnot, was only for Act 2 and 3, and it’s called for. Oscar actually refers to the “woman in black,” and so Lord Illingworth immediately says, “Yes, what a charming woman in black.”
The costume is also spelled out for Hester, the young American girl. It has to be a woman in white muslin. Oscar Wilde has put it in the script, in the dialogue. You would be absolutely foolish, and wrong, if you didn’t follow Oscar’s direction.
Director Bernard Havard on Oscar Wilde
Bernard: “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
“To win back my youth, Gerald, there is nothing I wouldn’t do—except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community.”
“The English country gentleman galloping after a fox—the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.”
There’s just wit everywhere. There are so many quotes in this play, each one more famous than the next. I love them all.
Henrik: Tell us something that very few people know about you.
Bernard: The one thing I will tell you that I did in the past that informs my life is work as a short order cook and a sous chef in London, even though I didn’t get that far. I was cooking to support myself as a young actor, rather than driving a taxi or working as a waiter.
Preparing meals for people and seeing the satisfaction they get from a well-prepared meal is the same satisfaction I get from preparing a well-prepared play.
Henrik: I appreciate the way you greet people on opening night. As a theater reviewer, I feel always honored, as if you were saying, “You’re all doing a lot of hard work, too.”
Bernard: It’s a brotherhood. The people who support the theater are not a large group, probably less than, I don’t know, 3% of our country who enjoy what we’re doing. We have to embrace our audiences. They’re precious people. Without them, the theater doesn’t exist.
This interview was originally published by Phindie on February 20, 2020.
For the other two parts of this three-part interview, click these links:
Part 1, Risks can lead to financial loss: Interview with Bernard Havard on A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE at the Walnut Street Theatre, and
Part 2, As if Oscar Wilde himself had arrived on the Walnut stage: Interview with Bernard Havard on casting and working with his actors.