Ted Sod: How did you respond to Usual Girls when you first read it?
Arnulfo Maldonado: I was very much struck by its directness. This play has zero fluff, so it was important for me to also approach the design with that same directness. This is a play that sees a woman’s (in this case, Kyeoung’s) journey/transformation from a very early age through young adulthood. What are the events in our young lives that shape us to be who we are as adults, especially for a young woman of color?
TS: Does the play have personal resonance for you?
AM: It’s personal in that I think we all grapple with our own identity and our own place in the world; I certainly believe that my own personal journey through the murky waters of adolescence, coming to grips with my own sexuality, understanding what it meant to be a minority—those are parts of me that were very much shaped by the people in my life, in school, the social groups I was attracted to, the social groups I avoided. It’s equal parts exciting for me because this is the third play this season in which I am creating a world for an almost exclusively female ensemble—School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh at MCC, and Dance Nation by Clare Barron at Playwrights Horizons —being the others.
TS: What kind of research did you have to do in order to design the set?
AM: The rawness of the play reminded me of Nan Goldin photographs, her unapologetic documentation of intimacy. That led to discovering other photographers whose work focuses on capturing teenage/young adult intimacy, like Justine Kurland and David Stewart and Olivia Bee, who documented her own adolescence in a book entitled Kids In Love. Bee’s use of color felt slightly surreal and right for the tone of the play. That led to looking at more sculptural-based work, like that of Alex De Corte’s. And, of course, looking at photographs of grade schools, middle schools, high schools…the architecture and makeup of these spaces. The geography of these types of institutions includes very vulnerable/open spaces, like a parking lot (where one waits for a ride after school, for instance). It was important to retain that openness in the design because that waiting time/space wants to feel slightly scary. There’s nowhere for you to hide, nowhere for you to retreat to.
TS: How are you collaborating with the director, Tyne Rafaeli? Please give us a window into your process as a set designer.
AM: This is my third collaboration with Tyne and what’s great about a recurring relationship is that you pick up on what helps each of you connect with the piece. Tyne shared with me a visual that felt right in terms of the vulnerability of the space, but also possesses a slight eeriness and seduction to it, that ultimately led me to make the connection between the work of photographers like Olivia Bee and visual artists like Alex De Corte. That was the key image that opened up the possibilities of the space.
TS: What were the challenges in designing the set for this show?
AM: This is my third show in the Underground space. I also designed Kingdom Come by Jenny Rachel Weiner and last season’s Bobbie Clearly by Alex Lubischer, so I have become well acquainted with the challenges of the space. With a play like Usual Girls, which also takes place in multiple locations, it was important to strip the design to the bare essentials and at the same time retain some of the eeriness and excitement of the visuals. The floor felt especially important: we thought to use a similar rubber flooring found on playgrounds because we first see these women on a playground at a very early age. playing a game involving not falling into molten lava. Similar games are played, more emotional ones, as they get older, but the floor remains constant—this felt especially right. As you’ll see, There is one wall that transforms subtly to allow the room to feel slightly more expansive at times—sometimes it becomes a reflective space and at other times it becomes a retreat/protective space. Kyeoung can sometimes feel in control of this space, sometimes lost. This ever-shifting wall feels important in terms of connecting it with how the world itself shifts around her, and at times it can be pleasant, and at others you’re staring at yourself in a mirror and it can be quite painful.
2018-2019 Season, Usual Girls