Luminato showcases plays designed by York theatre prof

Luminato has turned out to be a showcase for set and costume designs by Shawn Kerwin, Chair of York’s Theatre Department.

Toronto’s inaugural arts festival June 1-10 includes Factory Theatre productions of George F. Walker’s Better Living and Escape from Happiness, which share a set designed by Kerwin.

Not part of Luminato but also running this week is a third Kerwin-designed play, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, presented by Soulpepper Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Kerwin juggles the demands of department Chair and teaching with a steady stream of freelance projects. But, she says, she could not have designed three sets for three plays if they had all opened at the same time. As it happens, two plays are remounts – Escape from Happiness and Our Town – and one – Better Living – is a new production, which only required set dressing changes because it uses the same set as Escape.


Shawn Kerwin’s set for George F. Walker’s east end plays

Richard Ouzounian, Toronto Star theatre critic, liked the set. He wrote in his May 7 review: "We’re in a superbly dilapidated house (bravo to designer Shawn Kerwin!) where a family of misfit women and the odd loser male huddle together in a state of shell shock."

Kerwin is an old hand at designing sets and costumes for the gritty plays by Toronto playwright George F. Walker. Better Living and Escape from Happiness are part of Walker’s east end series and are about the same family at different episodes in their lives. "All the plays are very physical," says Kerwin. People in his plays are explosive and bang about a lot.. "Everything has to be strong and sturdy," she says. For Escape, where someone gets tied to a kitchen chair and dragged around, Kerwin made sure to have a replacement chair ready in the wings. "The wear and tear on that chair is incredibly hard. You can’t assume the chair is going to stand up throughout the whole run."

Both Walker plays take place inside the family’s shabby, cramped row house. Only the set dressing changes. For instance, in the earlier play, the mother has an envelope stuffing business, so there is plenty of evidence of that, and the daughter has a boyfriend. In the sequel, the daughter and her boyfriend have a baby, so there are toys scattered around, diapers and baby bottles in the sink.

Kerwin designed the set based her knowledge of row houses typical of the Queen and Logan area in Toronto’s east end 20 or 30 years ago. Inside the front door, stairs rise to one side, a hall runs to the kitchen at the back, a living room is off to the side.

The set for Our Town is, by contrast, stark. There’s no cluttered room, only a bare stage furnished with a couple of tables and about 14 pressed-back chairs. Modern pressed-back chairs are much bigger than those made in the early half of the 20th century when the play takes place. Kerwin and the head of props scoured antique stores in Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge searching for smaller originals. "Every one of those chairs has been chosen," says Kerwin. "Because the play is so simple, every choice was important."

Right now, Kerwin is scrambling to finish a set design for the Blyth Festival’s World Without Shadows. The play is about an illiterate, desperately poor Nova Scotia folk artist who lived in a one-room shack with no plumbing. She has painted many surfaces – stove, bread box, flower pots – and her paintings were "joyous and light filled and delightful," says Kerwin, who is trying to replicate this for the stage.

And there’s another contract in the works. The deadlines may be looming, the e-mails mounting in her inbox, but Kerwin loves the challenge.

"I like collaborating with directors and actors and all the craftspeople I get to work with," she says. I like being able to take written language and try to imagine how to interpret the physical space actors will have to inhabit and bring out the intention of the playwright."

"I’m never doing the same thing twice. I’m working from scratch," she says. It’s like figuring out a puzzle. And often what you’ve chosen not to put in is just as important as what you have put in."

Story by Martha Tancock, communications officer, Marketing & Communications