Scenic designer Kat Conley has been turning on the waterworks lately. The Alliance Theatre's charge scenic artist for eight seasons and an 11-season collaborator with Georgia Shakespeare, Conley has designed two 2008 shows with complex water effects: Actor's Express's Octopus and the Alliance Hertz Stage's Eurydice (March 14-April 13), directed by Georgia Shakespeare's Richard Garner. A Carnegie Mellon graduate and a resident of Atlanta's Westside, Conley talks about the challenges of working with water and the way her job balances her cute and dark sides.
How much water is involved in Eurydice? There are basically two water effects. The major thing is that when Eurydice goes down to the underworld, she rides in an elevator and rain falls on her. It's in the script that way. So we're going to have an elevator that can do that. The other part is the underworld's River of Forgetfulness. You could do it in many ways: It could be a theoretical river, or a big swatch of Chinese silk, but we're having an actual one, and the front of the stage will have water flowing over it.
Does using water make your job exponentially more difficult? It becomes a lot more complicated. It doubles our process in a lot of ways. You always fear that something will spring a leak and flood everything. Fortunately, we actually put plumbing in the Hertz Stage when we did the beauty parlor set for Shear Madness, which makes things a lot easier. For this set, we're building a slightly raised stage to facilitate the plumbing. Before we just ran a hose from upstairs, and had a pump system to draw the water out, which wasn't easy, because we're on the basement level.
How was Octopus different in the amount of water used? In one scene, a door opens and water floods the stage. There are many water sound effects in Eurydice, so I think water will seem more prevalent in this show, but the amount of water will actually be less. It took 30 gallons to flood the Actor's Express stage. Water's deceptive in how much it takes to flood something – you need more than you think.
What does a charge scenic artist do? In layman's terms, I'm in charge of the scenic art. I do the finish of the entire set. If it involves carving, painting, fine-art portraiture, making wood look like metal or metal look like wood, I'm there. I'm kind of a bridge between the scenic designer and the technical director.
You've done many of the recent Alliance Children's Theatre shows, including the new one, Seussical. Is that a regular gig? No, I just happened to do a children's show, and [ACT artistic director] Rosemary Newcott and I really clicked. I've actually lucked out in my scenic design career, because I do completely different things at the three theaters where I do most of my work. At the Alliance Children's Theatre, I try to do funny, cool things, and hope the kids will like them, too. At Georgia Shakespeare I get to do lots of classical work. And at Actor's Express, I design the new, edgy, darker side of things. By the time I'm done with a children's show, I feel like I'm done with kid's stuff for the rest of the year, and next have to do something dark and depressing.
When you're doing a kid's show, do you always have to emphasize primary colors and make props that look like giant toys? Not always. I just did Degas' Little Dancer, which was a little more serious. But if we do a show based on a book, we want to bring the feeling of the book onstage. With Seussical, nothing Dr. Seuss draws has a right angle, so nothing we did has right angles, either. We didn't imitate any of his actual drawings, but we had the essence of Dr. Seuss up there.
What are your favorite shows that you designed? Seussical at the Alliance Children's Theatre and Richard III and Pericles at Georgia Shakespeare. I think the sets really facilitated those shows, and the shows felt like complete events. In Pericles, it was an amazing process to get the ocean on the stage [which involved billowing sheets controlled by the actors]. All the elements of the show really complemented each other, but the ensemble work for the storm was incredible.
Do you have a tool or a work habit that you can't live without? There's a color that scenic artists always use. We constantly have to age stuff, to make new things look old or dirty, so I'm always asking someone, "Can you make up some 'Insta-Dirt' or 'Insta-Gray?'" It's a mixture of burnt umber and ultra blue. We actually label buckets of it "Insta-Dirt."