From sundresses to oil spills, CTC fellows finalize aesthetics for staging of ‘Holly Germaine’

Donnie Woodard, Chautauqua Theater Company’s scenic design fellow for the 2022 season, always uses keywords as points of reference for his designs. For the New Play Workshop of Y York’s eco-drama Through the Eyes of Holly Germaine, those keywords were “lava shelf,” “wide open” and “oil spill.”

He loves the concept of a lava shelf creating a shoreline, a vast expanse of beach, the earth breathing. Then, that breath is choked by an encroaching, slick-black catastrophe.

“You’re seeing nature be affected in such a tragic way by the oil spill,” Woodard said. “I think there is something emotional, there’s something geometric about how it breaks up the shoreline with its stark contrast in color. I really loved the geometric shape of that, the color palette of that, and the dissonance between the natural world versus this produced thing.”

Through the Eyes of Holly Germaine, set in 1986, centers on a trio of vacationers in the Canary Islands. Their getaway to the volcanic isles is disrupted by an oil spill, and as they’re joined by a fourth character, disaster management worker Tyler, relationship dynamics shift amid the environmental crisis. Through the Eyes of Holly Germaine, which rehearsed in temporary spaces at Chautauqua Lake Central School in Mayville, will continue its run as part of CTC’s New Play Workshop programming at 7:30 p.m. tonight and 2:15 p.m. Friday in Bratton Theater.

The tight timeframe of the New Play Workshops requires quick thinking and creative problem-solving from designers. For Holly Germaine, Woodard had to design the set on top  of the existing set for CTC’s next mainstage production, Animals Out of Paper.

Dave munch / photo editor Mark Lutwak, director of Chautauqua Theater Company’s New Play Workshop of Y York’s Through the Eyes of Holly Germaine, works on a scene with CTC conservatory actors Sarah Harlett and yao during a staging rehearsal on Tuesday at Chautauqua Lake Central School in Mayville.

That set is a studio apartment, and Woodard went back and forth with Holly Germaine director Mark Lutwak to figure out how to transform its wood-planked floor into a beach. They used the oil spill at the center of the play as inspiration.

“I developed this noninvasive idea of taking this geometric, square space and breaking it up with a washed-up oil silhouette miming the entire outline of the stage,” Woodard said. “So now we have an organic shape for our stage. And that allows the director and me, in tandem, to build the world around that central focus of the oil spill with the various pieces of furniture, things like that.”

Woodard found the aesthetic challenge and the creative thought it necessitated enjoyable and enlightening.

“I always have this philosophy as a scenic designer that if you never have to deal with parameters, if you never have to deal with adversity in your design, then I don’t think that you can learn from it,” he said. “I think that parameters equal learning and growth.”

Sean Castro, CTC’s costume design fellow for the summer, echoed the sentiment. He has had to move at warp speed to conceive his designs, pull from CTC’s collection and work on fittings and alterations with the actors. 

“It has been very rewarding to be able to figure out how to work around such a small scale on a show,” Castro said. “Previous things I’ve worked on have had smaller scales, but also smaller casts than the one I’m working on right now. I’ve never had anything quite this restrictive. It’s quite interesting and very fun to work around.”

Castro creates mood boards based on his sense of the characters and their personalities, envisioning color palettes and silhouettes. Based on this show’s tropical island setting, he pulled sundresses and safari shirts from the costume shop.

For a period piece like this one, Castro also pores over vintage photographs. His vision for the titular Holly Germaine, an aspiring actress, came from photos of 1980s Dutch aspiring actress Maruschka Detmers, who Castro described as a femme fatale type.

“With photos of (Detmers), I was able to build out a character,” Castro said. “I thought it was a really keen connection that these two people had. Even though Maruschka is a real person, Holly Germaine is a good parallel for her.” 

While the intrusion of natural disaster as a key focus of the play, Woodard emphasized the humanity of the show.

“It’s heartwarming, it’s funny and it’s real,” he said. “It’s real in the sense that you feel for the characters, you sympathize with them, you understand their pain, their faults, their experiences — not necessarily with the oil spill, but just them maneuvering their lives set against the backdrop of the Canary Islands during an oil spill. It’s a humanizing play to me.”

Tags : Chautauqua Theater CompanyconservatoryThe Arts

The author Ellen E. Mintzer

Ellen E. Mintzer is the theater beat reporter for The Chautauquan Daily this summer. She recently earned her Master of Arts in arts journalism and communications from Syracuse University. As a freelance arts and culture journalist, she’s written reviews and features about theater, opera, dance, film and more. Ellen loves weird niche comedy, psychological horror and provocative contemporary theater. (A Strange Loop is the best work of art she saw this year.) She is absolutely thrilled to be spending her summer in Chautauqua and covering its theatrical offerings and beyond.