Stephanie Osin Cohen DRA ’19, a third-year M.F.A. candidate at the Yale School of Drama, has been selected to receive the 2019 Burry Fredrik Design Fellowship in recognition of her work as a scenic designer for theatre and television productions. The annual fellowship, funded by the Burry Fredrik Foundation and totaling $25,000, supports graduating seniors planning careers in scenic, costume, lighting, projection or sound design. Furthermore, the Foundation offers to fully reimburse any professional theatre in Connecticut that hires the recipient of the fellowship to design for a show within two years of the date the award was granted.
Cohen attended Brandeis University, where she received a B.A. in theatre arts and art history. From there, she moved to New York where she worked as a scenic designer for The Public Theatre and Shakespeare in the Park, and an art clearance coordinator for HBO’s “Girls” and ABC’s “The Family.” Since arriving at Yale, she has worked on productions at the Yale School of Drama, the Yale Summer Cabaret and Next Door at New York Theater Workshop. Currently, she is designing for a production of “Good Faith,” showing Feb. 1–23 in the Yale Repertory Theatre.
I sat down with Cohen to hear more about her creative process and her plans to use the fellowship to launch a career in scenic design.
Q: How did you get involved in the world of theatre, and how did you discover that scenic design was your niche?
A: I mean I didn’t start working in theatre until my undergrad. I went to Brandeis University. And before that I was sort of interested in the arts in general. I was planning to study art history. But I’ve been painting my whole life and so I very accidentally ended up helping out on a friend’s production. I was painting the set for it and just really enjoyed it. I kept doing that and realized that while that was fun, getting to design the actual set is even more fun than just painting it. So I took a couple of classes there and just got completely hooked. And I ended up then double majoring, so instead of just art history, I did theatre arts and art history with a focus on set design … The painting was an easy sort of transition because it was a chance to paint, but on a larger scale and way messier. It kind of felt similar to installation art because you’re painting these three-dimensional sorts of things. I did that a couple times and then I was like I might as well see what it’s like to design something. And I loved it so much that it didn’t even occur to me to try other areas. I was just like this is the thing for me.
Q: What is most exciting to you about the role you play in putting on a production?
A: It’s just super fun. You’re basically creating the world that this show takes place in. You’re creating an entire atmosphere, and you’re messing around for weeks or months on it — it’s just like a little model. I think the coolest thing is you’re working with a technical team that can then take that and bring it to life. Then just watching all the other elements come together, like design, acting, directing, and seeing it onstage is just so rewarding.
Q: What would you say is the biggest difference between working on a television show versus working on a theatre production?
A: I feel like in television you’re recreating a realistic space usually, unless you’re on a specific show that’s fantasy or some sort of abstract world. It’s usually trying to recreate an apartment or a restaurant, or finding those things and going to the location and filming there. Whereas in theatre, because you’re starting on a theatre stage, you’re creating a world. And you’re never trying to trick your audience into believing it’s a real thing because we are all in the room, and we know it’s not. So you have more creativity.
Q: What does the process of designing a set look like for you?
A: The way that I start is just reading the play and trying to imagine where the action is and where the actors need to go and what characters are doing at certain points. Then I try to make sure the space I’m creating can help elevate that. The way the timeline works of a production is that you finish designing it before the actors get into the rehearsal process, so by the time they start rehearsing, they already know what the space is — all they have to do is discover their world inside the space we’ve created. But I work hand-in-hand with the directors from the very beginning to figure out what that space wants to be. Usually, you’ll read the script, and your mind starts immediately imagining something — you start to see something. I’ll start by usually doing research to find images that are similar to what I’m seeing in my head, so I can show that to the director, and they can see what direction I’m going in. My next step is to jump into building a model, but usually very abstract, kind of like figuring out shapes before I go into any details. Most people sketch. I’m not a huge sketcher. I like to see it in three-dimensional form and I’m definitely better working in a model than I am sketching, so I’ll jump right into the 3-D element of it. Usually, I use foam board or bristol board, which are a little bit firmer than regular paper or cardboard. For every show I’ve designed, you have a model like that because that’s what you end up showing your technical team, and the people who are going to build it. It’s the easiest way for the director to see what they’re going to get and what space they’re working with.
Q: What’s your favorite type of theatre to design for?
A: I guess the most fun to design are reimaginings of old classics, so taking pieces that people know, but looking at it through a contemporary light and seeing how that works in today’s world. Those are fun.
Q: If you were designing a piece of theatre about your own life, what is one scene you would most like to include?
A: I feel like Miami would show up in some way. I don’t know what exactly that would look like. But it would feel Miami.
Q: Looking forward, what are you most excited for?
A: The super exciting thing right now is I’m currently working on the next Yale Repertory Theatre show that’s about to come out in February, “Good Faith.” So they’re loading into the space right now, and we’re starting tech a week from today. Right now, I’m focusing on that, and trying to get people to come see it. The amazing thing about this award is it opens the door to all of these Connecticut theatres, so my goal is to reach out to get in touch with them to see where my future lies. But in general, the plan is to move to New York and make my return and start designing. If any professional theatre in Connecticut hires me within the next two years, the foundation pays for my fee. In this sense, the theatre won’t technically be paying for me, so, in a way, they are biased to hire me. My plan is to move to New York regardless, but Connecticut and New York are so close to each other, it’s easy to commute.
Lydia Buonomano | email@example.com .