Fountain Spotlight: Set Designer Jeff McLaughlin

Love the set for Bakersfield Mist? Meet the man who designed it. Jeff McLaughlin designed the Fountain sets for The Train Driver (2010), A House Not Meant to Stand (2011), and Bakersfield Mist (2011).

Did you enjoy designing the set for Bakersfield Mist?

I loved designing the set for Bakersfield Mist. Definitely the most interesting research I’ve ever done! Who knew there was so much variation possible in trailer homes? The one thing that I definitely got out of that research was just how confined a space twelve feet really is. It was something I really wanted to bring to the set, especially the ceiling height. I was a little surprised, honestly, by how big it looks in the space, but it would be a completely different story if you actually had to live in it.

Where did you find all the bizarre  stuff that goes on the set?

Bakersfield Mist

Misty Carlisle, the prop designer, and I had a VERY collaborative effort on this show. I knew we would have no problems after working together on A House Not Meant to Stand, but the crossover on Bakersfield Mist was very gray and very massive. There are so many individual items on that set that I think it would have driven either of us insane if one of us had to do it all alone. I called in lots of favors, borrowed things from everyone I could think of, made trips downtown and all the way out to Ventura to get set dressing. I stopped at every thrift shop and 99 cent store within a 20 mile radius of The Fountain at least twice! Every bag of items I brought in wasn’t enough. We needed ten more bags. I’m sure Misty was doing the same thing. It was like show-and-tell in kindergarten  every morning when we would both show up with bags and boxes of “art”. There were a few days when I didn’t think I’d ever have enough stuff. But then a big favor would come through (like an entire car load of items) or I’d find a new aisle at the 99 cent store. With all the help and the ability to literally run into a store, do a two-minute scan and get on to the next one, it happened!

Your set for Bakersfield Mist has received much praise from the press. And audiences love staring at it before the play begins and point out all the weird stuff that’s on it. Does this give you pleasure?

I’m really excited that the audiences seem to love it as much as I do. I’ve sat there for 15 minutes just scanning the set, looking at all the items and my private little jokes that are hidden here and there, but I never thought about an audience doing that. It really is something to do after you’ve taken your seat and are waiting for the show to begin. The best part for me is the fact that when the actors, Jenny and Nick, hit the stage all of it sinks into the background because the two of them are on fire! Their performances are absolutely outstanding and bigger than all of those tchotchkies combined.

Each of your three set designs for the Fountain have earned critical raves. What is it about your relationship with the Fountain that works so well?

I really love designing for The Fountain. For me, it’s a truly perfect blend of artistic freedom and cohesive direction. Having worked on three shows with two directors (Stephen and Simon), I really find this to be true. There is a very real sense that everyone is working towards a very specific vision, but the reigns are just loose enough to really spread your wings as a designer.

The Train Driver

There’s also a very strong sense of unity and collaboration between the individual designers as well. I really wanted the ceiling, but I also knew it could really give the lighting designer a very difficult time. The great thing about working here is that it truly is a team effort. I’d add a ceiling panel and Ken would adjust a light…everyone just rolls along together and is loose about their own personal choices and rolls with what is happening. The production as a whole supersedes the want of any single designer. After Ken had to adjust his third light, I thought I might have been pushing too far, but then he came to me with the idea of another light panel above the kitchen table!

You are now a member of the Fountain Family.

I plan on sticking around the Fountain as long as they’ll have me. I thought “The Fountain Family” sounded a little corny the first time heard it. But it’s said because it’s true. It really is “theatre for the sake of theatre” at The Fountain and it shows, time and again, show after show, award after award. It’s a wonderful group of people who want to get together and create a great, entertaining work of art and have some fun along the way. I’m honestly proud to have been along for this world premiere. It’s been a very special experience.

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