Sunday, April 15, 2012

The House of Bernarda Alba--Scene Design

The House of Bernarda Alba was performed in Spring of 2007 and was the first play produced in the new Snow Black Box Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho.


The play begins just after the funeral of Bernarda's second husband.  Bernarda is a domineering matriarch of five daughters.  The first daughter is by her first husband and has a greater inheritance than that of her siblings.  Because of that, the otherwise spinsterly Angustias has caught the eye of the town's most elegible bachelor, Pepe el Romano.

Pepe (who is never seen on stage, merely talked about) proposes marriage to Angustias with the intent to control her fortune but secretly makes love to Adela, the beautiful youngest daughter.  When this comes to light, Bernarda discovers Pepe in the barn and attempts to shoot him with a shotgun.

Adela, believing that Pepe has been killed runs in the house and hangs herself leaving Bernarda and her sisters to grieve in front of the audience.  At this point and many others during the play Bernarda reveals how important it is to her what the neighbors and townsfolk think.  Her last line states that the whole town will know Adela died a virgin.


The director, Justin Bates asked the design team to consider the following ideas as we worked on this production: 
  • The audience should enter through the house of Bernarda Alba in order to see The House of Bernarda Alba.
  • Bernarda Alba sees the world in terms of black and white.
  • The audience should feel uncomfortable
  • The set should evolve from stark white to dingy as the play progresses
  • There should be no living thing besides people on the set
In addition to the conceptual ideas that Justin asked us to think about, I considered this play to be very Freudian in nature as were many of the plays contemporary to this one.  I approached the design in this way.

It was also important to me that the villa in which the family lived appeared to have been lived in continuously for over a thousand years, from medieval Spain, through the Moorish conquest, the renaissance and modern society.  Each generation who lived in the home added the contemporary elements of style to the villa without eliminating the aesthetics of the past.

Early on in the design process, we agreed to go against convention and set our production in the courtyard of the villa, behind the estate's walls instead of an interior. 

We also decided that we wanted an area of the set where characters could eavesdrop on the others.


At Justin's request, I designed the set to require the audience to enter through the house in order to get to their seats.  That required that all the backstage spaces that the audience would see to be finished.  I created an entryway with a portrait, shrouded in black fabric, of the deceased father  on the left and a niche in the wall on the right with a statue and a shrine to the Blessed Virgin.  I wanted the audience to know before the play began that this was a Catholic family in mourning.  When the patrons took their seats, they were transported to the courtyard of a stark white Spanish villa.

The entryway
Shrine to the Blessed Virgin
The inner courtyard
The stucco parts of the set were painted with a warm white color and all the furniture, doors and windows were painted Van Dyke Brown.  I have found over the years that true black paint tends to read like a void under theatrical lighting.  It absorbs too much light without giving anything back.  When I was working on Fiddler on the Roof I discovered that Van Dyke Brown reads black onstage but still reacts with stage lighting.  We also aged the set with Raw Umber washes and spritzes.  The floor was 2' x 4' MDF sheets painted with a travertine finish.

We decided early on to evolve the set from stark to dingy with lighting rather than a physical effect.  We believed it would be too costly and too time consuming to do it in such a manner.  Stage lighting could accomplish the same effect in a more visceral way. 

This production of The House of Bernarda Alba was set in the inner courtyard of an ancient Spanish Villa, enclosed behind high stucco walls with terra cotta tiles on top.  The audience was seated opposite the villa which was an ecclectic conglomerate of architectural styles.  There was a medieval tower and turret, a Moorish arcade wall that had been bricked in and modern windows installed, and finally a renaissance style façade which backed the main acting area.  I viewed this family as being one that attempted to stay important in their society but were still heavily burdened by the past.
Grandma in front of the heavy, round topped gate in the high wall
Medieval tower with arrow slits
Medieval turret
Sisters eavesdropping on the balcony in front of the ruined, bricked in Moorish arcade
Renaissance façade
The House of Bernarda Alba is not a pleasant story.  Bernarda is a tyrant.  She opresses everyone in the household, especially her daughters.  We did not want the audience to feel comfortable in the environment.  Justin decided to run the show without intermission and had requested the audience to enter through the set.  This meant that the patrons felt they were trapped and could not escape the outcome.  As a designer, though I had to be concerned with emergency egress.  There were other ways for the audience to leave, we just didn't draw attention to them besides the mandatory exit sign.

In addition to this element, I added two lion head fountains in the Renaissance façade that had running water in them during the totality of the production.  At first they were too noisy, so I added sponges in them to provide a sound baffle.  The sponge allowed enough sound for the audience to sense but not enough to drown out dialogue.

The fountain
Throughout the play, Bernarda seems obsessed with what the neighbors must be thinking about her and about her children.  Justin asked early on if we could do something to illustrate those moments symbolically.  He wanted to see the neighbors behind the walls.

I designed cut-outs in the walls which we then covered with muslin.  Once it was sized, we painted it with a wash of the white color.  At those moments during the play when Bernarda was obsessing, actresses would stand behind the cut-outs and would be lit to create a shadow play.  It was very effective and totally unexpected.  The audience never anticipated the effect.

The neighbors
The neighbors
I believe Federico Garcia Lorca was heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud when he wrote this play.  In fact I believe most of the great playwrights from this period were.  I designed with Freudian symbols in mind.  For example, because she was the masculine figure in the play, everything associated with Bernarda was rigid and square, and unyeilding.  I associated the turret with her and she almost always made her entrances and exits from it.  All of the doors in the turret were square.  The actress who played Bernarda was very tall, so I designed the turret doors to be slightly shorter than normal so she would fill the opening and appear even taller and more opressive than she really was. 

On the other hand, everything associated with the daughters, was round and feminine.  The girls almost never entered the turret, instead their dwelling place was the round tower.  Soft lines, arches, round topped doors.  Theirs was a much more feminine place.  The actresses who played the girls were not particularly tall, so I didn't manipulate the height of the tower doors for them.

Because of the last line in the play, where Bernarda declares that Adela "died a virgin", I designed the main door with planks set in a repeating V pattern.  The door was iron shod also to symbolize Bernarda's control over every aspect of everyones' lives in the villa.
Iron shod, V pattern plank door
The set was dressed quite sparingly.  I wanted it to appear as if at one time it had been a green and inviting place and so I placed dead vines up along the tower.  Along the base moulding I sprinkled dead leaves.  I also placed dead plants in the urns on the balustrade on the façade.  One of the urns I "broke" and left the piece on the rail to suggest that this was a broken family but Bernarda was still trying to hang on to all the pieces.  Breaking the urn turned out to be an ordeal because it was made of concrete over a fibreglas shell. 

In my research I found several images of Spanish villas with iron brackets projecting from the walls.  Iron brackets no longer in use but still not removed.  I added several of these on the set to suggest that the people who lived in this enviromnemt were no longer fully functional.  I also placed a cross over every doorway which was an outward sign of Bernarda's "piety".

Vines and brackets
Crosses above doors
Working on The House of Bernarda Alba was a profound experience for me.  I was moved by the material and the performances of the actresses.  On an artistic level it was gratifying as well. 

Production Details
  • Directed by Justin Bates
  • Scene Design by Gary Benson
  • Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
  • Lighting Design by Richard Clifford
  • Sound Design by Brian Hair
  • Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
  • Costume Shop Director:  Patty Randall


  1. YAY! Your work Bro. Benson is the best. I can't wait to see more. Such an inspiration.

  2. I'm so excited that you started this blog! I can't wait to read more!

  3. What a great idea! I look forward to seeing more!

  4. Now I want to see your pictures from the Pirates of Penzance set. Yeah - from 2001.

  5. Thanks for the well wishes, everyone. I'm kind of new to the blogging world. Looking forward to posting more.

  6. Thanks, for sharing the information, it’s very informative post!
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