Inside the Visually Stunning World of The Unfortunates

An Interview with The Unfortunates Scenic Designer Sibyl Wickersheimer

By Simon Hodgson

“For a designer, The Unfortunates is unusual,” says scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer. “I don’t often get to create a different world that feels nonsensical. The props take on a larger-than-life quality, with these giant fists, giant arms, and giant creations. We want to keep surprising the audience.” Wickersheimer is full of surprises. She has designed scenery for dozens of productions, including projects at Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Geffen Playhouse, as well as productions at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and even a Disney cruise-ship production of Toy Story—the Musical. With The Unfortunates playing at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater until April 10, we caught up with Wickersheimer to talk about the visual inspirations behind the scenic design.

What are the visual influences for The Unfortunates?

Set model, by scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer,
for A.C.T.'s 2016 production of
The Unfortunates
For me, the play is a soldier’s tale. It’s about soldiers coming to terms with death. The design team started looking at imagery from World War I, because we wanted to ground the production in a reality that was not just any war. What does it mean to be in the barracks? To be in the dugout? What did different enemy camps look like? What were the weapons used?

The other layer that we put on top of that was the red cross as a symbol of health. The red cross started out as an emblem for the Doctor. Then we started to twist that into something really surreal and dark. The layering of those emblems and textures started to become our own comic book.

Did you mine any particular artists’ work for ideas?

The comic-book ideas I had all started with cartoonist Ralph Bakshi. His imagery is very dark, very twisted. His paintings are textural, almost like a collage, and they focus on sources of light, as if you were walking down the street inebriated and seeing these hotspots everywhere. That speaks to the world of The Unfortunates, because we start in a bar.

Another artist I should mention is Rebecca Horne, a performance artist from the 1970s. She created these appendages and put them on her body. There are several different styles, and they’re so creepy, interesting, and human. Yet they’re not human, because they’re actually fabric that she would add to her arms and her fingers. That inspired us to take something super simple and create a monster. That was something we considered when creating Joe’s fists and the lack of Rae’s arms, as well as the Doctor’s arms, which grow and grow right in front of you.

To read more of Wickersheimer's interview, click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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