Small Stage, Grand Canyon: How Did Men on Boats Scenic Designer Nina Ball Do It?

By Annie Sears

Men on Boats is a play in all senses of the word. It plays with traditional gender roles. It asks actors to play historical figures they’re not, and it asks audiences to play along. For Scenic Designer Nina Ball, it started by playing with paper. We recently sat down with Ball to hear about the challenge and triumph of transforming the limited Strand stage into the vast Grand Canyon.

Lighting Designer Robert Hand and Scenic Designer Nina Ball play with Ball's model at the Men on Boats meet and greet. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.

What does your design process look like?
My design process follows a general shape that works for me, but has variations show to show. There is usually a lot of research followed by sketching, floor plans, and 3D modeling. A scale model usually follows, along with all the design drawings. But sometimes, like with Men on Boats, I go straight to a physical model. We wanted to play with the moving walls, so I did a lot of ripping of paper and playing.

For Men on Boats specifically, where did you find inspiration?
Much of my inspiration came from the Grand Canyon itself. It’s so amazingly beautiful, inspiring, and humbling in its grandeur. How to represent that on the small Strand stage was the big challenge. The play is an adventure story, a comedy that’s wildly fun and funny. It is non-literal in its representation of action, and the set wanted to be the same. We veered away from being too realistic and instead chose to play with volume, with moving walls opening and closing down the space. We also made their surface an old topographical map of the Grand Canyon, which evokes a postcard of the period. The set wanted to feel both old and modern, timely and timeless, evoking a sense of romantic longing for the frontier west while playing with meta-theatrical style.

What’s been challenging about this design?
This set needed to serve the play’s needs of swift motion from scene to scene, to capture the ominous beauty of the Grand Canyon, to be both utilitarian and not get in the way, and to transform into something totally different at the end. Plus, The Strand has no fly system and virtually no wing space—a tall order indeed. The level of focus and skill of everyone onstage and backstage has made this show such a thrill to work on and watch.

And your favorite part?
The process has been very rewarding. Director Tamilla Woodard is so smart and fun to collaborate with. She was the first one to grab a piece of paper and start folding and ripping in our early meetings. I appreciate a director who has a strong design eye and gets into playing with tactile elements. Also, the whole team has been primarily women. From all the actors to most of the designers, director, stage management. It’s great to be in a meeting of 10+ people, and almost the entire room is women. And a powerhouse group of women too—some serious talent in the room! It was an honor.

Experience this epic adventure for yourself. Men on Boats runs through December 16 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Get your tickets today!

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