Designer Walt Spangler discusses the set for The Birthday Party with Artistic Director Martha Lavey. The following is an edited transcript. Martha Lavey: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Walt Spangler: I grew up in North Carolina and I started working in theater when I was in high school. When I graduated I moved to Germany and I lived there for three and a half years. I went over there at first as an exchange student but then I got involved with a regional theater in Germany. I started out as a directing intern and a painter, and that ended up turning into a more full-time production assistant job. That’s really where I decided that I wanted to do theater as a profession. When I applied to Yale for graduate school the first time, I didn’t get accepted: they told me I needed to go to New York and take drawing classes. So I did that for two years. I respect that they are in a position to do that, because it was certainly a good thing for me. I went to New York and had some experiences there doing Off-Broadway stuff. I eventually got into Yale, and when I returned to New York after school, I had a better footing in the city thanks to that experience. Martha Lavey: I met you through Santo Loquasto, whom you were assisting. That’s a characteristic route for a designer, to assist someone, right? Walt Spangler: Yes. Set design is a very specialized process and really the only people who can work for you are the people who have studied it. Assisting creates an apprentice type relationship. I would love to get a grant where I could have an apprentice for two or three years in addition to teaching. Martha Lavey: It’s a purer way of learning, I think. In a way, it means that the end point for apprentices is not themselves, but the project that this master craftsperson is working on. Can you tell us what your process for designing is? Walt Spangler: The very first thing I do is read the script. A lot. I read it until I can go back through what the scenes are asking of me without referring to the script. I’m always surprised when I see the actors on their feet: what they add to it. But when I am reading it, I am already sort of hearing it come to life, I’m seeing it. Description, in novels for example, bores me because I feel like it’s telling me what to see. I like how a play lets me fill in what I see around the dialogue. Martha Lavey: When you read this play, what was the feeling or tone that started informing you how the play needed to sit inside the theater? Walt Spangler: Well probably the biggest thing was that there wanted to be as little distance as possible between the viewers and the performers. I find it kind of scary, the play. It has a lot of anxiety and tension between the characters, especially as it builds to the event of the party itself. It has such a climax that the more you can feel the approaching rumble of it, the more affecting it will be. Martha Lavey: That proximity also exposes the audience more too. Walt Spangler: Yes. The play doesn’t want to feel ‘over there’. I originally started out by researching what a boarding-house room would literally look like for The Birthday Party . But this didn’t feel to me like it’s about that at all, about depicting a fake room. Martha Lavey: The play contains a sense of menace. People are using words as weapons, as levers of power. One might assume this require a closure, the claustrophobia of a room. I think what is genius about what you’ve done is that you are making the audience feel that terror by giving us exposure. Walt Spangler: It can be said for so many plays that the people are trapped somewhere. But for The Birthday Party , it just did not feel like you should spend one second feeling cozy or appreciating the English-looking room. In contrast to something like Time Stands Still , where it absolutely was necessary to create a real place so the characters could have the behavior that you expect and then explore a traumatic experience in that context. But The Birthday Party doesn’t seem that way at all. When McCann and Goldberg come and corner Stanley, it feels like they are in a boxing ring. Martha Lavey: What’s interesting is that if those guys are moving around and interrogating him, the audience never has complete visual access to Stanley. So that uneasy feeling we get if someone is surrounding us, someone is coming at us; the audience is going to get that too. By bifurcating the audience and stripping the play of anything but a platform for action, the focus is on the audience and their immersion in what is happening on stage. So, after you and Austin agreed you didn’t need a room, how did you get to the alley configuration? Walt Spangler: Having just done Time Stands Still , I found that the dynamic I got in the room in the first rows of the audience was very different that the dynamic than I got in the last rows of the audience. So it kind of came from “How can you give that front half experience to everyone?” It meant moving the stage. There’s also the fact that it’s possible to do it thanks to Steppenwolf technical director Russell Poole and his crew. We also raised the stage up to create a closeness. I just think there is a sweet spot where people feel that the stage is offering the actors to the audience. If I make this gesture (he cups his hands slightly as if offering a drink of water ) you’re drawn to it. You want to see what I’m showing you. Martha Lavey: In your multiple readings of this challenging play, were there any other insights you arrived at? None of us feel we completely understand it. Walt Spangler: (laughs) I’m just waiting for the actors to reveal it to me.