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Playmakers' Scenic Designer Wants You to Enter Sherwood Forest

McKay Coble is a scenic designer for the PlayMakers Repertory Company at UNC. As a member of the creative team, she has aided in the the design of more than 25 plays with PlayMakers over the past 30 years. Coble also has experience with scenic design for regional and Broadway performances and film. We spoke with Coble about her time with the PlayMakers and her experiences with the upcoming PlayMakers show entitled "Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood."

 The Daily Tar Heel: How did you get your start as a member of the PlayMakers creative team?

McKay Coble: I actually started back here in 1975 as a drama major. At the time, PlayMakers didn’t exist, but in my sophomore year, PlayMakers was formed. It used to be kind of town and gown, and then they decided that a better way to train students would be to have a professional company in residence at the University, along with the academic shows we were doing. When I went on to graduate school, your thesis project was with the PlayMakers Repertory Company. So that's how it got started way back then. After graduate school, I left and lived in New York for about seven years working in costume house, and then when I came back I started teaching one course. One course turned into two, I started designing shows and I've been here for about 30 years.

DTH: What is your role as a scenic designer, and what responsibilities does that include? 

MC: Well, for every show, the responsibility of a scenic designer is to work with the rest of the creative team and really create a world in which the actors can tell the story. The scenic designer is going to create the physical world, and the costume designer is going to create the clothes, but we're all working together to try to create a single vision for a piece. And so for me, the early stages are working with the director and the other designers to come up with a world. For example, with Sherwood in particular, we know the Robin Hood story, but is there a reason to make it more contemporary or whatever the director really feels the point is. In a time where social justice is a conversation that I think everybody's having, this guy, who was one of the very earliest social justice workers, is a very interesting story to tell right now. In coming up with a world, my responsibility is to show the director different kinds of research and different drawings to eventually come up with a model and then the technical drawings for building the scenery.

DTH: How did you contribute to "Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood"?

MC: I am the scenic designer, and so specifically working with the director and the other design team, we decided what kind of world we wanted to create. It's a little bit of a playful ropes course, and at the same time, the play is really about the growth of a community with Robin. We see him very early on in this particular iteration. We see him as a teenager, and then we see him get this sense of community, not only with his place as a nobleman in medieval society but also in his place as a leader among people who are trying to make things better. And so the idea is that it's playful — there's music, it's a comedy, but gives a sense of community through the set. For me, the metaphor of the great oak, the big tree under which they gathered under all the time, it still exists in England in Sherwood Forest. It became what I really saw as the right metaphor for all of this. Interestingly, very much like our own Davie Poplar, it's tremendously stored up. It has supports all over it because it's so old and so big, and so my tree, which is really more of a gesture than reality, has a lot of support on it, and it echoes what the real tree looks like, but it also gives them places to climb and slide and play. And it's all kinds of fun. 

DTH: What do you think makes this play unique from others you have worked on?

MC: Well, each project is unique in its own way. I have even done the same play more than once. I've done "Cabaret" more than once, but each experience is different because you're working with a different team. You can take a play and interpret it many, many different ways, and that's what really makes it fun. This one is an old story told a new way, and I love that. Looking at things where people have expectations about it and then surprising them. Not only meeting their expectations, but maybe taking them to some place new that they wouldn't have expected in a Robin Hood story. 

DTH: Why do you feel it is important for the UNC community to interact with this play and other productions that PlayMakers produces?

MC: Just like the metaphor in the play itself about community, theater is a community. People come together — unlike in a movie theater — they come to see live actors in a live performance. Any time you get people together, it is the basis for a conversation. Some conversations are overtly more serious than others when from the get-go, you think that's going to be a serious topic. Robin Hood is not necessarily a serious topic at face value, but when you really talk about the difference between the classes that are in this play, it's a conversation that we're having in America and all over the world right now: class struggles and class distinctions, the rich versus the poor. And so, people may come and have fun, they may come and think "Wow, this really has been going on for a long time." People are coming together to have a conversation, and when that happens, that's why we do theater here. It's a forum for ideas. Some people may just be entertained by it, but other people may go home and have deeper further conversations about it.