Q&A with ‘Time Stands Still’ set designer Walt Spangler

One of the stars of the production “Time Stands Still” at the Guthrie is the set — a very realistic loft designed to be true to life in Brooklyn. The loft is the backdrop for the play written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies. It’s about photojournalist Sarah Goodwin who returns home after being badly injured covering the war in Iraq. She struggles to settle back into life with her partner James, also a journalist. Here are highlights from a recent interview with set designer Walt Spangler.

What was the overall goal for the set design?

To capture Brooklyn, and to capture a loft. [Playwright] Donald Margulies is very specific in the first paragraph of the script that it’s a rough factory space they’ve made into a home. It’s set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is now pretty gentrified, but it was pretty desolate 10 or so years ago when the couple would have moved in. In the script Donald says that James and Sarah moved there “way before it was cool.” It is very specific that the loft is across the East River so you have a very spectacular view of Manhattan in the background through the windows. The space itself is not a typical apartment but a factory space.

What are the most notable features?

The thing I was excited about with the Guthrie’s proscenium stage was how much depth there is. But when Joe [Dowling], the director, and I first started talking we discussed the fact that it’s a very intimate play. Most of the scenes are just two people talking very intimately so we wanted to get the actors as close to audience as we could. I wanted to create a shallow space so the characters would be close to the audience, but also use the depth of the stage. That’s why for the apartment entrance, where characters come and go, we’re using the full depth of the stage and they go all the way back to the door. [Though unseen] there’s a metal door just like there would be in a real loft. We wanted the set to feel real, so the actors feel like they are in a real apartment. When they go into the bathroom there are areas the audience can’t see, but because the actors can see it, it is — for the most part — fleshed out. The kitchen cabinets have stuff in them. The refrigerator has stuff in it. I think that has an impact on the performance over the course of a run because the actors become comfortable with it and let go of any artifice. Because it’s so realistic, it promotes stronger relationships with the characters and allows [the play] to evolve naturally. From the paint shop to the scene shop, everyone has put a lot of effort into making sure the details are there. Even up close, there’s nothing that looks stagey or artificial. 

How does the set help tell the story about these journalists?

Donald also specifies that these people are well traveled. Their job as journalists is to travel to Middle Eastern, Eastern and war-torn countries. Places where there is wonderful craftsmanship, furniture and things we often think of as home decorating pieces. I wanted to give the sense that they’ve brought things back with them, and though the apartment they’re living in is a rough factory space, they have made it a cocoon of comfort for when they return home. It’s that hominess that the character James would just as soon live in, settle down in, have children in. A lot of the furnishings are trying to reflect them as a globally traveled and urban couple.

What are some of the unique items featured from their travels?

I did a lot of research of the Williamsburg neighborhood. In New York, Williamsburg is known as a neighborhood where people have eclectic furniture. A lot of the items were found by going with prop shop staff to the Guthrie’s stock warehouse. For example, the coffee table in the show is a prop wagon they’ve used [to move props] in the shop for years. Their kitchen sink is a sink you might see in a restaurant. The bed headboard is made out of wooden pallets we found out on the Guthrie loading dock. It was about taking found objects and making a homey, artistic environment that’s youthful, urban and comforting.

What makes a loft true to the spirit of Williamsburg, Brooklyn?

Glass. I have a lot of pictures of loft apartments in Williamsburg and I’ve been to quite a few of them. A lot of the spaces are not unlike spaces near the Guthrie; brick buildings that have been renovated with wooden or concrete floors, and a lot of skylights. We chose to put this loft on the top floor because in the play Sarah is somewhat trapped. Her leg is injured and she needs to recuperate. If she lived in a building with an elevator that made it convenient, there would be less of a sense of hibernation for her. Williamsburg is all about four- or five-story buildings with just one staircase. That sort of everyday occurrence is this huge obstacle for Sarah. There is a line in the play where she says her whole world has been reduced to the distance from the sofa to the bathroom. That is why it’s important the play is set in a Williamsburg loft and not the kind of apartment building or residence a lot of us live in.

Walt Spangler has designed sets for many theaters throughout the United States, including Broadway productions of “Desire Under the Elms” and “Hollywood Arms” and theaters including Manhattan Theatre Club, The Public Theater and the Goodman Theatre. His work at the Guthrie includes “The Importance of Being Earnest” and the latest Guthrie production of “A Christmas Carol.”