Interview with Scenic & Prop Designer Mike Buckley

Playwrights Project produced its 33rd annual festival of Plays by Young Writers at The Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center at The Old Globe on January 20 – January 27, 2018. The festival featured winning scripts from its California Young Playwrights Contest for ages 18 and under.

Contest winners were selected from 432 plays submitted by students from across the state. Four scripts received full professional productions, and two scripts received staged readings in this highly regarded festival of new voices.

Mike Buckley teaches Theatrical Design and Scriptwriting at Southwestern College. He designs at San Diego Repertory Theatre, San Diego Musical Theatre, and Lamb’s Players Theatre. Mike has designed more than 200 productions! His designs have won four Patté Awards and two San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Awards. Mike is the scenic and prop designer for all four productions in the Plays by Young Writers Festival.


What’s your vision for this year’s plays, and what themes connect the various plays?

My vision for this year’s plays is to serve the writers. As a writer myself, I want to always make sure that the visuals serve the scripts and not draw attention to themselves.

The theme that I think connects each of the scripts is “growing up”, which is understandable considering that each of the playwrights are in the process of growing up and becoming young adults. In Some-Body the characters are learning about death and discovering how mortality affects their individual journeys. In Fire Hazard the characters are learning about how their preconceptions of people who are different need to be probed and challenged. In Idiot, I’m Great the characters are navigating the treacherous waters of romance and the awkward teenage phase of life. In Sina and the Eel the characters are discovering their inner strengths and the tough choices that accompany leadership. It all boils down to the wonderful, but often painful process of becoming an adult.

Actors tearing apart Mike’s prop books in Idiot, I’m Great

How was it beneficial to design both the sets and the props for the festival? How was this experience different from a more traditional experience where there are separate designers for each area?

Designing both the sets and the props for this production was a plus because there was such a crossover between the two. Are the stools that get moved around the stage set pieces or props? They’re both, really, and so it made sense for me to design both. Even as I reconcile my receipts, it’s difficult to divide them into two budget categories. I’ve designed both for many professional productions, so it was nothing new to me, but it is always easier when I can design just the set and delegate a problematic item to the prop designer!

Sina and the Eel uses flags made of Chinese silk to symbolize the ocean and sky

The Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre is a theater in the round with audience members on all four sides of the stage. What challenges does this present for you as a scenic designer?

I cut my teeth as a young professional designer in the old Lambs Players arena theatre in National City (which was recently razed – sniff!), so I’m quite comfortable designing in the round, but it is a tricky skill to master. In the round, you can’t block anyone’s view of the stage, or even make them THINK that they can’t see everything. So designing in the round requires that you make a visual statement both above and below the set. Your floor has to be really interesting and it’s always a good idea to have overhead elements (although it drives Lighting Designers crazy!). The floor for this production was challenging, in that it needed to be so versatile. It needed to suggest tropical sand for Sina and the Eel, dirt or concrete for Some-Body, utilitarian high school linoleum for Fire Hazard, and multiple locales for Idiot, I’m Great. I chose a neutral texture with a caramel base color and fuchsia and turquoise spattering to react to color changes in the lighting. If I were designing for just one of these scripts, I would’ve made completely different choices, but this floor needed to be a jack of all trades to serve them all.

Mike shares his design for the stage floor at a production meeting

What do you hope the young playwrights will learn from this opportunity to see their play produced?

As I tell my scriptwriting students, there’s simply NOTHING like the rush you get when something that was just an idea in your head actually materializes onstage! It’s such a thrill and I sort of envy each of these playwrights as they get to experience it for the first time! If nothing else, I hope it instills in each of them the confidence of knowing that they each have a powerful personal story that only they can tell and that the world is waiting to hear. I also hope that it plants a seed in the young audience members’ minds that maybe they could try their hand at telling THEIR stories.

Sina and the Eel by Kiegan Lee features an amazing coconut tree of Mike’s design
Mike shares details about his designs to (from left) playwright Savannah Spatafora, Festival Artistic Director Ruff Yeager, and Program B Director George Ye.
Mike’s multi-purpose scenic design in Some-Body by Tan’yeasia Brewster

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