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The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

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People sit inside of Redhawk Coffee on Meyran Avenue.
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People sit inside of Redhawk Coffee on Meyran Avenue.
The best cafés to caffeinate and cram for finals
By Irene Castillo, Senior Staff Writer • April 22, 2024
Fresh Perspective | Final Farewell
By Julia Smeltzer, Digital Manager • April 19, 2024

A Tab Bit of Tea | ‘John Proctor is the Villain’ or Taylor Swift fan club?

A Tab Bit of Tea is a biweekly blog about Elizabeth’s adventures in the art and entertainment world.
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TPN File Illustration

In early June of this year, I was handed the script for “John Proctor is the Villain.” It was the first play of the season, and I was slated to be the scenic designer. Interestingly enough, this play was supposed to be performed as a part of Pitt Stages’ season last year. However, due to complications, it got bumped to this year, and I was lucky enough to be able to design for it.

Last year, I worked on the scenic design of  “The 39 Steps,” which was my first production as the lead designer. Truthfully, I had no idea what I was doing going into my first show as there is only so much that lectures can teach you. I realized that the only way to truly learn is to be in the thick of it — and in the thick of it, I was. My experience on that show was chaotic, to say the least. I was flying by the seat of my pants. It was a wild, crazy, but insanely fun time. 

After experiencing the whirlwind of my first scenic design last year, I was determined to come into this show with a much more structured and level-headed approach. I had the first show under my belt, so I felt more prepared for this production.

The play takes place in the spring of 2019 in a high school English class. Funny enough, I was a junior in high school during this time, so I related closely to the show. However, I attended high school in an eastern Pennsylvania suburb, and the play takes place in a one-stoplight town in Georgia. So, the first step was researching what this town might look like. I took a lot of inspiration from small-town iconography and media, especially from “Schitt’s Creek,” when researching. Afterwards, I decided that the classroom that I was creating would be slightly outdated. My vision for the set was to create an underfunded public school that avoided any fancy technology but instead relied on the basics. This meant a chalkboard instead of a whiteboard and an analog clock instead of a digital one. Adding these meticulous details helped me to create an overall style that read a little older and dated. 

Speaking of adding details, when I was tasked to add details to the classroom, I was forced to sit down and ask myself questions such as, “What makes a classroom a classroom? What belongs in a classroom? What does it feel like?” So, I started to think about my own experiences. Personally, my junior year English teacher was a huge fan of shoes, so her classroom was decked out with chairs shaped like leopard print high heels. That wasn’t exactly the vibe of the teacher in the play, but it got me thinking about what exactly this teacher would have. This led me and my wonderful assistant, Kylie, down a fun rabbit hole of getting into the mindset of Mr. Smith, the teacher in the play. As the show takes place in Georgia, Kylie figured Mr. Smith went to the University of Georgia. This leads us to the Georgia Bulldogs flyers on his desk. We also thought Mr. Smith would be a lover of sports, so we threw a trophy and a football onto the set. It’s these small details in the set dressing that bring me the most fun when designing. 

My passion project in this show was creating posters for the walls of the classroom. Theatre tends to follow the “30 foot rule,” meaning that everything just has to look good from roughly 30 feet away. Of course, this is a loose rule, but it was the case with this particular show. I knew a standard piece of A4 paper would be too far away from the audience to see any close details. So, I gave myself the liberty of having a bit of fun with the posters. The lighting designer for the show is a dancer, so I put up a poster advertising for students to join a fictional dance club she runs. There’s a flier advertising for picture day with a photo of me on the front of it. I dropped my address, my friends’ names, and quirky inside jokes on all of these posters on set. I know the audience would never be close enough to see them, but it gave the cast and crew a few kicks and giggles. My personal favorite is a poster for the music club that strictly only listens to Taylor Swift.

The Taylor Swift reference was not only placed because of my status as a Swiftie, but also because of the connection between the play and Taylor Swift herself. The play makes a lot of contemporary pop culture references, and this included a handful of references to Taylor Swift songs. The design team certainly latched into this and placed our own spin on the references. For instance, our sound designer added a few Swift songs to the show. I personally added a poster featuring lyrics from “You Belong With Me.” My assistant and I are such big Swifties that we would get sidetracked and talk about Taylor Swift just as the characters would in the show. Just like in the play, we had formed our own little informal club that talked about Taylor Swift, which became a running joke throughout this rehearsal process. 

These small moments of silly games and jokes on set are the ones I live for. I added ideas for an original design, and I hung Christmas lights around the chalkboard simply because that’s what my 11th-grade government teacher did. Getting to infuse personal aspects into my set is my favorite part about designing. It adds character and personality to the world on stage. It takes a generic high school classroom and makes it a little more fun and a little more like me.