“By the time you reach your seat, you feel like you’ve just been transported,” declares Dane Laffrey, the Tony-nominated scenic designer of “Once on This Island” in our recent webchat (watch the exclusive video interview above). To bring the revival to life, Laffrey covered every inch of The Circle in the Square Theatre with scenic elements to immerse the audience in the island setting.
“I don’t think we’d be seeing the same kind of show in any of the other Broadway theaters,” he notes. That’s due to the unconventional thrust stage of Circle in the Square. “The challenge is there is nowhere to hide… I needed to design every inch of that room to be something that I wanted the audience to take in.” Those elements include scaffolding, the truck bed of an 18-wheeler, a stage covered in sand, and flood waters creeping in to the playing space. “I’m interested in real things that have their own power and resonance,” Laffrey says of his design aesthetic. The result is a set created from found objects, debris strewn across a tropical landscape.
It’s no accident that this setting invokes the feel of Haiti during its current disaster recovery period. After having not thought about the musical in years, director Michael Arden approached him about working on the piece. As they unpacked the story, they realized “the history of the island being described is Haiti’s history.” Like many Caribbean islands, Haiti has recently been under siege by hurricanes and earthquakes. This revival of “Once on This Island” then, would depict “that community’s catharsis and healing through storytelling.”
Laffrey and Arden have been friends since 1999 when the two attended boarding school together. They previously worked together on the recent Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening” to great success and “feel like primary collaborators for each other.” The two even traveled to Haiti on a research trip that “changed everything.” While the concept for the production originally focused on the destruction from a natural disaster, experiencing the island for themselves shifted their focus to the act of rebuilding. Laffrey notes that the sense of “forward movement towards regrowth” struck him. That frame of a “community persisting” became essential for the musical.
Ultimately, Laffrey hopes his work in the hit revival makes audiences feel “the power of story to heal divided things.”
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