How Portland Center Stage ages its Clybourne Park stage 50 years

A 15-minute set change covers decades of gentrification.

By Gino Cerruti March 22, 2013 Published in the April 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Nomad

Playwright Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Clybourne Park may have first been set in Chicago, but the satirical look at race relations and gentrification takes on different looks as it travels. Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, Norris’s work tells interlocking tales of a “changing” neighborhood in two acts, each in the same house, the first set in 1959 and the second in 2009. Theater pros in different cities—the play has been produced in London, LA, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, as well as its original Broadway run—must figure out how to turn a ’50s living room into 21st-century dilapidation while resonating with their audiences.

For Portland Center Stage’s Clybourne Park, designer Michael Olich relies on inventive construction and intricate planning to transform the set during the play’s 15-minute intermission. When the curtain goes up for act 2, his set must communicate what’s happened to the neighborhood over five decades. “Everything that Norris didn’t write, I had to ‘write,’” Olich says. The set’s details—and, in some cases, their disappearance—tell the story:

1 The look 

While they say they’re not “Portlandizing” the play, Olich and director Chris Coleman nod to the bungalow architecture prominent in our inner-east-side neighborhoods. Olich describes his set as “blue-collar Craftsman,” typified by simple woodwork and a lack of ornamentation.

2 Dining design 

Dining rooms during the time of act 1 often had coffered ceilings with smaller windows. During the ’70s and ’80s, acoustical ceiling elements were installed and larger windows were the norm, changes reflected in the dining room in act 2.

3 Detachable parts 

To make this change possible, Olich’s crew built an entire second dining room. During intermission, act 1’s room is wheeled out on a wagon and replaced. 

4  Wainscoting  

In the ’50s, people had just started pulling off and painting over wainscoting. By the time of act 2, most of the original wainscoting is gone, but the painting remains unfinished. 

5 Wallpaper 

The act 2 set reveals peeled-back wallpaper from not only the ’50s but the ’70s and ’80s. Olich used real wallpaper samples from the relevant periods. 

6 The mantel 

The act 1 mantelpiece is a wood jacket that, when removed during intermission, reveals cracked plaster and paint.

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