Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Technically Speaking with...Matthew Imhoff

Name: Matthew Imhoff

Hometown: Janesville, Wisconsin

Education: BA in Music and Theatre from Luther College (Decorah, Iowa) and MFA in Production Design from Michigan State University (East Lansing, Michigan)

Favorite Credits: Spring Awakening: A New Musical, Widows, and Cyrano de Bergerac

Why theater?: I always knew it was going to be theatre since I was seven years old. I had no idea I would end up as a designer, but if you ask my family or those who knew me growing up, my career certainly isn’t surprising, to say the least. To offer the short answer, theatre brings together my favorite things: imagination, storytelling, art, truth, people, music, dance.

What is your role on Primary?: I am the Scenic Designer

Tell us about Primary: Primary is a World Premiere play by Gracie Gardner that deals with a mother, her child, and her husband during a local election campaign set against former President Clinton’s impeachment hearings. This play won Sanguine Theatre Company’s new play contest, and working on this production has offered me a glimpse into the writing’s process—something that is so foreign to me. I believe there have been three drafts sent out to the designers, and each time it really is like reading a new play. On a macro level, it has been very exciting to observe Gracie hone certain aspects of the play and abandon others altogether; I mean, that’s the same process as designing—honing and perfecting and abandoning—just the mediums are different. Ultimately, the work of the playwright is leading my work as a designer, and my aesthetic visions of the show have changed as substantially as each draft.

What inspired you to design Primary?: I think like much of Sanguine Theatre Company’s anticipated audience for this show, I grew up in the 90s—a little bit older than Sophie in Primary. This play offers a sense of nostalgia to the styles, fads, and issues of the 90s, but at the same time offers rather pointed moments where you realize how unchanged (politically and otherwise) we are to twenty years ago.

What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?: I find theatre where all parts of the production—writers, director, designers, and actors— come together to create a truthful and striking moment for the audience to be particularly exciting. Playwrights certainly inspire me as an artist—they are the guiding force behind my work, and there are a few that I would be content to explore for the rest of my career. There is also handful of studio-based artists that I find particularly inspiring—those who take a commonplace object or everyday subject and manage to provide relevant and urgent commentary by provoking a visceral reaction in the viewer.

What makes a design “successful”?: I always find designs that accurately depict the world of the play and the characters that inhabit it to be successful. Creating a world that the characters fit into means what you’re creating isn’t always pretty (trust me, I’m designing a show about the 90s!). Sometimes what you discover the characters like and what their world looks like isn’t always keeping with good taste or personal preferences. As a designer, that can be challenging. I also find designs with subtle commentary on the theme of the show particularly stunning—it’s hard to accomplish and you have to have a keen audience to read those visual signifiers. I think what I find to be most successful are sets that have a sense of habitation—that the characters have lived there. It shows their habits and preferences; their likes and life experiences have informed their environment and it is through the human interaction with and the existence within the environment that the set comes to life.

How do you approach your work individually and collaboratively?: I live on this constant pendulum between working alone and working collaboratively. I spend a lot of time on my own in my studio researching, drawing, building models, drafting, and making discoveries about the show. Then I go to a meeting with everyone else, and they share all of their hard work and their discoveries and we figure out how and what portions of what we’re imagining fits together. And then I go off by myself and do the whole thing again with the new information from my collaborators. As a student, I really loved and protected my studio time, and to an extent I still do. Comparatively speaking, spending time in a room or rehearsal hall or theatre with my collaborators is much more exciting and than spending time alone in my studio. When I’m working alone, I have found I am most productive when I am deeply focused and have several hours without interruption to commit to the design. I usually wake up early in the morning to do the bulk of the design work—it’s a combination of being too tired to let an internal voice of judgment quiet discoveries but at the same time not too tired from a long day of work (a habit from grad school that has seemed to transition well). On the other hand, I find the collaborative process works best when it is ongoing, often, and brief—a quick e-mail or text usually does the trick between meetings (of which there are always too many and not enough, oddly).
What is your favorite part about the collaboration process?: I like the moment where I am personally stuck on a particular challenge (in design, in production, in build, in tech, any of the above) and I’ve explored all the possibilities and options that I can think of, and I ask for help from my fellow designers and they come back with the perfect solution. Even though I’m the set designer, all of the designers’ work is influencing and contributing to each other’s and so that distinction or idea of ownership is really arbitrary in my opinion.

If you could design any play or musical you’ve yet to design, what would it be?: Marat/Sade, Macbeth, and Jerusalem are all on the short list. I’d also love to try a show like Phantom or Wicked where the design is so iconic and see what I make of it.

What’s up next?: I’m the resident lighting designer at a dinner theatre in Wisconsin, so I’m flying there right after Primary opens to get a new show up. There are a couple of other projects in the works here in the city, and I’m always looking for opportunities to design.

For more on Matthew, visit