Designing a World for Cezanne

Amelia Modlin with ‘Le Fumeur’ on the set of ‘Visiting Cezanne’

A play fully exists only when live actors are sharing a story with a live audience. To “make” theatre requires a small village and one of the principal residents of that village is the set designer. She creates the three-dimensional story-world the actors inhabit.

Last fall artist and designer Amelia Modlin arrived in Seattle from New York and has quickly made an impact on Seattle’s theatre scene. Director Andrew McGinn and I became aware of her when we attended a fine production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (presented by Fully Reciprocal Theatre Company). We were struck by the set’s design and installation, which Amelia had been responsible for.

It so happened that Andy and I were just then beginning to plan a production of my new play Visiting Cezanne. Now six months later, that play opens next week. We got in touch with this designer neither of us had heard of. Amelia read the script, got excited about its focus on the struggle to create art, and came aboard the Cezanne team.

Amelia cannot remember a time when she was not interested in art. Her mother has a photo of her at age two or three standing at an easel, painting. She’s a New Yorker, having grown up in Westchester County, just outside the city. She attended an alternative high school that encouraged practical experience through internships. Amelia knew she wanted to be a set designer so at age 16 she cold-called every set designer in New York she could find, seeking an intern opportunity. Only one agreed to take on this ambitious teenager. He was veteran designer David Gallo, who at the time was designing the set for a new musical called Memphis, which oddly enough was being developed at Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, where it premiered in 2009, later transferring to Broadway.

Amelia began college in St. Louis studying sculpture and architecture at Washington University. St. Louis proved a poor fit so she moved back to New York where she earned a degree in Visual and Critical Studies with a concentration in 3D Design from the School of Visual Arts. Since college she has worked in production design in various capacities for stage, film and television. A current ongoing project is art-directing spaces to be used for display and filming in the Manhattan headquarters of Marvel Comics. As soon as Visiting Cezanne opens Amelia has to get on a plane to New York for a month’s work at Marvel.

What brought her to Seattle was the region’s natural beauty, its rich arts culture, and a vibrant circus community. That’s right, circus community. Another facet of Amelia is she is a trapeze artist and instructor with ten years of experience swinging on the ropes.

One challenge Amelia faced with Visiting Cezanne is 18th & Union Arts Space has a smallish stage. Furthermore, Visiting Cezanne is a fringe-level production, which means a smallish budget. (In Seattle, fringe theatre is equivalent to off-off-Broadway in New York.)

The play unfolds in two places, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2016 and Cezanne’s studio in southern France in 1900. Amelia latched on to Cezanne’s painting “Le Fumeur” (The Smoker) as a unifying element because both spaces feature that painting. She added many more paintings to create worlds that are literally enveloped in art. Some of these works are partially completed because in the play Cezanne is having troubling finishing work. On one black-curtained wall Amelia hung framed blank canvases to evoke the white walls of a gallery at the Met. As for the 18 paintings by “Cezanne” that are in various stages of completion, Amelia painted them all herself – an immense amount of work.

scenic design for ‘Visiting Cezanne’

As I write this, the set is in the final stages of installation, and it is stunning! Theater being the ephemeral art form it is, you have only eight opportunities to see the world Amelia created for Visiting Cezanne. (That is, until the play opens on Broadway in a few years.) Visiting Cezanne runs March 22 to 31 in Seattle. Find performance details here. Tickets are only $16 to $20 and are available from Brown Paper Tickets.

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