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Creating a sanctuary under the rafters

For August: Osage County, set designer Kevin Rigdon turns an Alley into a home

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Kevin Rigdon drew from the iconic clap board siding of prairie farm houses that conjure the Oklahoma landscape where "August: Osage County" author Tracy Letts grew up. Photo by John Everett
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Kevin Rigdon Photo by Jann Whaley
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Rigdon created the sets for the Round House Theatre’s production of "Charming Billy" Photo by Danisha Crosby
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A scence from Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of David Mamet’s "RACE," with set design by Kevin Rigdon Photo by Mark Garvin
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Rigdon is proud of his work as set designer for the Alley Theatre production of "Mauritius" Photo by T. Charles Erickson
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Rigdon created the set for the Alley Theatre production of "A Behanding in Spokane" Photo by Jann Whaley
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How best to build a house for Violet Weston, the pill-popping anti-heroine matriarch of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, now running at the Alley Theatre through March 13?

The task falls to Kevin Rigdon, a leading designer who just happens to be based here in Houston. 

Rigdon's life has come full circle. After having served as Steppenwolf Theatre Company's resident designer from 1974-1996, he finds himself designing sets and lights for Letts' powerhouse family saga, which originated at the renown Chicago theater company and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.

"It's a fine piece of theater. When I saw it on Broadway, I had no idea I would ever be designing the show," recalls Rigdon. "It's a daunting task. These are the people I grew up with."

Todd Rosenthal designed the original production, which featured a three-story half-a-doll-house construction.

"Todd brilliantly followed the geography of the space, and his set worked well on Broadway," says Rigdon. "The Alley is a new production, directed by Jackson Gay. The space needs to be enclosed."

Rigdon drew from the iconic clap board siding of prairie farm houses that conjure the Oklahoma landscape where Letts grew up. 

One look at Rigdon's set tells us that we are in store for a monumental family drama. It's largess matches Letts' scale. The Westons are not a junior league dysfunctional family, they are the real thing. Rigdon has created a home for this unruly brood that literally grows out of the cavity of the Hubbard Stage.

"Letts' play is an expressionistic epic," says Rigdon. "I tried to support that in the scenery."

"The horizontal lines combined with the set's massive three-story height created a visceral tension," I told Rigdon.

"You are dead on. That was the idea," he responded. "I wanted a contained and more claustrophobic space."

And that he did. We feel closer to the Weston family, whether we want to be or not. One of the marvels of Rigdon's design is the third floor room, which precariously hovers over the first floor.  It's looming presence eventually beckons Violet in the last moments of the play.

"It's the sanctuary under the rafters," says Rigdon. "It's a bit protective and off balance, like a cocoon."  

Indeed — spoiler alert! — the final image of the play with Violet curled in a fetal position while Johanna sings is exquisitely framed by the angled borders of this suspended room.

Details lurk like clues in the Weston dwelling, from a mess of books stuffed under the stairs, to odd towers of books in other locales.

"Outside of their wedding china, the house is devoid of any ornamentation," Rigdon adds. "There are books everywhere, and no family photos."

Rigdon prefers to design both sets and lights. "It's more unified," he says. "There's more give and take. In August , the lighting makes it flow and keeps the play moving."  

"How do you begin?" I asked Rigdon.

"By reading the script," he responds, laughing. "You would be surprised."

Rigdon cracks me up with a story about a designer not knowing the names of the characters. He gets in a more serious mood when talking about the job of containing a work of art. "You must follow the ground plan of the play or it's not going to work," he says. "You have to create the world of the play."

Rigdon has designed over 50 Alley productions and serves as the Alley Theatre's associate director/design. Most recently, he conjured that flop house hotel that made a perfect setting for Martin McDonagh's A Behanding in Spokane. "It was inspired by a flea bag hotel I stayed in once," quips Ridgon. Other recent Alley productions include St. Nicholas, Intelligence-Slave, Mrs. Mannerly, Our Town and Mauritius, a set Rigdon was particularly pleased with. 

Rigdon is also a professor at University of Houston's School of Theatre & Dance. where he is head of graduate design.

Although he calls Houston home, the two-time Tony nominated designer works all over the globe. Rigdon has designed over 345 productions, including numerous plays on Broadway. Today, he regularly works with the top 10 regional theaters in America. He's just wrapped designing sets and lights for David Mamet's Race at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Before that it was Charming Billy at Round House Theatre, in Bethesda, Maryland.

Last fall, he found himself back in his old stomping ground at Steppenwolf, lighting Lisa D'Amour's Detroit.  With seven Joseph Jefferson Awards, four Drama Desk Award nominations, two American Theatre Wing Design Awards and The Drama Logue Award, let's just say he's one in demand guy.

"It's been an exciting year," he admits.

A believer in hands-on learning, Ridgon has given many grad students a chance to work along side him. "They get to see what life is like for a working professional," he says. "I Iove teaching, witnessing those 'aha' moments and watching them mature before my eyes."

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