Anyone who has seen “Noises Off” knows the set is a star of the show, so maybe it’s a good time to acknowledge that designer Kate Sutton-Johnson, making her mainstage Guthrie debut, is a star herself.
Her wildly varied sets share a storytelling brio: a surreal swath of sky that seemed to double the size of Jungle Theater’s stage for “Constellations.” Found objects, including a rotting picnic table from her northeast Minneapolis backyard, that became an abandoned carnival of horrors for Theater Latté Da’s “Sweeney Todd.” A spin on old-timey theater marquees so beloved by the honchos of Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre that they dumped their planned logo for “Guys and Dolls” in favor of Sutton-Johnson’s work.
In “Noises Off,” opening Friday, the aggressively pink set is “basically another character in the show,” says actor Nathan Keepers.
The comedy’s first and third acts depict actors stumbling through a farce; the second act turns the set 180 degrees to show backstage feuds during a performance. Director Meredith McDonough wanted scene changes to be part of the peek behind the curtain, so she and Sutton-Johnson have planned something special for the final act.
Will theatergoers clap? “Oh, for sure, 100 percent,” says McDonough. “They should!”
In high school, it was Sutton-Johnson taking the bows. The child of two volunteer ushers, she grew up in Richmond, Va., accompanying her folks to the theater and working both onstage and backstage in school. She was also a visual artist, which helped her see that she wanted to create the worlds of plays. She enrolled as a scene painter at North Carolina School of the Arts, before shifting to set design.
“I realized I wouldn’t be satisfied if I wasn’t in the group that is about the ideas,” says Sutton-Johnson, 38.
That impulse goes at least as far back as high school, where drama teacher Katherine Baugher remembers Sutton-Johnson, already cast in “West Side Story,” asking if she could design the set, too.
“I knew if Kate wanted to accomplish something, she could do it. It was incredible. There was this scaffolding and she was hanging bicycles and I didn’t ask questions but she found a traffic light that was flashing green, red and yellow during the show,” recalls Baugher, who brought the designer back in 2015 to do “Mary Poppins” at her old school. “And I forgot to say: She also designed the posters.”
When the Guthrie came to her school for a job fair, Sutton-Johnson’s portfolio earned her an offer as associate prop manager. She wanted to create things, not manage people, but it was a good gig and she figured it could lead to other things.
It did, partly because of a task she was reluctant to do: help set up a rental business in the Guthrie’s prop warehouse.
“I thought, ‘This is something I didn’t sign up for. I want to spend my time making theater,’ ” recalls Sutton-Johnson. But because she met dozens of theatermakers who came to the shop, “It connected me to the Twin Cities theater community in this really fabulous way.” Her job also led to marriage; husband Grant Wibben, who now owns the museum and commercial fabricating firm Industrial Artisans, worked at the theater.
When Mixed Blood artistic director Jack Reuler saw her portfolio, he signed her to design four shows on the spot.
“Her brilliance and technique were so clear,” says Reuler. “It was not me recognizing potential in someone. It was me seeing someone who was fantastic that nobody else knew about yet.”
Word spread fast.
“I nominated her for the Ivey Awards’ emerging artist [she won it in 2007 along with a 2016 set design trophy for “Sweeney Todd” and two production awards] but, honestly, she was better at 25 or 26 than most people in their lifetime are,” says Reuler, who didn’t keep that opinion to himself.
“There’s an ease with which we work together that is lovely, but we push each other, too, in ways that are healthy and fun and not scary,” says Sutton-Johnson, who also has been Rothstein’s assistant director. They’ll restage “Sweeney Todd,” with much of the original cast, at Florida’s Asolo Repertory Theatre next spring.
“I said to her once, and it might have caught her off guard: ‘You know, you’re directing the show right now.’ In a great way, not a get-off-my-turf way,” recalls Rothstein. “Working with Kate asks of everyone that they be less territorial and more collaborative.”
Mixing regular collaborators with new ones like McDonough — whom she met last summer when Disney Theme Parks invited both to a creative think tank — is a huge part of what makes theater rewarding for Sutton-Johnson.
“I love the necessity-of-others about my work, that I can’t do it alone,” says the designer, who bonded with McDonough over a desire to push “Noises Off” in a direction that announces: This is gonna be fun.
“Meredith wanted something campy and bright and contemporary, this Austin Powers vibe,” says Sutton-Johnson of the set.
“The conversation was always: How far is too far? And I would always say, ‘You can push it farther,’ ” says McDonough.
Sutton-Johnson’s favorite touches include a cow’s head, mounted above a fireplace, that’s like a cherry atop the set’s silliness sundae (it was created by the Guthrie’s Nick Golfis for a 2011 “Arms and the Man”). But she may have had the most fun “solving the gymnasium for the actors.”
That meant figuring out how to get one actor in the right spot to sabotage another actor by tying his shoelaces together. It also meant creating a custom-made pink sofa of exactly the right size.
“There’s a phone bit when Dotty is on stage and the cord keeps getting pulled back into the study,” says McDonough. “If the couch is too big, then it gets too close to the study door and it’s not as funny because there’s not as much to pull. But if the cord is a foot longer, and the couch is a foot shorter, it’s just funnier.”
Trusting the process
Avid program readers have not seen Sutton-Johnson’s name as often as they used to. That’s because she has worked full time outside of theater for the past several years.
From 2011-17, she designed exhibits for the Science Museum of Minnesota, such as “Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed” and the ongoing “Sportsology.” Now creative director at Arden Hills-based Split Rock Studios, she’s immersed in upcoming work for Zoo Miami, an exhibit about the JFK assassination in Dallas and a “face of hunger” installation for Second Harvest Heartland.
The shift started because Sutton-Johnson wanted to “diversify my portfolio” rather than doing nine shows a year, as she did in 2006.
“I don’t think I could have sustained that. You have to do so many projects as a set designer just to make a poverty-level income,” says Sutton-Johnson.
The scale is different — she might shift from a $16,000 set design to a $2.5 million exhibit — but she loves both worlds.
The two require an ease — Sutton-Johnson wants actors to feel like they own her sets, just as museumgoers should feel comfortable exploring an exhibit. And both present roadblocks.
“On every project, part of my rhythm is I hit a point when I think, ‘Gosh, I don’t know what this is,’ ” she says. “But I’ve done this so many times that I trust the process. I still feel self-doubt. I’m still incredibly hard on myself. But I also have faith in myself.”
‘Come on. Decide!’
Often, she regroups by going back to the research. When Sutton-Johnson considers a play, she reads it over and over to get a sense of the actors moving through it.
“Kate will debate for weeks whether she’s going to take on a project or not,” says Rothstein. “At first, when this would happen, I was like, ‘Come on. Do you want to or not? Decide!’ But that is because she invests so heavily in a project. Some designers look at the rules of the space. But Kate is interested in: How do we throw out all those rules and create something totally new?”
As much as she looks to the future, Sutton-Johnson is also cool with saying goodbye. The shelves of her northeast Minneapolis studio are lined with detailed models of past sets but she is not precious about them after they’ve served their purpose.
“I feel excited when it’s time to trash the set,” she says. “That reinforces that it’s a live thing that happens with an audience. When the schedule is done and you’ll no longer do that risk-taking thing that is to me a sacred experience between the audience and the actors, the set then has zero value. Zero.”
Although her creative journey began in solitude, with visual art, she considers herself a team member.
“People ask if I ever make art for myself. No, I don’t. I don’t even doodle. I don’t draw for fun. What I like to do is work on teams with people, telling a story.”
And, between the zoo, JFK and hunger exhibits, “Sweeney Todd” and other projects in the offing, there will be many more stories for Kate Sutton-Johnson to tell.